“We don’t have a favorite child. We love all our children equally.”
That’s the response parents are likely to give when quizzed 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. She said, “Parents need to know that favoritism exists in every family, but it is normal.
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 even as 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, however, 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 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, however, with us all being unique: Does God prefer some of us over others?
When it comes to being God’s children—does God have favorites?
There is some cause for this question, and we can find a fair bit of evidence in the Bible that can make an argument as there are biblical stories where God seems to have preference for some: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, David over all his older brothers. But those choices were based on certain abilities the chosen one possessed that 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).
But even against these examples, we still have many more biblical assertions that indicate 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).
Again and again and again God shows us that the favorite of God is all of God’s children.
Now, despite the evidence found in scripture, some of us may feel we are—or are not—among God’s favored. If things have gone 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 we aren’t among God’s favorites.
But there’s a problem with these views.
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? The good and bad we experience do not 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 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 in I Corinthians: “[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 was that he loved both of his children deeper than they ever imagined.
Now, 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 so I can do whatever I want to do,” because that’s not what the Bible says.
Jude, the biblical author, writes, “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21), which tells us that we have a role and responsibility here, which Jesus has already told us about, saying in the Gospel of John, “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).
Our responsibility is to abide in God’s love, and we do that when we keep God’s commandments—chief among them is to love God and love our neighbor.
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. Carson writes “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. That is true, but the manifestation of my love for them when I ground them and when I take them out for a meal or attend one of their concerts or take my son fishing or my daughter on an excursion of some sort is rather different in the two senses. The latter will feel much more like remaining in my love than falling under my wrath.”
Just as a parent is there to love, teach, correct, and nurture; God is there for us in like manner.
Just as a parent, God’s love is without condition and knows no bounds.
Yes it comes in many forms, but it is always true.
So the question is not—“Who is God’s favorite?”, because the answer is “All God’s children.”
The question we should be asking is, “How will we respond to being God’s favorites?”
In the end, God loves us and nothing is going to change that, but we can make God’s love for us ineffective if we ignore the righteous living to which God urges us.
Therefore, our call is not to wonder if we are among God’s favorites but to discern what family responsibilities we have as God’s children.
If we are among the more fortunate of this world’s standards, let us be willing to share those blessings with others as we feel God calls and directs.
If we are among those who struggle, let us open ourselves to the direction God is giving us, leaning on faith that will give us the confidence that God always leads us toward goodness.
So, rather than taking God’s love for granted, let us keep ourselves in that love.
Rather than wondering if we are God’s favorite, or believing we are not, may we know that God doesn’t play favorites likely earthly parents will.
Instead, let us accept the love, remain in the love, and share the love, God gives to God’s favorites—which is truly each and everyone one of us. Amen.