Wednesday, June 12, 2013
"God is love."
My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the statement "God is love."
Q: If “God is love” as it says in 1 John 4, then why do so many other parts of the Bible seem so unloving?
As with many challenging portions of scripture, the first step to understanding what is being said is to realize that we are reading something that was written by someone in a different culture, to readers from a different culture, and in a different language than the translation we are reading from.
On many occasions, words from other languages do not have a direct equivalent in English, leaving translator to come as close as they are able, yet still rendering the idea imperfectly. Other times, even though there is an adequate English word to select in translation, the concept carries ideas in one culture that differ from those it conveys in another.
In this example from the Epistles of John, “God is…” is a fairly straightforward translation. Even “love” is a relatively safe translation—although there are several Greek terms which reflect particular aspects of the very broad English word, love—but most of the difficulty for Americans for understanding this statement comes in the cultural baggage which clings to the concept of “love.”
Our culture tends to focus on love as a sentiment or emotion that is experienced by and between people. For us, love tends to be an expression of desire, attraction, or affection. It is understood as something experienced or felt within.
In keeping with this understanding, many would argue that if an action or a relationship flows from this sort of internal, emotional motives, then it must be pure. It must be good. It must be right. Many might argue that if the entity or experience they are describing fits this description, then it must be approved by God. It is assumed that if something feels right it must be right, and that if it is accompanied by the expected emotional characteristics, then that serves as confirmation of its goodness before God.
But such an approach fits better with the statement “Love is God” than “God is love.” This is because in this sort of statement, the first word is a known quantity and the second depends on it for definition. So, the natural approach of most Americans assumes and cultural understanding of love, then continues to build an understanding of God based on that assumption.
John, on the other hand, does the opposite. He begins with a history of God’s words and deeds. By the time John write this letter, the entire Old Testament, all four Gospels, all of Paul’s epistles, and several other New Testament books have already been written. These documents provide a verifiable definition of who God is and what His will is. That, John says, is the definition of love.
So, whatever we understand love to be must be consistent with the character of God, who is the very definition of love. If God did something, it was loving. If God commands it, that is loving. This is true even when it seems hateful or horrible to us. If it conflicts with God’s prior commands, it is not love, no matter how it feels. If it is not consistent with the character of God revealed in previous scripture, it is not love, regardless of assumptions to the contrary.
John even gives the prime example of love in the same chapter when He says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
So, when John says, “God is love,” he is describing to his readers what their lives as Christians are to look like—that as people who have been forgiven by God, called by God, and chosen by God, they now reflect the character of the God who has made them His own, not that they begin with their own desires, assumptions, or understandings, then arrive at conclusions about God in light of them.