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Does God have favorites?

June 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, God's Love

Dear Father John, this is a question that has been bothering me for quite a while. I heard that God has favorites. Admittedly that seems obvious enough in the BFord Madox Brown -_The_Coat_of_Many_Colours_-_Google_Art_Projectible. But I can't imagine God loving some people more than others. At the same time, I can't help but have a twinge of jealousy when I hear how close other people are to Him. I wish my relationship with Him was just as close. What does it mean for God to have favorites? Does it mean He loves some people more than others? Is it sinful to wish you had the same intimate relationship with Him?

I am not sure where you heard that “God has favorites,” so it’s hard for me to see the whole background of this question. But I think it’s a question worth reflecting on, so here are some thoughts.

Is God Just Like Us?

The basic problem underlying your first question (you do actually ask two questions here) is what theologians call anthropomorphism. That’s a fancy word which refers to attributing human qualities to God. Now, it’s natural for us to do this, especially since God reveals himself to us in the Bible using human language. And because we are created in his image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:27), there is something to this approach. But it is very limited. The Catechism talks about this. For example:

(CCC #42) God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God–“the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable”–with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.

To say that “God has favorites” involves applying a very human expression and a very human reality (we all have favorites) to God, who “transcends” our human limitations. God certainly doesn’t have favorites the way we have favorites. Our human capacity for love is limited and influenced by many factors, including our fallen human nature. And so we have natural preferences and affections that can, if we aren’t careful, lead us into prejudice, bias, and neglect towards those we are not naturally attracted to. Those natural preferences and affections don’t have to lead us into those sins – it is perfectly acceptable to experience and act on a preferential love or affection for certain people; this is where friendships and spouses come from – but they can.

But as we grow in Christ, we are called to develop a supernatural capacity for affection and love, a love based not on our natural affinities, but on the needs and the dignity of the other person. The Holy Spirit’s gift of piety comes into play here. Piety enables us to begin seeing others from a supernatural perspective, not just from a natural perspective. And when we do that, we start acting as Christ acted, with a universal and pure love.

God’s Love Is Different

And now we come to the crux of your question. We know that God loves every single one of us (see Catechism #605 and #618), but does he love some more than others? If that were the case, it would mean that God has a limited amount of love, so to speak, which he has to portion out in chunks according to his preferences. But God is infinite, and his love is infinite – no limits, no portions, no measuring sticks. God is love (1 John 4:8); his very nature is love. Whenever he enters into relationship with another person, like you or me, his love is total, absolute, unlimited in any way whatsoever.

Star Differs from Star

So, God doesn’t dish out his love in different portions according to who he likes better. Not at all. And yet, there is a difference involved. The difference isn’t with God, but with us.

Each of one us is a unique creation, a unique person. My relationship with God will never be the same as yours, and yours will never the same as anyone else’s. This is because we are spiritual beings, and each spiritual being is truly individual. Just as you and I can be very close friends with the same person, my friendship with that person will necessarily be different than yours, because you and I are different. God respects our individuality, and he rejoices in it (after all, that’s how he made us – unique!). And so every person’s relationship with God will be unique. In heaven, we will all be saints, but each saint will reflect a unique facet of God’s glory; no two saints will be just alike.

And, surely, some saints will have attained a greater degree of holiness than others. How does this happen? Just as God designed the visible world to be full of an almost infinite variety of creatures, and the beauty of the universe flows from their difference, their interdependence, and their harmony, just so in the spiritual realm. He calls each of us to follow him, but in different ways, with different natural talents, with different gifts. And each of us will respond with different degrees of generosity and faithfulness, so that his grace will bear more or less fruit in our lives. And so, heaven will be filled with manifold expressions of God’s wisdom and love, and the glory of that spiritual variety will be infinitely more breathtaking than the most magnificent natural landscape. St. Paul makes allusion to this when he writes “For star differs from star in brightness” (1 Corinthians 15:41).

Of Gardens and Drinking Gourds

One way to think of this is to picture a garden with many types of flowers. The sun shines equally and fully on all of them, but each one of them receives the light of the sun in accordance with their unique qualities – some receive more sun because they are bigger, and others less because they are smaller. But each receives enough, all that it needs, and each reaches its full potential. And so violets are small and delicate, lilies are aromatic, roses are… well, roses.

We too receive the full love of God – each one of us, and if we don’t turn away from the life-giving brilliance of his grace, we will grow into the dream that God had for us when he called us into existence.

Another common comparison is to think of different kinds of cups and glasses – an elegant wine glass, a fragile tea cup, a hardy mug… Each one of them has their own size and shape and charm. Some can hold more liquid than others, but all of them can be filled. And no matter what size each one is, when it is filled, it is full. Likewise with our souls in heaven. Whether I am a big mug or a delicate cup, in heaven I will be completely filled with God’s love; I will lack for nothing; I will rejoice in the Lord and in all the other saints, even the ones who hold more liquid than I do. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, eternal life will bring “the complete satisfaction of desire, for there the blessed will be given more than they wanted or hoped for.”

Envy or Emulation?

From all of this, I think you can see that your second question has also been answered. It is not a sin to desire complete communion with God, but it is a foolish distraction to become discouraged or envious of someone else’s progress in holiness! When we run into other people or read about saints who experience a deep, intimate relationship with God, we are faced with a choice. We can either envy them this intimacy – becoming angry and vindictive towards them because they have achieved a degree of holiness that we have not achieved. Or we can emulate them – we can acknowledge the beauty of the holiness they have achieved, and use their experience as a spur to our own efforts pursuing spiritual maturity. The second option is the better one: when we encounter people holier than ourselves, they should inspire us to continue following the “constricted road” (Matthew 7:14) that leads to the life we long for.

Let your discouragement be driven out by hope; let your frustration be banished by faith; and, let your frown be erased by love. Let Hebrews 12:1 be your motto: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.”

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Art for this post on whether or not God has favorites: The Coat of Many Colours, Ford Madox Brown, 1864-1866, PD-US published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, author's life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Tessye

    Thank you, great refresher. I remember thinking like this, but then I understood that God loves us all the same, just that He is more pleased with others based on love and obedience to Him. Now I’m asking God to help me to be the saint he designed me to be so I to can be more pleasing to Him then offensive.

  • Thank you Father for such a kind and inspiring answer! It is a real struggle sometimes, even though I know it is wrong. All the wonderful things these holy people did for Him! And the measly offerings I give Him. But with His grace, I know He will help me become the saint He created me to be!

  • frtrue75@att.net

    Dear Fr. John: Thank you for anotherexcellent explanation of God’s love. I never thought of God as having favorites, but I have heard that phrase used (not by a priest). Your comparision of God’ love to flowere and cup is on point. Thank you and God bless you in your work.

  • LizEst

    Beautiful! Thank you, Father John, for this wonderful explanation. May the Lord bless you always!

  • sanfordandsons

    Believe it or not, I totally agree in the questioners reason for asking the questions on God’s love. And of course he has his Chosen: the Jewish People; the Saints; just to name a few. And I agree with Father’s statement that God loves us all the same, but the question is correct to assume that God/Jesus has their favorites: the Apostle’s. We are all asked, spiritually, to be God’s friends but he DOES has his favorites because he allows them to become more aware of His love: it is not our choice, completely, since many of us are not aware of his innate love for us. By the grace of God and the sacrifice of his Son, we are all saved, but it is the Love of Jesus that we are ultimately saved at our particular judgement at the end of our mortal lives. If God would ask us to our face to offer up our lives for our souls I would think that we would say yes, but spiritually if God sends us a “message” could we interpret the question? In each of our spiritual lives, even though we Love God, we still make mistakes and choose evil, the saints, on the other hand, seem to have the additional Grace to make the right decision all of the time. Call it favoritism or just absolute grace, we all still have different levels of determining the same liquidities of our decisions in life, our temperament, our determination, our degree of faith and love for God.

    I have to always refer to St. Paul and St. Augustine to try to understand God’s personal intervention and invitation into a sinners life. Call it Envy father, but I still wonder at their conversions!

  • Sasha

    Fr. John, I am so thankful that you posted this. I have struggled with this for quite a while, but from the other side. I’m a convert; I was 43 when I was received into the Church. If you have ever read the poem ‘The Hound of Heaven’ that was me. God pursued me relentlessly and believe me I worked hard at avoiding Him for *years*. Praise God, He did not give up on me! And now every single morning I wake in gratitude. People tell me that my faith inspires them, but I know and always tell them that it is pure gift. I did nothing to merit this faith and the intimate relationship I have with Him. I cannot manufacture it; people say that God invites us all but that we choose to respond, or not. That has not been my experience; I know that even my ability to make this choice is only because I have been given the grace of hearing Him.

    And so for two years I have wondered: why me? I am so grateful for this gift, and yet I know many good and faithful people who would give anything for this intimacy with God, and yet don’t have it. And even more than that – I am so aware that I was rescued, and there are so, so many lost souls in this world. Why me and not them? Why was I given the ears to hear? I feel almost guilty.

    I realize these questions will probably never be answered this side of Heaven, but your words have given me a new perspective on this, and I appreciate it.

    • In the service of God

      I think your story is beautiful and it reminds me of many ways in which I too was rescued by God. The rehtorical question you ask “why me, not them” I may be able to shed some light on, only because I was enlightened this way myself and I wanted to share it with you. Most likely someone was praying for you, someone was begging God for your soul, and you accepted that. You may never know that person, and they may not know you. But I say this because you mentoin all the lost souls, of which we were both at one time, and I want to remind you to never stop praying for them.

      • Sasha

        In the service of God, thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. I am in the process of preparing for Marian consecration on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. One of the things that has struck me so far in the readings is the idea that Mary knows far better than me who is most in need of prayer. Even before I read your response, I loved the idea of offering all merits and graces to Mary for her to distribute. Now, it has an even deeper meaning. I don’t think anyone who knows me was praying for me. What if some other person consecrated themselves to Mary, and she applied their prayers to me? Now as I prepare to do the same, I have a chance to do the same for other lost souls. It is as if I am participating in the circle of life – beautiful.

        On the day of my reception into the Church, I remember very clearly that a prayer rose unbidden to my lips “Lord, make me a conduit of Your grace” and I saw an image in my mind of myself kneeling in prayer with my palms upturned and a golden liquid pouring from them. In the intervening two years I have thought and wondered about that many times. What would it mean to be a conduit of grace? What would that look like in lived experience? I kept thinking that being a conduit would mean being a channel, completely receptive and yet keeping nothing, and it seemed daunting to say the least.

        But your comment has me thinking – what if consecration to Mary is how I become that conduit of grace? If I have indeed been the recipient of the grace of some unknown person’s prayers, and I offer all the merits of my own prayers to Mary to use as she sees fit? How humbling and yet how exalting! My heart leaps with joy at the very thought of it!

    • In the service of God

      I got cut off there, in my reply, and I wanted to add that there is a beautfiul song called “Thank you for giving to the Lord”. It’s about the decision we make each day to sacrifice and pray for others. In the song, When the man goes up to heaven, he meets all the people who he helped to get there. It’s very touching, and reminds us that our prayers are just as welcomed by others as we are thankful for the ones offered for us.

      • LizEst

        To you have a link to that?

        • In the service of God

          There are a few versions on itunes. I heard a great recoding of it, but I don’t know who.did it. I will try to find out tomorrow.

          • LizEst

            In the service of God, thank you! And, may God bless you!

  • patricia

    I feel we all have this innate desire to be in full communion with God. God has put it there. The way father explained holiness comes in different sizes degrees shapes etc. thank you Father for explaining that The Lord calls us to his plan for us and not our plan that we may think is Gods plan. May The Lord bless you!

  • Celeste Lovett

    I am glad this question was posted. That is the very thing that has been troubling me recently as I am struggling so much right now to grow closer to God through prayer, reading, obedience, and adoration. The Bible refers to the apostle John as “the one he loved”…I don’t recall where…but just know that I have always been struck by this. What about the other apostles? Why is this even mentioned? Did Jesus have a special love for John that he did not have for the others? Also, there were any other of the people who were living then that could have been apostles, what made Jesus pick the ones he picked for that special mission and being able to walk closely with him and in their walks became saints who are now inn heaven? How can we explain away all the different levels of spiritual walks (or lack of) that people are in? Some never even hearing God’s word…some dying of starvation before having a chance at life, and others living a full life of grace and holiness with blessings abounding? It is difficult to understand, yet, I love Father’s explanation of the different types of glasses and how each one is filled according to its size. Thank you. This would definitely be a good subject for a book!

    • AHD

      Read John 19:25 and to the end. In the early Church it was believed that the apostle John and John the gospelwriter is the same person. Maybe he felt specially loved by Jesus?
      What I love about Jesus is that He is calling ordinary people as His apostles. They don’t understand anything until after the resurrection and even then Jesus had to explain to them who He is as in Luke 24 (Emmaus walkers). Jesus must have had an enormous amount of patience with His apostles.

    • Tessye

      Hello, thank you for pointing that out as this gave me an opportinity to refresh myself on scripture. There are more then several passages that refer to John as “whom he loved”; could this be that John’s love for our Lord was far greater than the others and this pleased our Lord the most? Maybe this explains why John is the only apostle present at the foot of the cross (John 19: 26-27). I pray my love for God is as great as John’s one day.

      • LizEst

        I think you’ve captured the meaning of this Tessye! God bless you!

  • Alexandra Arias

    It’s so very beautiful how God loves each one of us “specifically”; and we can each have our own specific, unique, and unrepeatable intimate relationship with God. Jesus, our gentle Savior, suffered His passion, died on the Cross, and was resurrected by the power of the Holy Spirit for each one of us “specifically”. Each one of us is His “beloved disciple”- the disciple whom He loves. We just need to make space for Him in our hearts, and let His abundant grace permeate our soul, like a sweet, heavenly fragrance! Then we need to rest in Him, rest in His amazing love!

  • Barb Schmidt

    A prayer that has helped me put things in perspective:

    http://www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/prayers/humility.htm

    • LizEst

      Yes, the litany of humility is an excellent prayer. God bless you, Barb!

  • Jumping in late – as usual!!! A very pertinent question and an illuminating answer. Thank you, Father John. Now, should I feel a twinge of envy for those who are holier than me? : and these, Dear God, are legion!. As evidenced by the Responses below. Not really; rather this inspires me to pray ardently to God to enable me to amend my mediocre Spiritual way of life and strive to become the “Child He created me to be”. And be ready to accept His Graces in this quest when He sends them to me. And I believe if I stay on course, and truly open the “Door” for Him, He will not fail me. It is only my response to Him which hinders Him because He has favorites.

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