“God is Love?” Part-1
Text: Romans 8: 31, 37-39
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It’s almost Valentines Day! I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but Valentine’s Day does have a Christian heritage, at least within the Catholic church. There was a St. Valentine who was honored around 270 CE and there are other theories about Valentine’s Day replacing a pagan holiday and there were other people named Valentine even earlier in Christian history. Fact is, no one really knows the full history of Valentine’s Day or how the association with love and affection ever got started. But it is popular; it is estimated that about 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards will be exchanged this year around the world. That is second only to the exchange of Christmas cards, which is about double that number.
It seemed appropriate to introduce a new sermon series about love close to Valentine’s Day. Of course, I’m going to be focused on the love of God, which is entirely different than the kind of love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. That being said, I do think it is important to point out how different these two types of love really are and how easily we blur the lines that divide the two. In the English language, we have a bit of an inadequacy around the word love. It seems we have only one, while other languages have words that are more descriptive. I think most of us have heard about the Greek word agape and so on, so I’m not going to take any time chasing that idea. To know they are very different is enough for now. What I really want to focus on is the evidence of love.
Because the kinds of love we express are very different, the evidence of that love is also different. I think that many of us, and many who currently are not a part of Christianity, are confused about this thing we call God’s love. That confusion is a result of not acknowledging the right evidence of that love and blurring the lines that divide God’s love from other forms of love. Over the next few weeks we will be exploring this idea. It is my intention to run this series from now all the way through Lent as we prepare for the Easter celebration. It is also my hope that through the process of clearly identifying what the love of God actually entails, it will transform and enlighten our Easter celebration.
I mentioned that many of us fail to acknowledge the evidence of God’s love. This is not because we choose to ignore it or we want to deny its existence, I think it is primarily because we don’t know where to look. Here’s the problem, at least as I see it, the only experience of love we have as human beings is between human beings.
Think about this. When we are children, at least for the vast majority of us, we had parents that loved us. This is a unique kind of love experience, but it is still a human experience. As we grew up we may have had a “crush” on someone in Junior High or High School, but eventually we found someone that we actually fell in love with and we got married. I know that many of us are no longer married or are married a second time or more, but the idea remains the same. When we fall in love as adults and decide to marry, it is a love that exists between two human partners. This is also true of same gender marriages and relationships, the love expressed is a human love.
For some of us the marriage then begins to produce children. This is another experience altogether. It seems like it should be a rare thing to experience the desire to strangle someone you love, but while our 3 boys were teenagers, it seemed like it happened several times a day. Still the experience we have as parents that love our children is a human experience.
Our entire lives have been an experience of love from one human perspective to another human perspective. It’s no wonder that when we look for the love of God that we seek the evidence of that love in human terms and in human ways. That is what we have been taught that love is. That is what our experience has been.
When we look for evidence of God’s love in human terms it is little wonder that we are disappointed a good share of the time. I think most of us have a strong enough faith that these disappointments don’t become huge stumbling blocks, but deep down I think every one of us have had thoughts or questions about the love of God. For example, all the suffering in the world would seem to indicate that the love of God does not exist for a large percentage of the world’s population. If we think of God as a parent, a father or a mother, it seems inconceivable or completely out of character to allow the kind of suffering we see around the world. As parents of our own children we would not allow that level of suffering, or at least we would do what we could to mitigate the suffering.
So we are faced with some important questions about the collective suffering of God’s children. Some of those questions sound like this: Why does God allow this kind of suffering? If God loves us then why are children starving? If God loves us then why are people born disabled or disfigured? If God loves us then why are there wars and ethnic cleansing campaigns and human trafficking?
The conclusions that one can easily come to seem to fall into two categories. Category number one is that God could change all these things but chooses not to. I don’t know about you, but that is not the kind of God I know or understand. That is not the God I am in relationship with. Category number two is that God would like to change these things, but is powerless to do so. Now we have a God that isn’t really a God because that God has limited power. A God that wants to but can’t is a limited, handcuffed God that is of little value. What kind of a God is a powerless God?
About this time in our thought process we have a tendency to begin to recite all the old clichés we have heard ever since our first year in Sunday School when we were five or six years old. Old clichés like “God works in mysterious ways” or “you just have to have faith” or the one that really bugs me is “God will never give you more than you can handle”. I’m sorry but platitudes like this simply are not helpful. We take hard legitimate questions and just sweep them under the rug. To rely on clichés to answer some of life’s toughest questions is a very dismissive attitude. The truth is that if God didn’t ever give us more than we can handle, then no one would ever commit suicide. That is obviously not the case. Mental illness and suicide rates, particularly in Idaho and our part of Idaho are significantly higher than the rest of the country. Once again, we are faced with tough questions. Where is the love of God when someone takes their own life?
I spent some time earlier talking about how our perspective and experience of love has always been from a human point of view. When we begin to think about the love of God, it is easy, even natural for us to interject some human qualities into that though process. We project our humanness onto God. I know I have used this word before and I wish there was a different word that was less intimidating, but there is not. When we project our humanness onto God it is called having an “anthropomorphic” image of God. We change God into a human like creation. I think most of our struggles to understand God stem from this anthropomorphic image of God that most of us maintain.
For example, a few minutes ago I was talking about the suffering in the world. I said that the evidence of that suffering left us with two choices; either God chooses to allow the suffering, or God would like to eliminate the suffering but is powerless to do so. Without you realizing it, what I presented to you were two very human choices. Language like God “wants to”, or God “chooses to” are uniquely human responses. They are emotional responses. God “wants to” eliminate the suffering is an emotional response. It is a human response. God “chooses” to allow the suffering is also a very human response.
If God is not some sort of glorified super-human being, then those choices for God become invalid. If we look beyond our anthropomorphic image of God to something else, then some of our struggles to understand God are diminished. When we attach human emotions and human responses to God, then we begin to set ourselves up for trouble. The trouble we encounter with this super-human image of God is most apparent when we begin to talk about the love of God. Because our experience of love is so deeply steeped in the human experience, it is hard for us to look at the love of God without the human emotion attached to it. Our human experience of love is deeply emotional. What if God has no emotion? What does the love of God look like that doesn’t have any emotion? What does the love of God look like that doesn’t make choices? What does the love of God look like that doesn’t say yes or no when we pray?
There are those who claim to be agnostic or even atheists that say the love of God is non-existent, it is all in our imaginations. I think they reach this conclusion because they are looking for the love of God in all the human places you would expect to find it. It’s an easy mistake to make.
So for the next few weeks we will be exploring this idea of the love of God, but we will be exploring it from a non-human point of view. I would invite you over the next week to explore your own thoughts and your images you have about God. Are they human in nature? Do you attach human elements of varied emotional responses to God? How often do you refer to God as he, or him, or his or even her?
Stay tuned, there is more to come. For now, that is enough food for thought.
Go in peace.