By Samuel Keyes
You don’t have to venture into the depths of sappy Jesus is my boyfriend territory to find casual statements about God’s desire to be with us. We long for fellowship; we long for fulfillment; and, so the story goes, God feels the same way.
It’s all very mutual and affirming and nice. And it riffs on some obvious scriptural themes running from the Song of Songs to the whole prophetic tradition of God speaking of himself as a husband in relation to Israel. See Ezekiel 16 or Isaiah 54 or the whole book of the prophet Hosea.
In this traditional metaphor, God has a kind of passionate desire that causes him to stick with his unfaithful wife despite everything. And it is not too much of a stretch to take this traditional language and apply it, here and there, to the story of the incarnate Son’s Passion. Passion, after all, is a loaded term, both in classical philosophy and postmodern colloquial context. As I pointed out just this year on Good Friday, the Passion of the Christ, more than simply his death, is exactly what is interesting: God the Son allows himself to be moved, to be affected; he submits to powers that he cannot control. And of course this is undeniably part of what it means to be human.
But it is not what it means to be God, at least not in any dogmatic understanding that squares with Catholic and apostolic tradition. Christ suffers, he has passion, in his human nature, not in his divinity. The divine nature is impassible, which is to say that it cannot suffer, cannot change, cannot be moved. That such a nature can be united, hypostatically, to a passible human nature is exactly the mystery of the Incarnation. We do not know how to say much beyond that.
When we try to keep speaking past these dogmatic limits, it’s easy to wander into trouble. There are times when the poetic and the pastoral can push these limits, perhaps, but the propriety of such pushing depends, I submit, on an awareness of what the limits seek to preserve.
The scriptural metaphors about God’s nuptial love for humanity are metaphors. (Or rather, the nuptial imagery between husband and wife is a metaphor — and, under certain conditions, a sacramental sign — of Christ’s love for the Church.) Metaphors and sacraments play on both similarity and difference. We like thinking about the similarity, but we need to remember the difference. And any literary person will tell you that the more unlike the items of comparison, the more powerful the metaphor.
A human husband needs and desires his wife in a way that God does not. Putting aside the needs and desires of Jesus’ enduring human nature (which must exist, even if glorified, as a necessary creaturely attribute), God does not need us. He does not need creation. He needs nothing but himself. This is, if nothing else, the most basic statement of Trinitarian dogma: God is already, in the divine community of persons, the supreme fellowship, the supreme love. He cannot be lonely.
It is all very nice to imagine that God needs us in some way, that he is lonely without us, but such sentiments give false comfort, because that kind of God — one who is needy, who is incomplete without us — cannot provide the kind of perfect self-giving love that we really need. It is only because God is already perfect and fulfilled in his own essence that we can really see and trust that his desire for us is completely free, completely gracious, completely unencumbered by ulterior motives of self-interest.
God doesn’t need our love. Therefore God is the supreme lover. God’s love is sheer and absolute delight — not the kind of delight that for us is inevitably tied up with physical necessity, emotional lack, and hopes for the future, but the kind of delight that holds nothing back because there is always so much more to give, the kind of delight that we can hardly imagine, that we can only briefly glimpse in either the most fleeting ecstatic moments of sexual love or the radical lifelong self-giving of religious vocation.
We need God. We long for God. And no, God does not feel the same way about us — which is exactly why it is so amazing that he loves us.