1 John 3:1-7 by Doug Gunkelman

“We don’t have a favorite child. We love all our children equally”. Liar. Usually the daughter is the Father’s favorite child and the son is the Mother’s favorite child. I confess that it’s that way in our family although my wife has never admitted it.

"We don't have a favorite child. We love all our children equally."

That's the response parents are likely to give when quizzed by one of their offspring about whom they love best. But, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, that claim may well be a fiction.

In other words, the suspicion you had as a child that your parents had a favorite was probably right.

The Wall Street Journal, commenting on the study, quoted Washington, D.C., psychologist Ellen Weber Libby, author of The Favorite Child, who agreed that in families, favoritism is as widespread as it is taboo. "Parents need to know that favoritism is normal," Libby said, and it exists in every family. The Journal article added that some parents may prefer a child who is more like them and that the favorite can change over time, with a parent preferring a child in a particular stage, such as an infant or a teenager.

While parents having a favorite child may be normal, the article goes on to acknowledge that when preferential treatment is consistently focused on just one child or used to boost a parent's self-esteem, it can become unhealthy, leaving the non-favored child vulnerable to depression and the golden child feeling responsible for the parent's happiness.

Perhaps the most important finding of the study is that when families are close overall, perceptions of favoritism don't have much impact.

This idea of a favorite child came to mind when reading this sentence in today's text: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are" (v. 1). We might wonder, with us all being unique: Does God prefer some of us over others?

That is, of course, an unanswerable question. God doesn't share that info with us. We do notice in some of the biblical stories God's seeming preference for some of those not the first born: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, David over all his older brothers. But those choices may have been based on certain abilities the chosen one possessed and God wanted to employ rather than God liking one more than the other.

Likewise, in the Bible, the people of Israel understood themselves as God's chosen people. As Moses stated it, "For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?" (Deuteronomy 4:7).

Then there’s my favorite Old Testament story about a favorite child. Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah in their old age, marries Rebekah and they are blessed and cursed with twin boys – Esau and Jacob.

Esau was the oldest by a few minutes and therefore would receive his father’s blessing and the majority of the inheritance. Esau was the ruddy outdoorsman, hunter, and would bring his father fresh meat for the dinner table. While living in Nebraska, I had a Vizla bird dog with a great nose that I named “Esau”. Esau was Isaac’s favorite son.

Jacob, on the other hand, had smooth skin and likes to hang out with his mother in the tent, helping Rebekah prepare the meals. Mom helped her favorite son carry out a plan for Jacob to receive his father’s blessing as he was going blind in his old age.

Mom covered Jacob’s arms with animal skins so he would feel and smell like Esau. Isaac is easily tricked and gives Jacob his blessing. When Esau returns from the hunt, he chases his brother out into the country out of anger forcing Jacob to live with relatives where he eventually marries sisters – Rachel and Leah which is a whole other story back in Genesis.

There are many Old Testament stories of favorite children.

But against all of that we have biblical assertions that indicate that God wants everyone to be in the divine family. Assertions like these:

  • "Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!" (Isaiah 45:22).
  • "Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet" (Matthew 22:9).
  • "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16).
  • "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
  • "... God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
  • "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
  • "Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21).

Nonetheless, whether God has favorite children or not, some of us may feel we are -- or are not -- among the favored. If things have gone pretty well for us, then we may conceive of ourselves as being among God's favorites. If we've suffered a lot of losses and had to struggle with life, we may feel that we aren't among his favorites.

Some churches take advantage of these feelings to get us to join their church. We received this postcard from a supposed Missouri Synod Lutheran Church inviting us to Easter services.

It pictures the idyllic young family with two small children, holding hands and walking next to a lake. They are obviously living the good life and so the question is asked, “What’s better than living the good life?”

On the back side, we read the opposite of Lutheran theology. “Ah, the good life. Are you living it? A good home, a good family, a good job, good health. Can it get much better than that? According to God, yes! Your life can be so much better than just looking good, feeling good and having it good. Join us this Easter and discover how much better your life could be thanks to Jesus.

But there's a problem with this view. Remembering that the Israelites were God's chosen people, how do we explain all the persecution and massacres the Jews have endured over the centuries? How do we explain Jesus calling us to bear our crosses as suffering servants? The good and bad we experience don't seem to be measures of God's love for us.

It might be argued that those who preach the so-called prosperity gospel and have financially profited mightily by doing so see themselves as God's favorite children. But that "gospel" is a distortion of the biblical message.

On the other hand, we know people who lived much of their lives far from God, who later repented and became grateful disciples, and who have said things like, "Why God would want me back is a mystery to me. I've wasted a lot of my life, but whatever I've got left is devoted to God." They are perhaps saying that they don't see themselves as among God's favorites, but they are glad to be on God's family roster at all, even in a humble position.

There's biblical evidence that the apostle Paul felt that way. At one point, he talks about the resurrected Christ appearing to many believers and last of all to him. Here's how The Message records Paul's words on the subject: "[Christ] finally presented himself alive to me. It was fitting that I bring up the rear. I don't deserve to be included in that inner circle, as you well know, having spent all those early years trying my best to stamp God's church right out of

existence" (1 Corinthians 15:8-9).

That may also have been how the prodigal son felt when he finally headed for home, asking only to be made a servant in the household. Ironically, the welcome he received from his father led his older brother to conclude that the prodigal was, in fact, the favorite child. The father's response to the older son seems to be his way of saying he loved both of his children.

Having said all of this, and having quoted the string of verses about God wanting everyone to be children of God, we should be careful not to reduce this to, "God loves everyone no matter what we do," because that's not what the Bible says.

Jude, the biblical author, writes, "Keep yourselves in the love of God" (Jude 21), which, of course, suggests that it's possible to remove ourselves from God's love. Jesus himself said something similar: "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love" (John 15:10).

Don Carson, in his book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, draws an analogy to help us understand what keeping ourselves in God's love means: ". . . there is a sense in which my love for my children is immutable, regardless of what they do. There is another sense in which they know well enough that they must remain in my love. If my teenagers break curfew for no good reason, the least they will experience is a bawling out, and they may come under some restrictive sanctions. There is no use reminding them that I am doing this because I love them.

So in the end, our call is not to discern whether we are among God's favorites but to consider what family responsibilities we have as his children. Yes, God loves us, but we can make God's love for us ineffective if we ignore the righteous living to which God urges us. In one sense, it is true that we cannot drift beyond God's love. But it is also true that if we desire to be children of God, we need to give God the obedience that is expected of us. This was probably what John was getting at in our passage for today, when he said, "And all who have this hope in [God] purify themselves, just as he is pure" (v. 3).

So, rather than taking God's love for granted, let us keep ourselves in that love.