This was supposed to be a short post. In that regard, I failed. I hope you’ll still find it illuminating. Please attribute any errors in grammar or gaps in my logic to the length of both this post and the week in which I wrote it.
Ever repeated a word over and over and over again, focusing only on the sound, until the word itself sounds strange and stripped of meaning? Try it right now. Use the word ‘repeat.’ Of course, do it out of earshot of anyone else. Otherwise, they would likely think you’d snapped.
At any rate, I’ll wait for you while you try this little experiment.
All done? Good. Now, I had you perform this stunt for a perfectly logical reason: it illuminates the problem our culture has with the word ‘love.’ We use the word nonstop in a variety of often-conflicting ways.
“I love their sausage and mushroom pizza!”
“I love that song!”
“Love you, bro.”
“Kaitlyn, I love you.”
Four different uses, four different meanings. I don’t love pizza; I think it’s delicious. I don’t love that song; I find that it resonates with my heart. I do love my brother, but in a vastly different way than I love my wife. You are doubtlessly aware of the confusing uses of the word ‘love,’ yet I wonder how many people are aware of the greater and far more subtly muddling that we’ve seen in recent years.
The Universality of Love
“God is love,” reads 1 John 4:8. Between this and John 3:16, the Church has spent the past decade or more trying to let everyone outside the Church know how loving God is and, by extension, we are. While this is true of God and should be true of us, it’s had some unintended consequences. Outsiders have taken the mantra “God is love” and turned it on its head.
Many of the irreligiously spiritual on the outside of the Church have used Christian terminology for years, and here, again, they continued their work, claiming to believe in the universality of love, elevating it to the level of a spiritual law, force, principle, what have you. Simply put, if God is more of a universal constant, a divine presence that unites us all, and He/She/It is defined as love, then love, too, is a divine force that can and ought to unite us as well.
This mindset is fraught with many issues, but I’ll only be tackling a few for the moment. The first issue is that many of those who are spiritual and not religious perceive God as the universal force I mentioned previously, but such a view of God removes God’s personhood. He is not the Supreme Being who created us and knows us and loves us still. Rather, ‘He’ becomes an ‘It’ that exists within and without all of us, linking us, but not knowing us or truly loving us. Love requires a subject and an object. Love is the conscious subjection of ones self-interest for the sake of another, and if God is an impersonal universality, then He doesn’t love us because the very nature of His being doesn’t allow for it.
But many spiritual people would argue that God can be an impersonal force and still love us and that this impersonal force should be equated with love. Some might even go so far as to contend that the since God is love, love must be God. Love must be divine in nature and substance, an eternal, universal force that permeates all creation.
The problem here isn’t that these spiritual individuals are wholly wrong. In fact, they are in some ways closer to the truth than some Christians. How is this possible? As simply as possible, Christians believe that God is personal, that He knows us individual and can be known by us individual through the means of His self-revelation. We also believe that God is so loving, so welcoming, that we can equate His person with love itself. But if this is the case, who was God loving before creation? Love requires a subject and object, and so if God is love, then God must have someone to love, which would make Him less than Christians say He is. The God of the Bible is perfect, complete within Himself, and so He cannot have any external needs.
And He has no external needs, and yet He is also love. How is this possible? Because God is triune. He exists as an eternal community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three Persons in one Being. How does that work? I have no idea. A line can fully comprehend a square, let alone a cube. (If you’d like to better understand my thoughts on the Trinity, this sermon I delivered would be a good starting point.) The point I’m trying to make here is that God have been expressing love within the community of the Trinity for all of eternity, and so in this sense, the spiritualists are right: love is eternal.
But their correctness ends there, for though God is love, love is not God.
The Deification of Love
A few weeks ago, I heard about an interview Liam Neeson gave about his role in a religiously themed movie. In the interview, he made the statement, “God is love; love is God.” It was hearing this quote that birthed the idea for this post, and it’s what I’ll use you wrap this whole thing up.
Christians believe that God is love, that His character and triune personhood is best described as being love made manifest. The triune community of God has sought to welcome man into its fellowship since the Garden of Eden, and since that time, man has made this difficult. Our sin, selfishness, and rebellion has kept us separate from God, and while I don’t want to get to make this any more of a long tail argument than it already is, I feel we must pause for a moment to discuss sin.
Many have issue with the concept of sin. They don’t necessarily take issue with evil because there are very few in the world who cannot identify at least some behaviors than are beyond what is right. However, what is not easily accepted is that the individual might do anything worthy of the label “sin.” They can see evil in others, but not in themselves. The problem is that God can see it in all of us, and the solution for that problem is what Christians call the ‘gospel.’ God the Son was born as a human, lived a sinless life in complete harmony with God, and died a death we had earned through our rebellion. His resurrection is His crowing glory, and the guarantee of our deliverance.
This is the love of God: selfless, sacrificial, costly, and victorious. It’s a love that accepts us as we are because the cost to save us and restore what we’ve squandered has already been paid. This isn’t a sick manipulative love wherein someone gets married with the intention of changing their new spouse. Rather, this is an adoption wherein the parent desires to free the child from the tragedies of the past and the habits that have been formed by living a hard life. This is a marriage wherein one partner is consciously choosing to accept their partner’s past and love them, not by ignoring what happened, but by facing it down and loving them all the more because they are all the more in need of it. This is the love of God, a love that fully recognizes our brokenness, and yet loves us still. He loves us, in fact, so much that He not only accepts us in our brokenness but spends Himself to restore us.
This is the love of God, a love so selfless and powerful that it can free us from our past so that we can be who we were always meant to be.
Christians often say that God’s love is unconditional, and it certainly is. However, it certainly isn’t contextless. The context of God’s love is a relationship, between Himself and the individual one whom He loves. Though He loves us all equally, though He knows us all fully, we must commit ourselves to Him individually in order to experience His love fully. It is within the context of this relationship that love is expressed, salvation is received, and our hearts are transformed. The love precedes the relationship, but the love isn’t perceived until just before. It’s that nagging sense that “maybe God really does love me” that has drawn many to a prayer of seeking and repentance, a prayer that is immediately answered, birthing a new relationship, a new context by which we can perceive and receive His love.
And yet, when we muddle the order, we lose all of this. If “love is God” in the sense that so many seem to believe, then it’s a ‘free love’ that has no context, no commitment, no passion, no power. It’s week affection that gives a passive assent to whatever we want to do with our lives and our world. Like an old grandmother who fulfills a grandchild’s every whim and want without any consideration as to whether it is good for the child in the long, this sort of love destroys more than it gives life. It certainly cannot restore us to our proper state of glory. Why not? Because such power only comes from giving of one’s self in an act of selfless love, and love, when given the place of God, has no self. It is not the personal God of the Bible who desires a relationship described alternatively as akin to father-child or husband-wife. The relationship He desires is contextual: it places demands upon us, while offering us more than we could offer in return. The deified love spoken of by our culture makes no such demands and offers no such largesse.
Love is not God. God is love. In fact, I think it might be safer to define love by its nearness to God’s character. Thus, true love is selfless, eternally-focused, and welcoming. True love expects the best, accepts the worst, and gives of itself in order to make up the difference and bring about real change. True love asks for commitment and gives far more in return: life.
“God is love.” Please do not switch up the order. So much will be lost if you do.