The first thing I need to do is to clarify what this is going to be about. This is not going to be about what love, in and of itself is or should be. While that is an important topic, my suggestion would be to read C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves to get some fantastic answers to that. What I’m going to be talking about is in relation to God being love, and hopefully be able to respond and form answers to questions like “if God is loving, then why would he let this happen?” or “if God is loving, then why do people do this” etc.
An important thing to point out right away is that while God is most certainly love, the converse is not true, love is not God. To reduce God to simply love would be like saying that you and I are simply person-shapes. While we are indeed shaped like people, saying that takes out all of the nuances and wonders of what it means to be a human being. In a way, we are more of that definition than at first seems to be. What I mean by that can be taken in a few different ways; we are far more diverse than what might be considered a generic human-shape (think every sign you see that depicts people) and the fact that everyone has an aspect of personness makes the shape an inadequate description. In realty, if we were to be categorized by a shape, it would certainly be some sort of amorphous shape that is constantly changing in one of two different directions. Since we are all made in the image of God, and God gave us free will, we are always trying to look more like Christ or less like Him. Of course by that I don’t mean that we’re trying to look like the image of Jesus that we all have in our minds, but that we are trying to see the world through His eyes and act as He did. Now, there are people who have chosen not to believe in God and would therefore argue that they are not choosing to look like Christ or not like Him, as He does not fit into their worldview. The problem with that is that if they claim not to try and take one of those two paths what they really mean is that they are trying to look like something else. They are trying to look like success or attractiveness or money etc. You see, by choosing to not look like Christ, we automatically start looking like someone else, for we cannot serve two masters.
In the same way the prior example has reduced humanity, trying to say that God, in His entirety, is love reduces Him. Without moving into other aspects of God there are some definitions that would be important to point out. Aquinas deals with this point by stating that God is all of the concrete reciprocities of love. What he means is that we cannot simply think of God as one form of love. Generally, when we’re referring to God being love the “feel good” kind of love comes to mind. That kind of love is expressed in different ways in daily life through parents to their children, between a husband and his wife, or even through children’s program characters like Barney. Obviously those examples are all slightly different but they all show, to some degree, the same type of love. The “feel good” love, or perhaps, the honeymoon phase love, as some people have said. To avoid confusion, when I refer to honeymoon phase love I’m referring to the feeling all young lovers have when they first fall in love with the man or women of their dreams; the way the world seems to stop moving and everything just feels right. There is an interesting parallel that comes to mind with this love, and that is the general desire to the average churchgoer to want to hear only the things from the Bible that will make them feel good. I think that both of those come from the hope that if God is a feel good deity, then He will certainly overlook any sort of sin that we might commit. It also comes from our teenage phase of not wanting there to be any rules; because certainly if God places rules in our lives it’s only to ruin all our fun (sound familiar?).
If that love is only one type of love then there certainly are more types, or perhaps levels of depth to love. We catch glimpses of these levels in different aspects of life. Every so often we hear in the news of a woman who willingly gives up her life for that of her children, whether that be shielding them from a gunshot or going to jail for life because she was in defense of her children etc. It is often that poets refer to the love of a mother to her children the highest form of love that is observable in the world. The aspect of God that is being displayed is sacrifice. Jesus willfully going to the cross to die for the sins of the world is similar to, yet exponentially greater than, a mother giving her life for the safety of her children.
There is a phrase that gets repeated in movies quite often which is meant to express another kind of love; that phrase is “this is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you.” The idea is that one person loves someone else so much that he has to discipline them because it is wrong. While that could possibly be taken to be a form of sacrifice or just simply as discipline in itself, I believe there is something larger at work. A disciplinary action for the purpose that it is right is calling to the higher cause of justice. Instantly at the reading of the word justice, pictures of court rooms and perhaps prisons come to mind, and while that is a form of justice, it is not justice in its entirety. When dealing with the judiciary system, court cases are decided and sentences passed based on what the punishment for a certain action is or should be; the greater the wrong action, the more severe the punishment or longer the sentence. In other words, judging on the wrong action instead of judging on what is universally right and wrong. This dives into the field of ethics, of which I am not well versed enough in to get very far. The popular topics of ethical decisions especially in regards to courts are ones like abortion, where there is heated debate and deep questions which I am not going to try to answer. That’s the problem when people try and deal with pure justice, of what is universally right and wrong. We get confused and angry with one another because we can’t seem to agree on what is more important. God demonstrates justice in several places and in different ways in the Bible. One passage from 1st Corinthians says “But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world” (11:31-32). At first this seems to be speaking only of judgment or discipline, but if you look carefully at the tale end of it, you’ll see the justice portion. The phrase “so that we will not be condemned along with the world” tells us that God’s justice goes a bit deeper than what we’re able to show. Justice is discipline and judgment but the converse is not true. God judged and disciplined His people because of things that they had done wrong, however in doing so He spared them from being lumped into the greater judgment and discipline of those who did not belong to Him.
One of our favorite ways to express love to one another is the exchange of gifts. We really enjoy seeing the expression on someone’s face when they receive something that they have always wanted or that they really enjoy. C.S. Lewis says that the highest form of love that we can express is that of charity, and I think that comes in two forms. The first form of charity is what I mentioned above, the giving of gifts to people you care about. Taking your time or money to buy or make something that you know will have great value to the person you are going to give it to. In this sense, work is done almost entirely without benefit with only the reaction and thanks as reward. The second form is when things are done anonymously, and even farther than that, done in such a manner where the giver doesn’t see the gift received and never knows if it was appreciated. Charity of this second form is done simply because it is right to do so and the knowledge that what’s being done will benefit, in some way, the person on the receiving end is the only payment that can be received. God expressed charity toward us not only in creation but in the redemptive quality of the work Christ did on the cross. Giving humanity a gift that we didn’t deserve; giving us a chance to worship Him and ultimately live with Him in eternity.
Another aspect of love is fairness which, in a way, goes with some of the others I’ve already discussed. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of fairness is a parent to several children. A fair parent would give their children the same thing in order that one is not treated better or worse than the other. The problem there is that the quality being represented is not fairness but equality, and while equality is an aspect of fairness, it is not fairness in its entirety. Fairness is measured not by the material so much as by the quantity or quality of that given, and not from the aspect of the giver than by that of the given. Obviously, when a parent knows their child well enough, they can know what the child will like, so in a way, it does depend on the giver’s knowledge, but ultimately it depends on how well the gift is received or liked. In terms of God; when He shows His fairness it embodies all the characteristics of the aspects of love that have been mentioned as well as going above and beyond those. God extends grace and mercy toward those who will but accept it and operate in it. The opportunity for it is available to everyone.
When people ask questions like the ones mentioned above, they are generally speaking of one very small attribute of love, which C.S. Lewis refers to as affection. Just with the few examples I’ve listed, it’s plain to see that love is far more complex than this one portion. Something else that is generally behind questions like “why would a loving God allow this to happen” is a question that is rarely actually voiced, something like “why would this be happening to me?” as if you or I should some how be exempted from that sort of thing. The Bible says that we have all sinned and fallen short of God, and that the path of sin leads to death. Whether you believe that we all took part in the sin of Adam or if you believe that we are born with a clean slate and we sin on our own, the fact of the matter is that we are all sinners. By the fact that we are, indeed, sinners and our nature is that of evil, there is no possible way that we could ever be in the presence of someone as holy and pure as God. What we deserve, what would be fair and just reward for our lives is death, and then following that a separation from God forever in hell. God sacrificed His only Son so that there would be a way for us to find redemption and eventually live with Him in heaven. However, the questions then change to “but I am a Christian! Why are these bad things happening?” and the fact is that the rain falls on the just and the unjust all the same. We live in fallen humanity where people have the choice to do good works or to do evil works. Some philosophers have theorized that God allows evil to happen to good and bad people alike as a form of soul preparation; a sort of earthly purification process. God allows things to happen and then uses all things ultimately for His good purpose. The end result of certain actions is at best, hard to understand, and most of the time impossible to see for those of us involved in the starting of the chain of events. As I mentioned before with the analogy of shapes, we are at all times walking in one of two different directions, either towards God or away from Him. To those of us who are walking toward God, we will be hated by the rest of the world for His sake. The people who are walking away from God and doing evil are doing so not because evil in itself exists, but rather there is a lack of God in them. God calls out to each of us and we can all feel it. For the people that chose to ignore or refuse to believe and not listen or respond to the calling of the Lord, they will not understand Him, and people always fear and are violent towards what they don’t understand. What the Christian needs to understand is that while there will be evil in the world as long as there is fallen man in it, that his questions need not be directed toward trying to understand things which are outside of his finite comprehension. Rest assured in the knowledge that God knows what is going on in all our lives and has an eternal purpose that is always moving and always acting. For those that remain faithful and fight the good fight, there will be rewards in heaven.