"In the literature where Judaism speaks for itself, Israel's election, embodied in the giving of the Torah, is viewed as God's gracious gift. Obedience to the Torah is the proper response to the gift of the Torah, but it does not earn salvation as such. "Election and ultimately salvation cannot be earned, but depend on God's grace" and mercy."
-- Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, second edition.
"We love because He loved us first." 1 John 4:20
In Christianity, the emphasis is on God loving everyone, the undeserving, and that no one can ever be good enough to earn God's love. God's love is not a response to anything we do, and is not correlated to our actions. I think we're putting the focus in the wrong place. It has nothing to do with how good or bad we are. It has to do with power, and who has it.
When you start throwing around words like “deserve,” the word “earn” isn’t too far behind. And if you’re capable of earning something, then you’re capable of behaving in such a way that gets whatever it is you’ve earned removed. When that happens, the power ultimately lies with us -- we would then have the ability to determine when or if God would love us. God's love would be fickle, rather than a constant. And God's love would be less than all-powerful, because it would be the effect to our cause.
Rather, in saying that God loves the world, or God loves us, or that we love because God first loves us, the focus there is on who has the power – and it’s not us. We do not have the power to affect the fact that God loves us. At no point does the love ever come with an “off” switch. Much like a parent with a child, the parent loves. Period. S/he loves because this is his/her child, this is his/her creation, and the child is an expression of the parent, carrying a piece of the parent forward, only in new ways.
There is a complication with this, though. I once asked (well, kind of threw it into an already too long e-mail over theological differences) an evangelical friend about this notion, and said one of the difficulties I have with the “inherent sin” and so forth is that if standing before God, and hearing about God, it makes me ask, “Is there anything about me that’s lovable? What is it inside me that You love? What produces that?”
Her response was that God’s love isn’t dependent on us, but on God.
She missed the point I was driving at, but that’s because I wasn’t clear. One of the difficulties in saying that nothing you do produces God’s love is that it can lead to the idea that God has no choice in loving humanity. It’s like an addictive compulsion and perhaps, given a choice, God would prefer to not love humanity. It's an abstract love, that really has no personal connections. A rock would have equal weight in terms of God's love.
While I do think that nothing we do can alter God’s love, I do think that the production of God’s love is dependent upon us. This is possibly paradoxical, but let’s go back to the parent/child example. The parent’s love of a child simply is, but it is dependent upon knowledge of that child (not necessarily existence, because the child could die, but the parent’s love would not). Without the child, that particular aspect of the parent’s love wouldn’t be. And yet without that love, the child wouldn’t exist (granted, this example is limited to those who actually wanted a child at one point).
Therefore, the thing inside us that God loves is the very fact that we are created. We carry tremendous potential for good, we can demonstrate pure life, light, love in this world, as we were created to be. The very thing that God responds to when loving His creation is everything He put into His creation in the first place. That is precisely why we cannot be responsible for activating or shutting down God's love: we had nothing to do with those original qualities.
One of the reasons I’ve heard for why the Trinity must be true is that God’s love had to directed “outwards,” otherwise it became a selfish love. Therefore, the love was directed towards the three Trinity members. I don’t think this is the case. Even without the Trinity, God’s love would still be directed “outwards.”
God is omniscient. Is there ever a time when God does not know you? Expectant parents love the child in the womb – they know nothing about this child, what it will be like, and yet they still love the child. God, being omniscient, knows everything about you, like you’ve already lived your life. And if God is infinite and eternal, and had no starting point, then we have been known eternally. There was never a point at which God was not aware of us, down the last little DNA strand.
Do we need to exist in this time/space in order to be loved? Does God only love us after we are physically born here? No, because then that love once again has an on/off switch. So if God has eternally known us, then hasn’t that love always been directed outwards?
Now, this doesn't meant that you can do whatever you want, because God always loves you. The best relationships I see that are based on love are relationships of improvement. We are awed and amazed that this person, who is full of goodness and grace and light, loves us. Clearly, if this person who has all these qualities loves us, then there is something of those qualities that the person responds to -- and to me, that would make me want to search myself to see how those qualities could be cultivated, and how the bad qualities could be eliminated. What I glean from the Bible is you take the best human relationship you have and increase by a factor of millions, and it makes you want to be what God sees in you that much more.