The Law of Love: God is Love

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

1 John 4:7-8

I think it has been sufficiently observed that the trap of legalism has long been sprung upon much of the Christian faith, in various forms. In most cases it boils down to an idea that, at the heart of it all, there can be a moral judgment called "right" or "wrong" assigned to any particular action under heaven, and that anyone doing or thinking something "wrong" will always offend God, and anyone doing something "right" will please him (or at least avoid offending him). Some variations also include a "gray" area, although tends to introduce more anxiety than nuance.

I don't perceive this to be particular to one tribe. For as much as you may dismiss religion in the form of "reading Harry Potter is always wrong," you will also find those who will state as dogmatically "capital punishment is always wrong," and equally lacking nuance.

That is not to equivocate too strongly. I do believe that the more self-described 'progressive' groups do have an underlying religious system which more soundly supports such a statement as 'capital punishment is always wrong.' My argument is not that any type of action must be justified in some particular circumstance; in departing from dualistic thinking I am not also closing the door on moral absolutes in general. But I do not believe that everyone who expresses such a belief as "capital punishment is always wrong" is aware of the deeper moral system which undergirds it; in other words, I do think legalistic (or dualistic, "right vs wrong") thinking has a tendency to emerge even when the root of the religion derives its morality from subtler stuff. In fact, I think this characterizes the arc of western Christian faith as a whole.

My own Evangelical religious tribe could very easily be likened to the Pharisees of old, replete with purity mindset accompanied by a deep-seated terror and distrust of God's mercy. While it is difficult to see the water we swim in, coming up for air once in a while lays it bare. And yet, while I was growing up, you could rightly say that the anthem of my congregation was "The Greatest Commands," a song which reiterates verbatim the words of 1 John 4:7-8 in four-part harmony alongside other similar passages extolling the supremacy of love. We sang it so often, starting so early in my childhood, that it prevented me from actually reading and attempting to understand the meaning of the verse until now.

The verse revolves around one intensely meaningful statement: God is love. If these three words had not been placed together in the Bible, I doubt they would be acceptable theology to much of my denomination. Thanks be to God that John wrote them, because now we sing them together often--even if we do not investigate their meaning.

The theological scandal here is an attempt to equate or define God by any other thing. This is evident in the deflections we make to avoid this incredible implication. When challenged over this verse, an apologist is likely to minimize its language by reframing it as a rhetorical device; you might hear one respond by asserting that God is also wrath, or God is also power, and so forth. But the problem here is obvious: Scripture doesn't generally speak this way. While metaphor is used ("our God is a consuming fire"), it is abstract imagery used to point to a characteristic (for example, God's holiness); not a blunt statement of the characteristic ("love") itself. If John had wanted to call God loving, he would have said "God is loving," as we also say "God is just" or "God is merciful" or "God is holy." To try to minimize the language here is just a dodge.

God is love. Taken alone, even if it is not minimized, it's at least inscrutable. What does it mean for God to be love? Is the converse true (could it be said "love is God")? Many would shudder at that, and I think reasonably so. Our concept of love is too small to do God justice. Then does God include love, and if so, what manner of inclusion? Does God include love like the body includes the heart? Or like a diamond includes carbon? Or like the Trinity includes the Spirit? I think this is perhaps a better approach, but I also believe that our concept of love can grow into something more resembling God, if we allow it.

Happily, these three words are not given to us in isolation. They are preceded by both positive and negative signposts to the underlying meaning, and both have to do with personal behavior. It's easy to read these verses as simple endorsement of loving behavior and opposition of unloving behavior. But when we read them backward from the theological bombshell of "God is love," perhaps they are more meaningful.

Whoever loves is born of God and knows God. These are two very significant things! To be born of God is to be like God, but this concept has surely been well-explored in Christian thinking of all kinds. To know God is perhaps less considered. As many surely have heard, the word here used for "know," ginōskō, among other meanings, can be a sexual idiom. We are not here referring to knowing of God, but knowing him intimately; person-to-person, not person-to-object. So what are we hearing? That the act of loving is a method by which we meet God in relationship. That perhaps we can say that God is present in every act of love. This is a foundational concept.

The second statement adds a small but vital point: the inverse is also true; whoever does not love does not know God. This addition clarifies that loving is not just a manner of knowing God, or even the best method of doing so, but the only way to be in relationship with God. If that seems like a leap, return again to the statements and consider them logically together. An inversion of a statement is logically equivalent to the contrapositive of that statement. In other words, by stating "whoever does not love does not know God," John is also stating "whoever knows God, loves"--which is a similar, yet distinct statement from "whoever loves knows God." It further narrows the truth and ties love and relationship with God inextricably together. Whoever loves knows God, whoever knows God loves. These two statements describe one and only one universal qualification for knowing God.

To even further put the idea of "God is also wrath" to bed, we see clearly in this distinction that whatever else we may be able to say "God is," love has a place of superiority. We might even infer that love is the true essence of God's character. For even supposing we know justice, or holiness, or wrath; according to the logic of 1 John, we would still not know God. Those who love and they alone may know God, for God is love. This distinction propels love to a class of its own, beyond the reaches of inventions like "God is justice;" no other attribute can be equated exclusively with direct knowledge of God. Equating God and love actually begins to look like a more reasonable interpretation.

At this point, if I were to try to rephrase what John is saying in these verses, it might look like this:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love is the essence of God. Whoever loves is like God, because love is God's nature. Whoever loves is in deep communion with God; they feel as God feels and act as God acts. But whoever does not love is a stranger to God; they have not met God because they have not loved. It is impossible to know God without love, for love is the essence and spirit of God; when we know love we also know God.

I think the implications of this theology are significant and worth delving into, specifically in relation to a few key religious questions: who is God? What is God's will? What does it mean to follow that will? And what are the consequences of failing to do so?

What I hope to expand upon is the idea that the Christian religion, at its heart in Scripture, has answers to these questions which are far deeper than modern, popular, dualistic legalism.