“I believe in a loving God.”
“God loves you.”
“God is love” (1 John 4:8).
“For God so loved the world….” (John 3:16).
We hear these words so often that we become hardened to their significance. They no longer strike us as surprising and profound. Voltaire is reported to have said, “God forgives because it’s his business.” We may also grow to take God’s love, mercy, and grace for granted. Or just as bad, we may think we understand God’s love when we have only the most superficial grasp.
We have heard that love is a divine attribute and a divine action. Good. But what does that mean, and how do we know? In fact, it is not at all clear that the concept of God necessarily entails that God loves. The followers of Plato considered the highest reality to be absolutely perfect and self-sufficient. God is “Goodness” itself, but this does not mean that God is actually good to anyone. It means that God is the most perfect object of desire. For Aristotle, God thinks only of the highest reality, that is, his own being. God is “self-thinking Thought.” All beings desire God because they desire perfection, but God desires nothing and takes no thought for the world. In ancient polytheism, a particular god may favor a particular human being, but the conviction that “God is love” seems never to have entered the human imagination before Jesus Christ came into the world. The Old Testament asserts that the one God of Israel alone is God. And God loves Israel and favors some people, such as Abraham and David, above others. Still, the Old Testament does not clearly teach the radical love of God the way it is taught in the New Testament.
Unless we give serious thought to the New Testament teaching on divine love we tend to think of God’s love in too close analogy to human love. Let’s think about the differences. (1) God’s love is not an emotion in the way we experience emotion. Our emotions are moved by the characteristics or situation of object toward which we act. God’s love is God own being and is always active, constant, and perfect. God always loves in every act because God is love. And God does what God is. (2) That God loves means that God wills the perfect good for himself and his creation. Indeed, God himself is the perfect good that he wills for himself and creation. Hence the aim of God’s love is to give himself to the object of his love. When we love, we also will something good for the object of our love. But our love is not guided by perfect understanding of what the highest good is for the person we love. Nor do we know the perfect means of attaining that good or have the power to give that good to others. Our love can be blinded by our short-sighted desires or by the momentary feelings of the one we love. But God knows the highest good for everyone and the perfect way of attaining it for each; and God will not be distracted from that aim by his needs or by our misguided desires. The Christian teaching that God is love and loves us does not imply that God will “go soft” on us. God is not indulgent; nor does he exercise a false compassion that concerns itself only with relief of immediate distress but neglects our highest good. As Augustine says in his Confessions, God exercises a “severe mercy” in bringing us to him, our highest good. We could also speak of it as a “merciless love.”
(3) God does not love us as individuals, that is, as isolated individuals. Shocking? Perhaps so, but the reason we are shocked by this is that God’s love is often sentimentalized, sweetened, and personalized to meet our own preferences. God wills, as I said above, our highest good. But we cannot attain our highest good as isolated individuals. We exist in relation to God primarily, and secondarily we depend on the whole creation and other human beings for our lives and personal identities. And we can experience the highest good [perfect fellowship with God] only in fellowship with the whole creation. Each of us plays a part in God’s story with the world. Some of those parts are short, some long, some painful, some mostly happy, some relative easy, and some very hard. From within life and from the perspective of the individual, life does not seem fair and God seems to love some more than others. But from the perspective of the end and the whole history of creation, God loves each person perfectly—and equally. God loves the whole world in each person, that is, God blesses the whole world by using each individual to bring something to the whole that makes it complete. And God loves each person by loving the whole world, that is, each individual will experience the good God makes of the whole. And in the end, all converge and each gets what has been given to all.
To be continued…
As you may have noticed, I asserted the thoughts in this essay without much proof. If you are interested in hearing more evidence for them, see my book, Great is the Lord, pp. 164-221.