LIKE A RARE AND MYSTERIOUS GEM found accidentally washed up on a beach somewhere, pop music is entranced, but also dazzled and befuddled by the multi-faceted phenomenon of genuine love. Blinded perhaps by love’s brilliance though, lyrical expressions of the popular imagination typically focus on but one facet of love—Eros (which, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Four Loves, is neither an illegitimate manifestation of love nor reducible to sexuality; it’s just not all there is to love). We all have our favorite love songs. While the two songs quoted in the epigraphs are definitely not on my personal list of favorites, they do highlight one thing I think pop songs can accomplish, namely to hold our longing for real love in front of us and make us wonder: What do I really want? What is this thing called Love?
“GOD IS LOVE” (1 John 4:8, 16) IS THE MOST OBVIOUSLY AXIOMATIC AFFIRMATION about God in all of Christian belief. Even many partial, nominal, and non-Christians wholeheartedly endorse the declaration. Back in my hippie days (yes, I had hippie days), shortly after my conversion to Christ, I was having a conversation with a non-Christian friend of mine about my experience, my beliefs, and a few Scripture references. What led up to this, I can’t recall, but it soon became clear that she enthusiastically agreed that “God is love”. But it also became clear that what she meant was something like “the sum total of human affections and compassion is equivalent to God”. C.S. Lewis was not the first or the last to point out that “God is love” is not a reversible equation (like, E=MC2 ≈ MC2=E), but he well warned us that, if we are not careful with the concept of love, “God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God” (The Four Loves, p. 17). In my experience as an Evangelical Christian it has been regularly taught (and often just as regularly forgotten) that genuine love is not merely a feeling or a set of emotions. This much is true. But it also seems to me that the standard Evangelical math on love has just been additive: Feelings plus Actions equal Love. That just seems to be another version of ‘faith plus works equals salvation.’ Indeed love, like faith, must needs its expression, but love is neither feelings, nor actions, nor any combination thereof.
FOR GOD, LOVE IS A STATE OF BEING. Love is not simply a property or quality that God possesses. God doesn’t just “feel” love or “do” love. God does not have love. God is love. Love is not an action, feeling, or force that is somehow separable from God. We can think of ourselves as not possessing love, but God is not like that. Think of trying to separate wetness from water; in a similar way love is not a characteristic somehow added to God that could be taken away. I know this is hard to wrap our minds around (it is for me, anyway), but think of it this way:
Strip away all the detritus of our lives—the desire for success, comfort, power, and pleasure—and quiet ourselves, and we know—we really know—that at the heart of our existence is relationship. We know that our sense of alienation—the anxiety of our solitariness—is not just a feeling to be explored, but a condition to be overcome. Our brokenness only highlights our ontological need. Mother and child, father and son, brothers, sisters, lovers, friends. This is who we are, what we are. Our being, our form of existence, is communion, fellowship, relationship.
And this is what God is. God is—he exists as—an eternal relationship of love. Romance and familial affection already hint at it—the two, or the many, become one in openness and intimacy; I am in you as you are in me. Relationship itself is not just something that happens, it is something that is. Relationship is not accidental—we are not meant to be atomistic billiard balls that occasionally bounce into one another or briefly follow parallel trajectories. We are the way we are because God is the way God is: Father, Son, and Spirit; an eternal, triune, relationship-in-love; One God in three Persons; the Trinity.
UNFORTUNATELY, WE USE THE ENGLISH WORD “LOVE” TO COVER A WIDE RANGE OF MEANINGS, from romantic attraction to the tender affection of a mother for her baby to the feeling some of us have about chocolate ice cream.
There are two Biblical terms for love that give us a much better picture of God’s love: the Greek word agapē and the Hebrew word hesed. Agapē refers to self-giving love and it is the term John uses when he says, “God is love.” Love in this sense means to seek the joy of the other without regard for the self.
The love of God—the love that God is—is the infinite desire and will to seek with absolute singleness, with ever more creativity, the joy of the other without regard for the self. Each person of the Trinity loves and is in turn loved by the others with the effortless intensity of Being.
The Hebrew word hesed can be translated “mercy,” “lovingkindness,” “steadfast love,” “unfailing love,” or simply “love”. It is used throughout the Old Testament and especially in the Psalms to convey the unchanging faithfulness, mercy, and kindness of God. In Psalm 136, the psalmist uses the phrase, “His love (hesed) endures forever,” twenty-six times to praise God’s mercy and faithfulness. Hesed is love keeping its promises.
SOMETIMES IT’S EASY TO GET LOST IN THEOLOGY, as though the words themselves are what counts. What counts is the reality that the words attempt to express. At the end of last week’s post I posed the question, “How dare we claim that the heart of existence is the God who is Love?” I think popular love songs hint just barely at this reality. Real romance (there is such a thing), friendship, and family love offer signs, symbols, and hope; yet they do so in the midst of a never-quite-requited longing for the genuine gem of never-ending, limitless love. But in the face of a blood-soaked human history in the midst of a seemingly absurd and pointless material universe, the apostle Paul best sums up the justification for such audacity: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The God whose Being is Eternal-Relationship-in-Love invites us to share in the form of his Being, and has done all that is necessary for this to be so.