The use and abuse of the phrase 'God is love'
We have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (1 John 4:16)
It is a mark of John’s greatness that he was able to express the deepest concepts in the simplest language. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God. The words jump off the page and touch the heart. Love is something everyone wants. God is our Creator and Redeemer. And ‘abides’ suggests permanence and stability, qualities that we long for in a world of change and turmoil. Here there is an anchor for the soul, a foundation on which we can both rest and build our lives. Nobody who believes in God will doubt this, and most of us take comfort in the assurance that a statement like this one provides. And so it should be. The Scriptures have been given to us for our instruction and comfort, and it is right that we should rely on them through all the ups and downs of life. But in recent years a confusion has emerged surrounding the phrase ‘God is love’. What exactly does it mean, and how should we understand it?
The confusion, it should be said, is more about love than it is about God. Ironically, while many people nowadays do not believe in God, just about everyone believes in love. Very few men and women actively seek out God, but almost all of them are looking for love. Some claim to have found it, others say that they have lost it, many are still waiting for it to come their way. But whatever the case, they would far rather find love than find God – and that is the root of the difficulty. For if God is love, what is love without God? For many people, love is essentially a physical emotion. It might be experienced by hugging a pet dog, or by eating a favourite food, but most often it refers to sexual intercourse. ‘Finding love’ has become a euphemism for finding a compatible sexual partner, with marriage an option not a foregone conclusion. Love of this kind is not necessarily confined to a single couple, and relationships developed on that basis can dissolve with bewildering speed.
The essence of this kind of love is pleasure. Whether it is real ‘love’ or not depends on whether I like it. If I do not, then I am perfectly entitled to go elsewhere for satisfaction and disregard whatever commitment I may have foolishly entered into. Family breakdown and divorce may result, but the search for ‘love’ does not seem to lose its appeal. It remains as elusive as ever, but is still keenly desired by the majority. Past failures may have left their mark, but the lure of future success is still there – Love Island is a fantasy world that too many people want to inhabit.
Those who believe in God may have a more spiritual understanding of love, but it is not necessarily very different from the materialistic outlook. Even for them, love may be a desire whose presence can be measured by the satisfaction that they derive from it. It may take altruistic forms, as it does when people go out of their way to support and defend others. That is often a very good thing, and the Christian gospel tells us that we must love our neighbours as ourselves. Victims of racial prejudice, sexual harassment or endemic poverty deserve our compassion, and it is only right that we should reach out to them.
Problems arise when we look at the root causes of victimhood. A juvenile offender may have committed a crime because of a disadvantaged upbringing, and we must always bear that in mind, but does that excuse the crime? To put it in Christian terms, does loving the sinner (which we are commanded to do) justify overlooking the sin? Nobody would tolerate a mass murderer on the ground that he had a disturbed childhood, even if that is true. At some point, people have to take responsibility for their actions and accept punishment for them. Good parents know this. They discipline their children, not because they hate them, but because they love them and want them to learn how to behave properly. The Bible uses that analogy to speak to us about the love of God. Just as a father may admonish his son in order that the son will learn to do what is right, so God may punish his people in order to correct them and prepare them to serve him better.
God’s love is not simply pleasure and satisfaction – it is also discipline, which may involve suffering and even death. The context of John’s words quoted above make that abundantly clear, because John tells us that the love of God was poured out in the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Did Christ come into the world in order to be happy? No. Did he appear on earth in order to find material satisfaction, whether in sex or in some other form? No. He came for two reasons, both of which were acts of love. The first reason was that he wanted to do the will of his Father. God the Father wants his children to live in peace and harmony with him, but this is not possible because we have sinned and rebelled against him. Our sin cannot simply be ignored, because to do that would be to say that it is not important. And if it is not important, then neither are we. It is because God loves us that our sin is so serious in his eyes. He knows that we can do nothing about this – we have sinned and fallen short of his glory, which is for ever beyond our grasp. The only way to resolve this is for someone who has not sinned to come to us and pay the price for our transgression that we cannot pay for ourselves. That is what the Son volunteered to do. He knew that he was the Father’s equal, but he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant and becoming a human being, so that he could pay the price for our sin and bring us back to the Father.
The second reason why the Son came into the world was because, like the Father, he also loves us. His love for the Father is always primary, but his love for the creatures that the Father has made in his own image and likeness comes a close second to that. In practical terms, the two things are virtually indistinguishable. To love the Father is to love those whom the Father loves – and that means loving you and me.
That is not easy, and to many people it is an unfathomable mystery. Why should God love people like us? We have nothing to offer him that he does not already have and nothing we say or do can add anything to his perfect contentment in himself. We have done nothing to deserve his love and can contribute nothing to it. He loves us just because he is love – there is no other explanation.
But this love is not to be confused with tolerance and what passes today for ‘acceptance’. God receives us into his presence, but only in and through the sacrifice that his Son has made for us. That sacrifice is not something alien to us – it is our justification for being able to stand before him in the first place. It removes the barrier of sin that separates us from God, but in doing so, it transforms us. To know the love of God is to experience the presence of his Holy Spirit in us, who leads us away from sin to a life that is pleasing to God. That does not mean that we become perfect. On the contrary, we become even more aware of our sinfulness and of our need for the Spirit’s saving power than we ever were before. And it is here that the love of God is so badly misunderstood by many people today. We are told that loving sinners must be our priority, but that we cannot expect to change them. We are encouraged to tolerate their behaviour, however wrong we think it is, because that is the way of love.
This kind of thinking is especially prevalent when it comes to questions relating to sex. I may not like divorce, but I cannot speak out against it, because to do so would be unloving. I may disagree with homosexual practice, but I have to condone it for those who choose it, and accept that their concept of ‘love’ is just as valid as anyone else’s. This, a Christian cannot do. Out of his great love for us, God has provided a way for us to live that conforms both to his will for us and to the nature of his creation. To go against that is to deny him. What sense does it make to ‘love’ our neighbours if that means failing to love God? The one must govern the other and be in harmony with it. This is the challenge that we face when we proclaim that God is love. He has created us in a particular way and wants us to live according to his wisdom. We have fallen away from that, and have to be brought back, which is why he sent his Son into the world. To love him is to obey him, and by obeying him, to return to the life and to the love that he gave us when he made us. That involves a change of thinking and a change of behaviour. It may be painful at times. Jesus went to the cross, and we must take up our cross if we want to follow him. But Jesus told his disciples that whoever makes a sacrifice for his sake will be rewarded many times over, perhaps not in this life, but certainly in the next one. And the next one is where we are destined to spend not just a few more years, but all eternity.