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.
Mumford and Sons sang, ‘you were made to meet your Maker’. But understand you were made to meet your Maker not face to the floor, but FACE-TO-FACE. That speaks of the intimacy, the friendship, the relationship, the trust and love that God wants with you. Friends walk side by side; but marriage is face-to-face. The Bible says, that before there was a world, there was face-to- face; before there was a universe, there was Father, Son and Holy Spirit face-to-face, united in love. Wind back the clock, and peer into the depths of eternity and you find community. That’s why we love relationships, and weddings most of all. Every kiss you have ever wanted, every affirmation you have ever craved, every relationship you have ever pursued, every longing and yearning that has moved your heart - well, all these are but a dim reflection of the ultimate face-to face that God wants you to enjoy with him - because that’s who he is in his very essence. Here we see only “through a glass darkly” - that is, a pale, dim reflection - but then FACE-TO FACE. Alleluia!
Of course, love doesn’t just happen like rain. You do it. You will it. But isn’t love a feeling? That’s like saying a flower is a smell. To love is to give your heart away into someone’s hand - just as God has given his love into yours. And to give your heart away is to be vulnerable to pain. But the only whole heart is a broken heart. Love’s joy always outweighs love’s pain. And no one ever said on his/her deathbed, ‘I shouldn’t have loved so much; I wish I’d kept my heart more in the freezer.’
Where is this love? It is found only in one place - the heart of God. Remember:
• The ESSENTIAL nature of God is love
• His love is ALL-EMBRACING as he desires all to be saved
• His love is UNMERITED, for it was while we were yet sinners Christ died for us
• It is SACRIFICIAL love in that it involves God sending his Son to be born, to become one with us, even to become sin for us
• His love is MERCIFUL - for he really does long to wash away all our sins and he doesn’t stay angry for ever
• His love is ALL-CONQUERING, for it will triumph over all evil, sorrow, pain, suffering and sin
• His is a love that NEVER ENDS
• It is an INSEPARABLE love, for no disease, no death, no
depression, no demon can cause his love to falter or fade or fall
• At times his love CHASTENS us - these times are when he
makes us lie down in green pastures
• 180 times in Scripture we are reminded that God’s love is
• His love is a JEALOUS love, for he can brook no rival. and he
seeks the affection of all we have and all we are.
Love causes lovers to write poetry and sing to each other, and say stuff like this: ‘You are simply the most precious thing in the world to me. In all possible worlds I would love you. I would wait a thousand lifetimes just to be with you. I would give up the whole world for you. You are the centre of my heart. You occupy all my thoughts daily. I cannot bear to be without you.’ Lovers say this only to discover that they were designed by Love for love. And in heaven itself we will hear Love incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, saying something very similar to us, his bride. He is Love made visible, and he never lies.
Because God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit face-to-face, God is Love. And because God is love, love is the supreme value and the meaning of our lives. We are created by love for love. Nothing makes us as happy or as fulfilled as love: love is inscribed into our very design, our skin, our blood, cells, organs, bodies, souls and spirits. Cats are not happy living like dogs; and we are not happy living away from the beating heart of God’s love - his grace.
Augustine tells the story of a young boy at a beach, scooping up the ocean thimbleful by thimbleful. Then an angel appears and tells him that he will have emptied the ocean long before he gets to the end of God’s love. His love can never be exhausted. His love is the shoreless sea we are destined to swim and surf in, and grow in forever.
Well did the hymn writer sing:
“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made, Were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill,
And ev’ry man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Though stretched from sky to sky.”
Freud loved to criticise the Christian notion of such love by opining that “not all are worthy of love.” PRECISELY. Agape love goes beyond worth; it is way beyond reason, and it goes beyond justice. The arms of Christ reach up to the Absolute Reality who is God and reaches down to the depths of the human heart; and reaches across the whole created order from atoms to archangels, and there on the cross, Jesus threw his arms wide open to gather us all into his merciful embrace, and with a voice that rocks the whole cosmos, proclaims, “This is how much l love you.” You could say, God’s love is acrobatic - it takes God himself to the very limits of God-forsakenness in Jesus entering our sin and taking it upon himself, on the cross, proving to all who see that God loves us more than he loves himself.
We come to the text I started with: “But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us...” We might think the love of God lies hidden, but it becomes blindingly obvious in the birth of “that little wee thing that made a woman cry” (George MacDonald). In that vulnerable baby Jesus, we see the compassion and mercy of God and his seeking heart. Guessing is over! We no longer need to speculate as to what the love of God looks like. This is what God looks like! This is love personified. This is what God thinks of us - he came to us, to be born as one of us, to live for us, to die for us, that he might make us what he is. In that birth, in the glorious Incarnation, we see both the truth about God and the truth about ourselves - we are desired, loved, wanted and cherished. It follows that God’s love is the ground of our very life and being.
There is a wound in each of us, a wound that stabs at our hearts every day. None of us REALLY KNOW, really, really know how overwhelmingly God loves us. So think of this: a new born baby can see only 8-12 inches. That is the distance the child sees when being held and fed by his/her mother. The child sees her mother’s smile, her mother’s eyes, her mother’s face - and so the very first experience the new baby knows is what it is to be loved, cared for and nourished. It is sheer gratuitous love.
Just as the baby experiences such gratuitous love, such grace- filled love (we might say), so we are meant to know, really know, in our hearts and spirits and bodies the fact of God’s love - this love that dawns on us with the regularity of a sunrise. So I want you to picture in your mind’s eye the Lord of Grace gazing on you. He would say to you: “You have no idea how much I love you. You have no idea how much I care for you. You have no idea of the interest I take in your life. I hold your life in my nail-scarred hands. I have such plans for you! You matter to me more than you can dream. I love you more than you can possibly dare to hope. You have never met anyone like my Son Jesus Christ - I want you to be like him. Let me love you. Let me love you. Then your wounds will be healed. And you will know how to love me back.”
A son once asked his father, “Why do you love me?” Now a wise dad would not reply by saying things about what the boy has done or looks like. No, he will reply with the only answer that really satisfies, “because you are mine!” That’s what God says to each of us - and when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared he proved it. He came looking for us, and when he found us, he lived our lives, died our deaths, and united himself to us, never to leave or forsake us. Here is one of my favourite insights by one of my favourite theologians - JB Torrance: “Christ does not heal us by standing over against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take, and going away, to leave us to get better by obeying his instructions - as an ordinary doctor might. No, he becomes the patient! He assumes the very humanity which is in need of redemption, and by being anointed by the Spirit in our humanity, by a life of perfect obedience, by dying and rising again, for us, our humanity is healed in him. We are not just healed ‘through Christ’ because of the work Christ did, but ‘IN’ and ‘THROUGH’ Christ.”
When we say that it is “Love that moves the sun and all the stars” we are, of course, saying we don’t. All of us need to come to the point where we say, “nothing is mine by nature - all I have, all I achieve, all I am, all I love doing is of grace.” And this love of God which floods our hearts enables us to give ourselves away to others also in need of knowing what has so beautifully and radically changed us.
Love is like a ball in catch. Throw it and it will come back to you. Hold onto it and the game is over. All of us get to play catch with God - the One whose love, who as Trinity, holds all the universe together. God’s love has a human face, human arms, and a human heart, filled with divine compassion, inviting all to accept the embrace, and live in him, to live out and live from his love. and Sons sang, ‘you were made to meet your Maker’. But understand you were made to meet your Maker not face to the floor, but FACE-TO-FACE. That speaks of the intimacy, the friendship, the relationship, the trust and love that God wants with you. Friends walk side by side; but marriage is face-to-face. The Bible says, that before there was a world, there was face-to-face; before there was a universe, there was Father, Son and Holy Spirit face- to-face, united in love. Wind back the clock, and peer into the depths of eternity and you find community. That’s why we love relationships, and weddings most of all. Every kiss you have ever wanted, every affirmation you have ever craved, every relationship you have ever pursued, every longing and yearning that has moved your heart - well, all these are but a dim reflection of the ultimate face-to face that God wants you to enjoy with him - because that’s who he is in his very essence. Here we see only “through a glass darkly” - that is, a pale, dim reflection - but then FACE-TO FACE. Alleluia!