This morning during my quiet time, I read Matthew 14-18. I’ve been reading larger chunks of scripture at a time in the morning, and getting a dose of the big picture of God’s plan. It’s refreshing for my soul, seeing the wonderful character of Jesus, the amazing work of the Spirit in the world around him, and the glorious plan of the Father as it unfolds to rescue a wayward people form death, brought on by their own rebellion. I was captivated by the love that Jesus displays again and again, and I began thinking of all the times the Father shows his love and speaks of who and what he loves. He transfigured Jesus on the mountain of Moriah, and then said this is my beloved Son, and I am pleased with him (I’m paraphrasing here a little bit). Jesus shows his tremendous love for people, both Jews and Gentiles, and his disciples, through so many different acts. He feeds multitudes who just came to hear him and have their sick healed by them. He casts out demons who afflict children. He teaches his disciples and encourages them in their growth and rebukes them when they still don’t get it (So that they will get it.)
I began writing out how this made me feel and what it made me think about. God is love, as we often say. But what does that mean? What is love in the first place? Is it an excited feeling brought on by dopamine rushing into the brain? Is it a choice? Is it affirming someone’s choices no matter what?
I think it’s too easy to say that God is love and then, even in our evangelical circles, to begin projecting what we think that means onto God instead of letting him define the terms. This is a difficult thing to do in our own minds though, for we want to be in control. Like the Pharisees, who demanded a sign from Jesus all so that they could be the judges and determine whether or not he really was the Messiah, we want to have the authority to define the terms. But God doesn’t give us that option. He’s the author of the universe, the creator of everything, from the bacteria in water, to your closest friend in all their complexities. God is love, but he gets to define what that means. It may be more clear to say: Love is an aspect of the character of God, and anything that is contrary to his character, is not love. If that is true, than the only way to understand what love is, is to look at the words and actions of God as he reveals them in his word. Jesus made it even clearer:
“If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
His whole life was a life of love. He had compassion on people, he healed them, he taught them, and ultimately, he laid down his life for them.
This is where it gets weird. The more I think about it, the more I realize how strange that sounds. How could God be loving and yet punish his own Son to appease his wrath? Couldn’t he just forgive people and be done with it? This is a difficult thing to comprehend. I find it tempting to just work around it and say that it’s simply interpreted wrong. God didn’t really need to do that. He can’t be loving and yet wrathful. Can he?
I think this is where we come to a crossroads of what we believe about the Bible. Either it is God’s divine word-his revelation of himself that is without error-or it’s rubbish to be discarded. I have to take the first option. However, that means that I cannot escape this reality, nor can I escape Jesus’ own words: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” If we want to understand what God is like, we look at Jesus. Jesus is radically compassionate towards people, yet he also talks about Hell and wrath more than he talks about Heaven. He is extremely harsh with hypocrites and legalists, who hold onto their power so that they can earn God’s favor. He calls them out and says they are whitewashed tombs. He warns people to turn from all manner of sins so that they won’t be cast out by God. So what is love? If God is the same God that Israel worshipped in the Old Testament, which he is, what does that mean? This is the same God who promised Jesus, from Genesis to Malachi. This is the same God who destroyed two cities for their sinfulness, and commanded his people to wipe out the Cannanites. It is the same God who chose a people, who had no merit to deserve his favor, to pour out his love on them. God is radically loving towards the Israelites, and even to the Gentiles. He blesses people through Israel. And even when Israel is blasphemous to him, when they begin sacrificing children to a pagan god, he promises that he will bring them back to himself. It won’t be without discipline, but it will still happen. God is love, but he also describes himself as Holy, as jealous, and compassionate. How can these things coexist?
I think firstly, we have to understand that He is God and we are not. We are finite humans with limited knowledge and comprehension. There is so much we can do, and yet so much we cannot do. It is arrogant to judge God by the standards we would use for humans. He’s beyond that. He can be jealous for his own glory and punish people for not glorifying him, because he is Holy. There is no sin in him. Period. There is no blemish, no imperfection, and no inkling of unrighteousness. He is jealous for his own glory because there is no being more perfect and worthy of worship than him. To worship something else is to set our affections on something imperfect that will fail us.
Second, we have to let him define the terms. God tells us what love is. It is not governed by how we feel, because we didn’t invent it in the first place. This only makes sense if we realize that God is both consistent and worthy of being worshipped. He sets the rules for what is right and wrong because he is completely good. If I set the rules, than those rules are imperfect because my character is flawed and tainted by sin. God however, is not limited in such a way. He gives Israel the law as an expression of his character. He tells them to not glean their fields all the way to the edge so that the poor can eat, because he loves poor people. He tells the owner of an ox that gets out of control and kills another one to repay that owner because he cares about the wellbeing of people. He punishes his Son in our place because if he does not punish sin, than he is not just, and we have no reason to worship him.
God says that sin cannot dwell in his presence for it is foreign to him. If he does not punish sin, than he doesn’t really care about people, for sin hurts people. Yet out of his incredible love, he chose to adopt people, who are sinful, and take the debt owed by their sin upon himself and pay it for us. Jesus said that he willingly laid down his life for his sheep. He chose to bear God’s wrath because God did not want his people to be destroyed by his righteous wrath. He loved us and because he cannot deny his own character, paid for our sin himself. That’s love. It doesn’t sweep evil under the rug and pretend it’s not there. It seeks the good of others. It deals with the hurt caused by sin.
Think about it. God destroyed the power of sin, which is death, by sacrificing his Son, and then raising him from the dead, so that underserving people would be able to benefit from relationship with him. He did this because God cannot have sin in his presence. He destroyed it, so that we could be with him. That’s a lot better than a God who is constricted by human limitations and so he simply forgives sin, but doesn’t really do anything with it. That doesn’t sound like a God who is worthy or worship to me. I want my Father to destroy the very thing that is killing me in the first place. God loves us enough to rescue us where we are, despite our terrible sin, and he loves us enough to not just leave us there but to pull us out of the grip of sin. Jesus came so that we wouldn’t have to be stuck where we are. He came to free us. Jesus said that he came so that we would have life abundantly. Those are the words of a God who loves us, because we didn’t do anything to deserve him treating us so affectionately.
The words of one of my favorite songs go like this: “The Love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen could ever tell. It goes beyond the highest stars, and reaches to the lowest hell.” We can’t really grasp the depths of God’s love because it’s so far beyond us. Yet we feel it because he has expressed it to us. He calls us his children. That’s love.