More than feelings: God is love
That God is love is one of the most common assumptions of Christians concerning the character of God. This assertion is found repeatedly in the Bible and has been regularly affirmed throughout the history of the church. But what does it really mean to say that God is love, and what are the implications for Christian faith?
Iwould suggest that the answer to this question begins with another question: What was God doing from all eternity before the creation of the universe?
In one sense this might seem an irritatingly speculative question. One early Christian reportedly responded to such an inquiry by quipping that God was preparing an unpleasant place for people who asked questions like this.
While this response is humorous and apparently full of wisdom in the face of some of the speculations that have been offered concerning the precise nature of God’s eternal life, it may also be shortsighted with respect to the belief that God is love.
When we affirm with scripture and the Christian tradition that God is love, we are not simply making a statement about the feelings of God toward creation and human beings who are made in God’s image. Instead, we are affirming something about the very nature of God’s being and actions.
God is love for all time — past, present and future — because God lives eternally in the communal fellowship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit as they participate in the giving, receiving and sharing of love. In other words, the life of God has been and will be characterized by love.
This divine love is found in the reciprocal interdependence and self-dedication of the Trinitarian members to each other. Father, Son and Spirit are bound together in the active relations of love throughout eternity. This love, expressed and received by the Trinitarian persons among themselves, provides a description of the inner life of God throughout eternity apart from any reference to creation.
In addition to enjoying the support of the biblical witness and the tradition of the church, love is an especially fruitful term for comprehending the life of God since it is an inherently relational concept. Love requires both subject and object.
Because God is a triune plurality-in-unity and unity-in-plurality, God comprehends both love’s subject and love’s object. Hence, the statement that God is love refers to both the internal Trinitarian fellowship among Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who together are the one God by virtue of their interdependent relationality, as well as to the external actions of God in creation and providence. Because God is love, God loves.
This understanding of God has profound implications for all matters of Christian faith and life. For instance, we can understand the act of creation as a reflection of the expansive love of God, whereby the triune God brings into being human persons, and establishes a relationship with them for the purpose of drawing them into participation in the divine fellowship of love.
In this way the love of God is expanded beyond Father, Son and Holy Spirit to include others. From this perspective, love is the central expression of Christian faith and extends even to our enemies. In the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven …”
Because Christians worship the God who is love, we must love all people including those who are our enemies. Nothing less than our witness to the gospel is at stake. If we ignore this most basic calling or fail to live it out in the world, we are not faithful disciples of Jesus Christ and are not practicing Christian faith no matter what else we may say or do.
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8 NRSV). NFJ
—John R. Franke, who received his doctorate from the University of Oxford, is theologian in residence at Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis and general coordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture Network.