The Bible does not say the reason God loves us is because of some valuable quality He discovers in us that is worthy of His love. Nor does the Bible tell us God loved us to enable us to love ourselves better. It certainly doesn't suggest God's love for us means He approves of whatever choices we make for ourselves. On the other extreme, I remember a small group leader in our church many years ago who taught people to think of themselves as worthless to God. "After all," this person said, "the Bible says: 'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless...' (Romans 3:11-12a). So instead of promoting self-esteem, we need to tell people that they are worthless before God."
The nice thing about Bible verses is that they have a context! What people say a verse means often proves to be mistaken when you consider the phrase in its context. The context of Romans 3 is righteousness, or, more to the point, a lack of righteousness in every human being. When it comes to merit that we think we can bring to God that would earn His favor and make us right before Him, we have nothing to offer God. Jew or Gentile, all of us have turned away from God and become worthless in that sense: we don't have anything to offer God that obligates God to save us. The righteousness we think we have through our best efforts is worthless! But that doesn't mean human beings are worthless to God.
This misunderstanding is carried into teaching about justification and sounds like this: "When you come to faith in Jesus Christ, God justifies you. That is, He declares you righteous because you are united to Christ. He loves you because you are in Christ. The perfect righteousness of Jesus is credited to you, and now, when God looks at you, He doesn't see you, he sees Jesus!" My wife, Margaret, says the way justification is often explained reminds her of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. When Harry pulled this magic cloak over his head, he disappeared, and not even the crotchety Mr. Filch could see him as he snuck around the halls of Hogwarts. It's possible to present the biblical teaching about justification in a way that makes it sound like God provided a way for us to hide from His frightening view by giving us the invisibility cloak of Christ's righteousness. Now God doesn't see us, He sees only Jesus.
Something very important is missed when justification is presented that way, specifically, the love of God!
The Bible teaches us to understand justification in terms of 'imputation' - the righteousness of Jesus is credited to us by God's grace. We can't earn the righteousness we need before God by our own law-keeping. We need an imputed righteousness. And this is what God does for us: He credits the perfect righteousness of Jesus to us, so we are right with Him, as though we had lived the perfectly obedient life Jesus lived.
In that sense, we are clothed with His righteousness. But that doesn't mean when God looks at you He only sees Jesus. Nor does it mean God can't love you until you are justified by the grace of Jesus and covered with His righteousness. God did not justify you in order to be free to love you. He loved you first. God gave His only Son because He wanted to save you. Jesus gave Himself for you because He wanted to save you. He wanted to save you because He loved you!
Paul tells the Galatians: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
This affirmation of God's love is set in the context of Paul's powerful defense of justification by faith, apart from works. What an amazingly personal view of God's love! It's not just a general kind of love that God has for everyone, Paul says "the Son of God, who loved ME and gave himself for ME."
When I ponder that statement and apply it to myself, it's a staggering thing. Jesus, God in flesh, loved me and gave Himself to die for me! Why would God love me like that? It's love in spite of my sin. It's undeserved love. It is a love that moved God to pursue and rescue me at great cost. It's a love that wants what is best for me and works to free me from everything that enslaves. It's a love that won't give up until all God has purposed for me in Christ is accomplished. It's a love from which I can never be separated (Romans 8) by any force in the universe.
I can't begin to comprehend that kind of love. I can only receive it humbly and gladly. And by God's grace, I can respond to that love with love.