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The love of God

“But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)

Read Dante’s Divine Comedy and its last line - “Love that moves the sun and all the stars” - and you might be tempted to think that, after all that has gone before in this three volume epic poem, this strikes as a rather strong anti-climax. But no, that line (“Love that moves the sun and all the stars”) is the glorious profound fact of everything there is. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:13, love is the greatest thing there is.

We don’t see this much any more. We don’t hear the music of the spheres when we gaze at the stars. We don’t see that it is love which explains the why of science. For example, gravity may explain how every particle of matter attracts every other particle according to the laws of nature, proportionate to mass and volume. But it is love which explains why. The universe, you see, is a hierarchy of love. God loved everything into existence. And he loves everything into perfection. Acorns, angels, electrons, men, women and tomcats don’t all love God in the same way - but then neither does God love them in the same way either. God loved these differences into being. Love is the ultimate meanings of things. Love is the universe’s instinctive wisdom.

1 John 4:8 says it simply and directly: “God is love.” Everything in God is love, even his justice and holiness. Even more, the death of Christ is love.

Let’s deal with some definitions and clear up some misunderstandings at the same time. We only have the one word ‘love’ to describe feelings of romance and sexual attraction, to describe feelings of affection and friendship, to describe strong likes of hobbies or food or art. The word ‘charity’ will not do as its meaning has become fixed with the idea of handouts.

So though it looks and sounds pretentious, we shall just have to use the word ‘agape’ - the word that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) was used to describe God’s covenant lovingkindness - what the Hebrew calls ‘hesed’. The Christians then took this word ‘agape’ and made it their own. It is not a feeling. Sure, feelings are precious. Feelings come to us passively - we can’t help them, we have to learn to live with them or control them or at times express them. But agape trumps feelings at every turn. Agape is a free-willed choice, an action taken for the good of the other. Only a fool would command someone to feel in a certain way. But God commands us to love - and he is no fool. Love can be commanded in this sense because it has first been given. I repeat: to love is to will the good of the other.

You can’t be in love with agape. Why? For the same reason that water can’t get wet, or the fact that you can’t see sight. Agape spreads itself as an activity. God’s love, agape, is love in action. Love in dreams is easy, spontaneous and passive. But God’s love is personally addressed and is not at all abstract. It cannot be photocopied. It doesn’t come to you as a circular, saying, ‘dear occupant’. Rather, it is a fierce pursuit of the best that God has for you. Christ came for you and me and he dies particularly for me and you. He calls his own sheep by name. Each of Christ’s wounds on his crucified body are like lips speaking your name.

Marriages fall apart because folk are in love with feelings. But agape is sacrificial, costly, demanding, and wanting nothing in return. The marriage vows says nothing about feelings - it’s all ‘come what may, I am going to love you, no matter what’ - and when you love with that agape, found in the heart of God himself, and resourced newly each day by the Holy Spirit, then feelings get in line - but not until we die to what we think we are owed.

It follows that agape is greater than mere kindness. We value kindness - that desire to relieve suffering and to help people out of their mess. God too is kind and comes close to rescue us. But the love of God is something more - the willing of another’s good (yours and mine). It is not grandfatherly, but demanding. We are kind to pets when we have them put down because they are in pain; we are kind to old ladies when we help them with their shopping. We glibly say, ‘have a nice day!’ - but God’s love is much more insistent than that.

God is love, but love is not God. Let’s do some basic philosophy… A is B is NOT the same as saying A = B, where B would also have to equal A. And if A is B, then B doesn’t have to be A. For example (it will all become clear!): ‘that dog is a Labrador’ cannot mean ‘all dogs are Labradors’. Or suppose I say, ‘mum is unwell’, I am communicating something like, ‘you know my mum, let me tell you something you don’t know, she’s poorly’. SO when I say that “God is love” I am in effect saying something about the God you know - that he is love, essential love, made of love through and through. And that statement (“God is love”) is the truest statement in the cosmos. But ‘love is God’ is deadly nonsense, for it takes what we mean and experience by love and call that ‘god’. This is blasphemous idolatry.

If God is not a Trinity then he cannot be Love. If God were only one Person, well, he could be a lover, but not love itself. He’d be incomplete, needing someone or something to love. You see, Love requires three things: a Lover, a Beloved and a Relationship of Love between them, or in other words, the holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But even so, that isn’t quite right - for the Spirit is a Person too, not just a quality between Father and Son.

But (get this) at the very, very least God loves us as much as the person who loves us most.

Love is a mighty power and a great and complete good. Love alone lightens every burden and makes rough places smooth. Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing is stronger, nothing is more pleasant, nothing is wider and nothing fuller in heaven or on earth - for love is born of God. Love flies and leaps for joy and is free and unrestrained. Love transcends all bounds. Love feels no burden and takes no account of toil. Love sees nothing as impossible for it feels able to achieve all things. Love is everything. And everything is love. Everything valuable is made of love. Everything that exists (from the tiniest grain of sand to the highest mountain to the deepest ocean, to you yourself) is God’s love made visible. When God said, “Let there be..” he loved stuff into being. Space is love’s spread. Time is love’s life. History is love’s drama. Your very existence is God’s love of you. Love is the meaning of life and everything.

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