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Love of Complacency

In his monumental biography of Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden cites a passage from Edwards’ Personal Narrative:

Since I came to this town [Northampton], I have often had sweet complacency in God in views of his glorious perfections, and the excellency of Jesus Christ. God has appeared to me, a glorious and lovely being chiefly on account of his holiness. The holiness of God has always appeared to me the most lovely of all his attributes. (p. 112)

If we take note of Edwards’ language, his choice of words to describe his enraptured delight in the glory of God, we observe his accent on the sweetness, loveliness, and excellence of God. He reports of enjoying a “sweet complacency” in God. What does he mean? Is not the term complacency a word we use to describe a certain smugness, a resting on one’s laurels, a sort of lazy inertia that attends a superficial sort of satisfaction? Perhaps. But here we see a vivid example of how words sometimes change their import over time.

What Edwards meant by a “sweet complacency” had nothing to do with a contemporary dose of smugness. Rather, it had to do with a sense of pleasure. This “pleasure” is not to be understood in a crass hedonistic, or sensual, sense but rather a delight in that which is supremely pleasing to the soul.

The roots of this meaning of “complacency” are traced by the Oxford English Dictionary (vol. 3), where the primary meaning given is “the fact or state of being pleased with a thing or person; tranquil pleasure or satisfaction in something or some one.” References are cited for this usage from John Milton, Richard Baxter, and J. Mason. Mason is quoted, “God can take no real complacency in any but those that are like him.”

I labor the earlier English usage of the word complacency because it is used in a crucial manner in the language of historic, orthodox theology. When speaking of God’s love, we distinguish among three types of that love — the love of benevolence, the love of beneficence, and the love of complacency. The reason for the distinctions is to note the different ways in which God loves all people, in one sense, and the special way He loves His people, the redeemed.

Love of Benevolence

Benevolence is derived from the Latin prefix bene, which means “well,” or “good,” and it is the root for the word will. Creatures who exercise the faculty of the will by making choices are called volitional creatures. Though God is not a creature, He is a volitional being insofar as He also has the faculty of willing.

We are all familiar with Luke’s account of the nativity of Jesus in which the heavenly host praises God declaring: “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:8–14 NKJV). Though some argue that the blessing is given to men of goodwill, the root meaning is the same. The love of benevolence is the quality of good will toward others. The New Testament is replete with references of God’s good will to all humanity even in our falleness. Though Satan is a malevolent being (one who harbors bad will both toward us and God), it can never properly be said of God that He is malevolent. He has no malice in His purity, no maliciousness in His actions. God does not “delight” in the death of the wicked—even though He decrees it. His judgments upon evil are rooted in His righteousness, not in some distorted malice in His character. Like an earthly judge weeps when he sends the guilty for punishment, God rejoices in the justness of it but gets no glee from the pain of those justly punished.

This love of benevolence, or good will, extends to all people without distinction. God is loving, in this sense, even to the damned.

Love of Beneficence

This type of love, the love of beneficence, is closely linked to the love of benevolence. The difference between benevolence and beneficence is the difference between disposition and action. I may feel well-disposed toward someone, but my goodwill remains unknown until or unless I manifest it by some action. We often associate beneficence with acts of kindness or charity. We note here that the very word “charity” is often used as a synonym for love. In the sense of beneficence, acts of kindness are acts of the love of beneficence.

Jesus emphasized this aspect of God’s love in teaching regarding those who benefit from God’s providence:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your ” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?ƒ (Matt. 5:43, NKJV)

In this passage, Jesus enjoins the practice of love toward one’s enemies. Notice that this love is not defined in terms of warm, fuzzy, or sanguine feelings but in terms of behavior. In this context, love is more of a verb than a noun. To love our enemies is to be loving toward them. It involves doing good to them.

In this regard, the love we are to display is a reflection of God’s love toward His enemies. To those who hate and curse Him, He shows the love of beneficence. God’s benevolence (good will) is demonstrated by His beneficence (kind actions). His sun and rain are given equally to the just and the unjust.

We see then that God’s benevolent love and His beneficent love are universal. They extend to the whole of humanity.

But here is the chief difference between these types of love and God’s love of complacency. His love of complacency is not universal, nor is it unconditional. Sadly, in our day, the glorious character of this type of divine love is routinely denied or obscured by a blanket universalization of the love of God. To announce to people indiscriminately that God loves them “unconditionally” (without carefully distinguishing among the distinctive types of divine love) is to promote a perilous false sense of security in the hearers.

God’s love of complacency is the special delight and pleasure He takes first of all in His only-begotten Son. It is Christ who is the beloved of the Father, supremely; He is the Son in whom the Father is “well pleased.”

By adoption in Christ, every believer shares in this divine love of complacency. It is the love enjoyed by Jacob, but not by Esau. This love is reserved for the redeemed in whom God delights—not because there is anything inherently lovely or delightful in us—but we are so united to Christ, the Father’s Beloved, that the love the Father has for the Son spills over onto us. God’s love for us is pleasing and sweet to Himself—and to us—as Jonathan Edwards understood so well.

Love Is in the Air

God Is Love

Keep Reading No Greater Love

From the May 2004 Issue
May 2004 Issue