He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. —1 John 4:8
God is love. No statement of the Christian faith is more often repeated and none more easily misunderstood. It is not just that God is loving. It is not even just that God loves you. God is love.
We are creatures who learn by experience. You can tell a child all about an apple — how smooth and red it is, how easy it is for bits of it to get stuck in your teeth, how crunchy and sweet it is when you first bite into it. None of that cements the concept of apple in a child’s mind quite as well as handing the child an apple and allowing the child to eat it. From that moment on, apple is not simply an abstract concept. It is a concrete reality. Even if that child moves to the Arctic and never sees another apple again, the memory of the apple will remain. If you hand the child something else years later and say, “This is a bit like an apple,” he or she will know what you mean.
But what about something like love that cannot be placed in the palm of your hand?
Love has to be learned experientially as well, through analogy and example. Usually, we experience the deep love and affection of our parents first, then later from our friends, then possibly the love of a husband or a wife. Every one of those loves — though all very different, as C.S. Lewis helpfully points out — work in concert to shape for us the idea of love that comes to mind when the words “God is love” are spoken. Difficulty arises when our formative experiences of love have been inadequate or nonexistent. The person whose parents were cold may not know what to do with the concept that God is a loving Father. People who have been abused may find themselves at a similar disadvantage.
More difficult to detect, though, are the ways in which non-loving notions find their way into otherwise genuinely affectionate relationships. Our parents may love us but they may also unwittingly teach us that love is expressed primarily through achievement or gift-giving. Friends and spouses can train us to believe that love has to be transactional, that we get out of relationships only as much as we put in. And even at our best, our attempts to love are marred by our sinful preoccupation with ourselves.
How then do we begin to understand a God who loves not only those deserving of love but those who do not deserve it at all? How do we wrap our heads around the idea that the God who made stars and planets loves every one of us with complete and unfailing devotion and without expecting anything from us in return? How do we move from thinking of God merely as a larger version of lovers we know — with all the foibles inherent in the broken versions of love that we have received from them — and start to think of God as love itself?
We know what love is because we know Jesus. This is so central to what it means to be a Christian that it almost seems not to need mentioning, yet lack of mentioning it has led to misunderstandings of God’s love in our day. We hear the famous words of John 3:16, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” and we think it is a statement of sentimentality. We think it means that God had warm, gooey feelings for all of us, which is why he decided sending Jesus might be a good idea. In truth, what this verse is telling us is what it means to love at all. The way that God loves the world is Jesus alone. There is no other form that God’s love takes than that which culminates in the cross.
A couple of years ago, I had lunch with a fellow Episcopal priest who told me that he was more interested in the “God stream” rather than the “Jesus stream” of Christianity. It was not that he was against Jesus per se, but he just found that it was easier to talk about God’s love in a more general way, rather than having to drill down into the particular questions of Jesus and his miraculous misadventures. My contention then as now was that there is no way of showing that a generic God loves you. If God is just our name for an amorphous being we hope is out there somewhere and not the name of a particular and personal being who took on flesh at a particular time in a particular place, then the only content that God can ever have is that which we supply. His love, much like his goodness, beauty, or justice, would be determined only by our experiences, projected back onto him. If those experiences were or are flawed in some way, then our “God” will be flawed too.
But the God who comes into the world by means of self-emptying and gives all that he has as a sacrifice — even for those who hate him — is a God whose love is as concrete and tangible as the hard wood of the cross. We who are leaders in the Church today need to be placing that love into the hands of those who mistakenly believe that God is either saccharinely sweet or brutally harsh. Rather than interpreting God’s love through our flawed experiences, the sacrifice of Jesus in both his incarnation and crucifixion is the interpretive lens through which the authenticity of our experiences of love can be judged.
Every church ought to have a large crucifix at its center, and we ought to talk about it often. We ought to invite our children to look at it and to walk up to it, to touch it, and to kiss it. We ought to say to them, “See, this is what love is.” That way, throughout the rest of their lives, whenever someone says to them, “This is a bit like love,” they will know exactly what to compare it with to find out if that is true.