Friday, October 4, 2013

Yes, God really IS love!

In I John 4:8, the author declares that God IS love.  In case you weren't paying attention, or if you thought maybe he made a mistake, he repeats this declaration in verse 16.  What amazes me is how often people try to argue with this declaration.  I can't tell you how many times I've gotten locked into this debate, and it boggles the mind how people just can't see what's plainly in front of them!  So, I finally got the motivation to write a blog post on this, and to declare, as best I can, that yes!  The author really does mean that God is love!  So stop trying to argue with him!

But still they argue.  So let's talk about some of their arguments:

Yeah, Well God is Also [fill in the blank]
So one of the first arguments someone will pull out when you tell them that God is love goes something like this:
"Oh, you're limiting God.  God has other aspects of His character that you're leaving out because you want to focus on His love.  God is also Holy, and God is also just!"  The problems with this argument are multiple. 

First of all, God is not conflicted.  He's not like a human being who has conflicted emotions and is unsure of him or herself, and who can't make up His mind.  God doesn't have multiple warring sides of His personality - He isn't schizophrenic and He doesn't have multiple personality disorder!  I don't know why people keep trying to fashion God in this image!  Why can't people ask the question: what if God's justice flows from His love?  What if God's holiness flows from His love?

Because there's a second, major issue with using "well, God is also just/holy/[whatever description they randomly pull out that they happen to like]": these words are all adjectives.  The author of I John chose to describe God with a noun here.  And he didn't say "God is like love".  He didn't say "God is loving".  He said "God is love"!  The fact that the author of I John chose to describe God as equating to a concept we describe with a noun should hold considerable weight.

And love is not an easy concept to describe.  The apostle Paul uses many descriptions to try to help us understand what love is in I Cor. 13.  Because I John 4:8 and 16 tells us that God IS love, and because we often describe God as being infinite, I like to take the descriptions of I Cor. 13 that say "love is" and substitute "God is infinitely" when I'm trying to understand what God is like.  This does not lessen the mystery that God is - often when you quote
I John 4:8 and 16 and tell someone that God is love, they will say you're trying to limit God.  I honestly don't understand this, because love is something which can grow to infinity, and it is an infinite mystery.  Poets have been trying to describe love for centuries, and despite the numerous writings on the concept, more people keep trying!  And we're never satisfied with the results - we just keep trying to explain it!  Saying "well, God is also holy" does not negate that He is love!  It adds to the idea of the magnitude of what love is!  If you say "God is holy", then you say "perfect love is holy".  If you say "God is just", then you say "perfect love is just".

And for those of you who want to tell me about God's wrath, I think it's also important to remember that the Bible repeatedly states that God's love endures forever (Ps. 106:1; 107:1; 118:1; 138:8; and over and over in Ps. 136), but his anger lasts only a moment (Ps. 30:5, 103:9, Isa. 57:16, Jer. 3:12, Mic. 7:18).

(Note: I have written in an earlier post about how "forever" is a mistranslation, in this case of the Hebrew word "olam".  In this case, I think it works - the literal translation is to the effect of "His love endures through the age", and the message would be that even in His momentary anger, His love is enduring throughout.  In other words, His anger is an expression of His love, and His anger will not be without end.)

So let's move on to another argument:

Esau I Hated
Another argument people will use to try to wriggle out of the idea that God is love is that they will pull out Mal. 1:3/Rom. 9:13.  There are four problems I'd like to point out with this argument.

First of all, you have to realize that in Rom. 9:13, Paul is quoting directly from Mal. 1:3 - you know this because he says "as it is written" before he does so.  And when you look into the context of Mal. 1:3, you realize that this is not talking about any individual persons, it's talking about the nations.  The passage is using figurative language to talk about the nations that sprung from Jacob and Esau's ancestors.  It is a serious exegetical mistake to interpret this passage in light of a person's ultimate salvation.  Dr. Norman Geisler once wrote:

The election of the nation was temporal, not eternal; that is, Israel was chosen as a national channel through which the eternal blessing of salvation through Christ would come to all people (cf. Gen. 12:1–3; Rom. 9:4–5). Not every individual in Israel was elected to be saved (9:6).

Second of all - let's say this verse really did imply that God hated Esau.  If you want to say this, then you run into a little problem with the story of Jacob and Esau.  The story implies that Esau was hated because God chose to allow Jacob to receive his blessing and birthright.  This causes a feud between Jacob and Esau, and Jacob has to run away to a faraway land because he fears for his life.  Jacob goes to live with his Uncle Laban, and ends up marrying both of Laban's daughters, Rachel and Leah, through a series of complicated events.  Then, many years later, Jacob ends up leaving Laban and heads home.  But because of the feud between him and Esau, he decides he must try to reconcile things, or he might be in big trouble.  So he sends messengers to Esau with a message:

Genesis 32:4b-5
"Give this message to my master Esau: 'Humble greetings from your servant Jacob. Until now I have been living with Uncle Laban, 5 and now I own cattle, donkeys, flocks of sheep and goats, and many servants, both men and women. I have sent these messengers to inform my lord of my coming, hoping that you will be friendly to me.'"

In Genesis 32:6, Jacob's messengers return after delivering the gifts and tell him:

"We met your brother, Esau, and he is already on his way to meet you—with an army of 400 men!"

Well, this is worrisome for Jacob.  And he devises a plan to separate his camp so that if Esau attacks, maybe he'll only kill half of Jacob's people.  He also sends some of his servants to Esau with a pretty extravagant peace offering: 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 female camels with their young, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys, and 10 male donkeys.  That night, we have a curious scene in Genesis 32:22-32 where Jacob wrestles with God.  This indicates the complete turmoil Jacob is going through in his spirit over the situation.  He is at a point of such emotional and spiritual agony that he is wrestling with God!

So then what happens?  In Genesis 33, it is the next morning, and Esau and his men approach Jacob (who has now been given a new name by God: Israel, which means "God fights").  Jacob goes out in front of his camp, and the text says that as he approached Esau, he bowed down to the ground seven times to show his humility.  But what is Esau's response?  Does he lord it over Jacob, and rub Jacob's transgressions in his face?  No!  The text says that Esau ran to Jacob and embraced him, threw his arms around Jacob's neck and kissed him!  Esau even asks Jacob: "What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?"  He expected no peace offering - he didn't feel Jacob owed him!  When Jacob responds to Esau and tells him that he sent this gift to find favor with him, Esau says: "I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself."  In the next two verses, we see something amazing:

Genesis 33:10-11
“No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God [emphasis mine], now that you have received me favorably.  Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.

Did you catch that?  To see Esau's face is like seeing the face of God!  In Victor Hugo's magnum opus - Les Miserables - he writes:

To love another person is to see the face of God.

If God really hates Esau with an eternal hate that cancels out His love, like some people would like to imply, then why is Jacob seeing God's face when the two reconcile?

To answer that, I move on to my third argument: the concept we usually have of "hate" in the modern world is not the same understanding the Hebrews had - in their language, it was more along the lines of "to love less".  Once again, I rely on Norman Geissler to explain:

This is evident from Genesis 29:30: The phrase ‘loved Rachel more than Leah’ is used as the equivalent of ‘Leah was hated’ (cf. also Matt. 10:37).

To illustrate this idea further, we need to think seriously about a very curious passage:

Luke 14:26
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.

Now, one of Jesus' primary messages throughout his entire career was to love!  He told us in Matthew 22:36-40 that the greatest commandment was to love God, and the second was like it: love your neighbor as yourself.  In this passage he tells us that "all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."  And in the version of the story we find in Luke 10:25-37, when asked "and who is my neighbor?", Jesus deliberately chose to tell a story about a foreigner of another religion who acted neighborly.  Jesus chose the audience's enemy to illustrate who was a neighbor.  And Jesus has even commanded elsewhere to love enemies!  We will go more into detail on that in a bit.  But the point is - if the primary directive of Jesus was to teach love, then why would he tell us to hate our family? 

To answer that, I would start with questioning whether Jesus was using hyperbole to teach a difficult concept.  This was not foreign to Jesus' method of teaching - he's used hyperbole to illustrate the gravity of the problem of lust by telling his audience to gouge out their eyes, for one example.  Also, I think we need to understand the culture of Jesus' day.  There was a sharp contrast between wealthy and poor in Jesus' day.  To complicate this issue, descendents usually carried on the family business - if your father was a carpenter, you would be a carpenter, and if your father was a politician, you'd be a politician.  Inheritance was codified in the law of the day, the wealthy looked down on the poor, and so the inequality of Jesus' day functioned very similarly to a caste system.  To complicate things even further, the people of Jesus' day were living under an oppressive regime that taxed them heavily and sent all the wealth directly to the top rather than using this tax money to benefit the common people (sound familiar, America?  See this article, which also links to an interesting study showing that America's inequality problem may be worse than Rome's!).

So along comes Jesus instructing the rich to give away all their wealth, and pulling fishermen away from the family business to follow him, and this could very well look like people who were hating their families - at least to the people of that culture.  But God's goal, as we find in Isaiah 40:4 (for just one example), is to raise up every valley and make every mountain low!  To put it in less metaphorical terms - God wants equality!  And when you start making strides towards this goal, people become very nervous and start saying "you're showing hate to me!"  So Jesus is telling his audience: look, if you're going to follow me, you're going to have to put aside all of these people who are trying to pull you away from my goals in order to be part of their agenda, and that's going to look a lot like hate to them.

Finally, in order to illustrate how the Biblical concept of hate is not the opposite of love as we might think, I'd like to think more deeply about what hate is.  The dictionary definitions of the word include the words "aversion" and "dislike".  These are feelings.  Someone might use the concepts of aversion and dislike to describe how they feel about broccoli.  But once you start applying "hate" to a person, in the modern world we automatically begin to imagine murderous desires - an intense desire to destroy.  But these are not the same thing.  And one can have an aversion or a dislike towards a person and still act in a loving manner towards them - and this may in fact be the most vivid example of love there is!  After all, while Jesus hung on the cross, what did he say?  "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)  That's an amazing example of love!  Does this mean Jesus had warm fuzzy feelings towards those people who crucified him?  No, I'm sure he had a strong aversion and dislike towards them.  But that's not the opposite of love.

Why This Makes Us Uncomfortable
So why is it that people get so uncomfortable when faced with the idea that God is love?  Why do they try to wriggle out of that idea as best they can?  Because this challenges us!  It's incredibly hard to show love to someone you dislike/have an aversion to!  Jesus told us to love our enemies, and he acted that out on the cross so we'd understand just how far he'd go to prove his point!  And that makes us very uncomfortable, because we like to make the "well, he started it!" excuse when we strike back at those we dislike/have an aversion to. 

In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus tells us to love our enemies.  And this is hard.  So I think we like to try to make ourselves feel a little better about our failings in this area by thinking that maybe God doesn't love all of our enemies.  But there's one really big problem with that - at the end of the passage, right after talking about loving our enemies, Jesus said:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Did you catch that?  "As your heavenly Father is perfect" - right after commanding us to love our enemies.  This implies that the Father practices this perfectly!  Yes, God loves all your enemies!  He's perfect at it!  Oh, that makes us so uncomfortable, because it leaves us with absolutely no excuse!  We can't say to God "yeah, but he...."  He doesn't care!  He wants us to love them anyway!  And that's really hard!

Which brings me to the last argument (that I can think of) that people will use to try to wriggle out of the "God is love" concept: "you're just picking your favorite verses because they're nice."  Really?  You think so?  Because I find the concept that God loves my enemies to be extremely challenging.  You have no idea how hard it is to love your enemies until you try.  When you tell a group of people that you're a universalist (see my series: Checkmate Fore Hell), and they immediately respond by calling you a heretic, a liar, a servant of the dark one, a false prophet, etc., without ever even asking "why do you believe that?"  When they start misrepresenting you and refuse to listen, and when they hound you for hours afterward trying to "save you" from this awful lie - it's really hard not to start throwing the insults back in their face (I should know - I'm not that good at it, either). 

But there's something you need to understand about loving all with the perfect love of God - in  I John 4:16, the author writes:

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.
Far too many Christians have this magical understanding of Jesus that if you say the right incantation and drop the magic words "in Jesus' name" at the end, he magically floats into your heart and poof, you're a "Christian".  You're all set now.  But if that were the meaning of Jesus' teachings, then why was he always telling us to do stuff?

Because it's all about love!  You want to be close to God?  Love your neighbor as yourself!  Who's your neighbor?  Everyone!  And when you live like that, you live in God and God lives in you.

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