Lately I’ve been truly perplexed by this whole idea that God loves us. And yes, people always this, and I can’t really know what’s going on in people’s minds when they say it, but to me it often seems like either a catch-phrase or an intellectualised puzzle: “why does God love us?”
I’m not really trying to downplay it as an intellectual puzzle. It’s probably a good question to ask. But that question doesn’t confuse me that much. My perplexity lies elsewhere, and has quite honestly resulted in a few deeply striking moments of “like… what?”
I like thinking. And I like thinking about really, really big ideas; the meaning of the universe, the genesis and trajectory of the history of humanity, the concept of knowledge and free will, and all this stuff. And then you come to this question of the nature of God. What is the nature of the one who created everything? And really, this is the only question; all things considered, this is the question. And the thing for me is: with all that’s going on all over the place; with all that’s happened in history – all the wars and political events and human achievements; with the magnitude of the physical universe in which we are situated – the stellar explosions so big that they would effortlessly wipe out any remnant of our planet and any memory of all we ever accomplished on it, (events happening distances away from us that we really couldn’t fathom); amidst all this, and among all the characteristics of God, like his might and creative power, and his wrath and his justice, it is his love that he wants us to focus on. It is his love that he considers to be in his very essence. And that’s just crazy.
See, so often, when I’m praying for somebody or another, I find myself constantly and repeatedly making reference to God’s love. And then sometimes I just think, “Hold on. Is this a shallow prayer? Am I missing something here? Aren’t there more important things about God to talk about? Am I just being an over-sentimental, 21st century, post-Freud, credit card era Christian? Surely those ancient Christians who actually wrote the Bible weren’t so into this emotional stuff, right?”
And that’s the thing that perplexes me. The answer is no. I am not over-sentimentalising things by talking excessively about the power of God’s love. The love of God is not some modern construct or fantasy produced by a society that’s obsessed with self-esteem.
It’s just that love doesn’t immediately seem like such a God-like tendency. We don’t really hear about the love of Zeus or Apollo, not that they were very well behaved anyway. But if we were conceiving of a really benevolent God, it would be easy to imagine that he would be just and powerful and wise – and in his wisdom he might know a lot about love, but to feel it himself towards humans? Would this be strange?
But if we look at the Bible, all the way through, we find a mighty God, a just and wise God, but also one whose followers testify to his love. The same King David who fought battles against surrounding idolatrous nations, proclaiming and delivering God’s just judgement in a violent and politicised manner, was the same David who wrote and sang of God’s steadfast love and forgiveness, referring to a deep, personal relationship whose intimacy and affection cannot be edited out. The same Apostle Paul who grew up on the strictest of Jewish law, who became one of the greatest persecutors of the Church, and then became one of the greatest sufferers for the Church and its Gospel, who had seen all the terrifying glory of the Roman empire, and yet wrote of the surpassing glory of God and his Christ, who wrote of suffering in his name, and of justification and sanctification and blood covenants, was the same Paul who wrote so moving a passage as 1 Corinthians 13, where he essentially said that the greatest of all things is love.
All these Apostles who wrote the New Testament, they were so into these grand majestic ideas of the redemption of all humanity and such metaphysical and large-scale notions, but all of them were talking a lot about love, to the point where John said that God is love, which doesn’t mean that God and love are exactly the same thing – because that would have to mean love is God – but rather, that you can’t talk about God without referring to love. Love is fundamental to God’s essence. And no matter how intellectually gigantic, or Biblically conservative or theologically sophisticated you want to be, you cannot get past this elementary Sunday school fact that “God loves you.”
I’m not really trying to argue a point here, so much as convey an impression – this impression that has been coming upon me of how utterly strange the idea of the love of God could seem. The reality is that love is the most central and highest of all Christian concepts. Jesus said that all of the commandments in the law are reducible to love. All of God’s actions are reducible to his love for humanity – his very hatred for sin hangs on the fact that he not only loves you, but he loves all the people you hate and mistreat. His son’s gruesome death on a Roman cross for the atonement of our sins was an radical act of love; he wanted to reconcile humankind just because he loved and desired to be with it.
There is no risk of exaggerating the significance of love. And if we fail to understand all of our responsibilities, and all of God’s actions, in light of, and in terms of God’s love, then we fail to see the whole point.