Love - God's love for us

March 02, 2020

Love - God's love for us

Glenn Davies

One of the greatest 20th century apologists was Professor C.S. Lewis. He was a prolific writer, not only in his field of English literature, but also on Christian topics, such as Mere Christianity, delivered first as a series of BBC radio talks.  One of his well-known books is entitled The Four Loves. In that book, he identifies four types of love, namely affection, friendship, erotic love and charity. These four types of love are based on four different Greek words for love.

The first is the Greek word storge, which refers to an empathy or bond, the kind of fondness or familiarity characteristic of family members or people who relate in familial ways.

The second is philia—the friendship bond—from which we get the word ‘philadelphia’ (meaning brotherly love). Philia is a friendship bond as close as siblings in strength and duration. It describes the strong friendship between two persons.

The third is eros—romantic love. The English word ‘erotic’ comes from eros, which can have negative connotations, but when properly understood, eros focuses on the appropriate pleasure and mutual bond of a one-flesh union between a husband and a wife.

And the fourth is agape—characteristic of God’s love, the love that knows no bounds; the unconditional love that God gives to his people.  In older translations, agape was translated ‘charity’, reflecting the self-giving love for another.

Love in the Bible has many dimensions. But the foundation and fountain of love is God. The Apostle John's first letter declares that ‘God is love’. He is not only describing love as an attribute of God, but also identifying its source being in God—‘love is of God’ (1 John 4:7-8).

God is love, because embedded in the heart of the Trinity is an intra-communion of love between and among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The Father loves the Son and the Spirit; the Son loves the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. This intra-trinitarian love is the foundation of God's loving creation of humankind. God creates us as an expression of his love. He creates people in his image, with a capacity to love him and love others. He is the source of all love, and therefore love needs to be understood within the context of who God is as he has revealed himself to us, not as we might imagine him to be.

 

God’s love and suffering

One of the objections to God’s existence questions whether he can be all-powerful as well as all-loving. The argument goes like this: if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why do bad things happen? Either God cannot prevent evil (so he is not all-powerful), or else he wills evil to happen (so he is not all-loving).

There are many ways of responding to the problem of evil, and probably no single line of response can address its many facets. But at least part of the answer to why God allows people to suffer is recognising the falsity of the implicit assumption that love always seeks to prevent pain. It assumes that loving me means giving me whatever brings me pleasure, takes away what causes my suffering, or accords with my own self-determined idea of what constitutes my good. It doesn’t allow for the fact that God may know what is really best for us—better than we ourselves know—and that all his actions are truly reflective of his loving nature. To love is to do what is best for someone, and what is best may not be the same thing as what is painless.

We would all probably agree with the principle that you don't love children by desiring their pain. Yet every good parent takes their child to the dentist, not only knowing that pain will be inflicted upon their child, but even paying someone to do it! The parent (if not the child) realises that there is a greater good in the dental care for their child's teeth which outweighs the temporary pain of needles and drills.

This is, perhaps, not an answer that can be easily accepted by a sufferer who can only see the bigger picture as in a glass darkly; especially without faith in the benevolence of the one allowing the suffering, or the hope of something better as a result. But a beloved child has the experience of past parental care to ground their trust, and an assurance that it will be better for them in the long run to have healthy teeth. And we have an account of God’s past trustworthiness to ground our trust, and his promise of a future with no ‘mourning, crying or pain’ (Revelation 21:4), and so we cling to his love in faith and hope.

 

What is love?

One of the problems in our current world is that we have rejected the fundamental proposition that ‘God is love’, and substituted instead our own definition of love. Consider, for example, the slogan in the same-sex marriage debate, that ‘love is love’. Here love can mean whatever I want it to mean. A man once told me, ‘My love for my wife has died; I am now in love with another woman. Why should God forbid my love for her?’ This is a catastrophic distortion of the meaning of love. What he was calling love was, more precisely, eros gone haywire. When the Bible says ‘God is love’, the word is not eros but agape. God's love is sacrificial love. His love is self-giving. His love is righteous. His love is directed to the good of another person. God’s love cannot be separated from his goodness, and we humans, made in God’s image, are not free to make up our own accounts of love and goodness. They are built into our very being and the creation. The husband who abandons his wife because he “loves” another woman is the antithesis of God’s love.

 

God’s love and judgment

When the Apostle John says that God is love, the point is that God is both the fountain of love and the arbiter of love. God defines where love begins and ends. There is no Archimedean point outside of God's existence, as if there were an external standard by which love is defined, and by which God must be evaluated. On the contrary, love is defined by the very nature of God. What God does is loving. And this, of course, is the point of tension for many people, because part of the expression of God’s love is his righteous judgment against sin.

Sometimes, God’s judgment is a loving discipline. If you think that this is nonsense—that it cannot be loving to discipline someone—then you are probably not a parent! Most parents will know what it is like to discipline a child for their own good, even when it is heartbreaking to do so. The loving thing to do is not to let them run wild in the supermarket in defiance of your authority, nor to give in to their temper tantrums, but to correct them, as an expression of your love. God disciplines us because he loves us (Hebrews 12:4ff).

Sometimes, God’s judgment is a warning (Hebrews 3:7ff). God delays the day of final judgment, to give us an opportunity to repent, because he loves us and does not take delight in anyone perishing, but desires that all would turn back to him and find mercy and forgiveness (2 Peter 3:9).

God's love is neither denied nor dethroned when he disciplines or acts in judgment. In fact, the greatest evidence of that is God's judgment upon his Son. When Jesus takes the sins of the world upon himself, his suffering upon that cross removes the eternal judgment that we deserve. The cross is, par excellence, the demonstration of God's love, and at the same time, the demonstration of God’s righteous judgment upon human sin. ‘He who knew no sin became sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

 

Reflecting God’s love

Yet it must be said that love doesn't always characterise Christians or the actions of the church. While God's actions are—by definition—loving, God’s people sometimes do a poor job in reflecting that love to the world. Remember what Jesus says to us: ‘By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35). These words are a challenge to everyone who identifies as a Christian.

Since love is of God, we who belong to God must be people of love.

In the same-sex marriage debate, Christians were, and still are, accused of being unloving, uncaring, vindictive and homophobic. To the extent that this is true, we should repent and love others as God in Christ has loved us. But at least some of what is interpreted as homophobia is due to a clash of worldviews rather than a failure to love. One worldview says that God defines what love looks like. In particular, erotic love is only to be expressed in a lifelong and faithful union between a husband and wife. Other expressions—even when we cannot always see clearly the full picture of why—are not ultimately for the good of those involved. The other worldview says people are free to decide for themselves what counts as a loving sexual relationship and what is for one’s good, and that those who attempt to deny this are narrow-minded and bigoted.

Christians believe that, since God is love, we must listen to what God tells us about love and learn to love what God loves, rather than listening to the world around us and loving according to the patterns of the world. To be people of love, Christians should be seeking to help everyone to love what God loves, notwithstanding the clash of worldviews about love this entails.

 

Faith, hope and love

Faith, hope, and love are the energisers of Christian living. There's a wonderful point of distinction between Jesus' words to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2, and Paul's words to the Thessalonians in Chapter 1 of his first letter.

Jesus says to the church at Ephesus, ‘I know your labour, I know your works, I know your endurance. But I have this against you. You have lost your first love.’

When Paul writes 1 Thessalonians, he says, ‘I know your work of faith, your labour of love and your endurance of hope’, for which they are commended.

The difference between the Ephesians and Thessalonians is simply this. The outward appearances of energy and activity were there. But the energising gifts of God, namely faith, hope and love were missing. The true Christian response is not merely to advocate these three virtues, nor is it to be full of activity as if such activity is sufficient to please God. No, God calls upon us to be motivated by faith, hope and love, to see them as his gifts to us, so that our lives might be fruitful in good works which are pleasing in his sight and benefit humankind.

If at the end of this series you've learned anything from Archbishop Fisher and myself, may it be that you will learn more of God's faith, hope and love so that you might reflect his character in your lives and enjoy all the benefits of everlasting life.



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