He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:8)
There are three little words which are true treasures in the life of every believer – God is love. They encapsulate a truth that we should take hold of and keep close in our hearts. They are a source of comfort and assurance, a wonderful reminder of depth, height, and breadth we can reach in our relationship with Him. But most of the time, this particular verse is misused. We leave off the first phrase and simply live with the second. We ignore the implication and the challenge to servanthood and use these three words to excuse this critical shortcoming. We avoid the truth that the greatest proof we have that God is love is the stark, harsh, agonising reality of the cross.
Focusing only on the benefits of God is love limits our understanding.
While searching for images for today’s post, I ran the most obvious search – God is love. The search results were gratifying in the sense that there were literally millions to choose from. However, all of these could be categorised as ‘warm and fuzzy.’ I could not find a single one which provided a balanced and complete illustration of what God is love actually means. While I’m the first one to agree that these words are the most wonderful encouragement for Christians, and that we all need to take hold of them and hang on, the sad reality is that a skewed understanding – a focus only on the warm and fuzzy – is robbing us of the full blessings of knowing and living in the vast truth the words represent.
This misrepresentation of the truth that God is love is at the very root of many of the deceptive teachings that have infiltrated the church. It is the ‘scriptural’ foundation of the false doctrines that deceive Christians into believing that His love is unconditional (that He loves us as we are, which means we can do a we wish aren’t required to change) and that it essentially ‘exempts’ us from a large portion of Scripture which directly challenges these assumptions. The cross is romanticised, a notion which creates the false perception that we’re somehow special, and the servanthood of Jesus is skewed so that He and the Holy Spirit become spiritual vending machines to deliver the false promises of the prosperity gospels.
God is love can never be fully understood outside the context of knowing God.
We must reiterate that God is love, absolutely and completely. This is not contradictory. Our wrong assumptions or unbalanced perceptions do not alter the reality of who and what God is. If the Bible says that God is love, then that is exactly what He is. To live full Christian lives in the immeasurable power of this truth, we must take hold of this truth in its entirety, which means that we must take a step back and know God. Today’s verse points out that our ability to love others is a sure measure of how much we love God. That puts an entirely different perspective on these three little words.
This has two different but related implications. First, we will never truly know Him if we focus only on the fact that God is love and ignore the other truths about His nature and character. We cannot focus on God is love an exclude all the other attributes we are given in the Bible – holy, jealous, judgement… attributes that aren’t always that easy or comfortable to accept and live with. To understand the full measure of God’s love, we have to know Him as He really is. Unless we first accept that He brings judgement, for example, we cannot fully appreciate the extent of His love expressed through His mercy to us through the cross.
The attributes of God can never be separated from each other.
This second critical truth means that God’s nature and character is dynamic. His attributes work together in perfect balance – and we can be thankful that they do, because this is how the full measure of God is love is active in our lives. God is love does not exist on its own. It infuses and underpins every other attribute. As an example, it is at work even when He exercises judgement. The cross proves that. At the same time, however, every other attribute is also at work when God exercises love. The cross proves this also – at the time that God revealed His love in the most powerful way possible, He also exercised judgement on our sins, both individually and collectively.
The absolute truth is that God is love never exempts us, excuses us, or exalts us to privileged positions that make us ‘untouchable.’ The countless biblical references that are used to sustain wrong teaching need to be viewed always in the context of the cross. We may be ‘holy and set apart, a royal priesthood,’ but it is for service – for servanthood, just as Jesus was. This may, on the surface, seem to diminish the power of God’s love, a power that the world desperately needs. But it increases it. We who know God and know His love are given the awesome privilege of living as the body of His Son to disseminate through our lives the full measure of God’s love.
God is love is always made perfect in Christ.
Everything we are and do once we are born again is in Christ. It is centred on the cross, and the cross is the symbol of ultimate sacrifice and servanthood. Consider this – every single person who yearns to know the love of God does so because they desperately desire change. They do not want to be loved ‘just the way they are.’ This implies no change. It’s kind of a spiritual pat on the head that says ‘Never mind, I know you and your life are a mess, but I love you anyway – just the way you are. Nothing will change, but I love you.’ God is love, on the other hand, says ‘I know you and your life are I mess, but I love you despite the way you are. Get to know me, and I will change you and your life. I will transform and restore you, and will give you the most important job there is – to reflect my Son, who is the proof of my love, to the whole world.’
Is it any wonder that so many believers never learn to walk in the fullness of the abundance of God? Living in the reality that God is love means living in the reality that He is a holy God, that the weight of our sin and its consequences can only be removed through Christ, that He is a God who had to first judge us before He could show us mercy, and that being set apart means living as Jesus did on this earth – as a servant.
God is love has no power if it remains an easy platitude.
While these three little words may arguably be the most powerful we can ever take hold of – because they embody every single thing He does in and for us and infuse the cross and the resurrection – they can also be our greatest cop-out. God is love, but He is the kind of love that challenges us while it comforts us, it disciplines us while it restores us, it empowers us while it brings us to brokenness, and it humbles us while it transforms us. There is no greater honour in this world than to live as the body of Jesus. Today’s verse reminds us of that. Knowledge of God is something we grow into. When He puts Himself – His love – in us, it changes us. We begin to love others as Jesus did.
What do the words God is love really mean to and for us today? Do we stop at the comfort and encouragement they bring – getting stuck in the ‘warm and fuzzy, it’s all about me’ place? Or do we have the courage to desire the full measure of God’s love that challenges us to servanthood and to love the world as He did. When the real truth and power of God is love is revealed in our lives, this will be the result – not my dreams, my hopes, my ambitions, and my aspirations, but Your will be done. God is love is so utterly complete that ‘me, myself, I’ will no longer exist.
God loves us despite what and who we are, and this continues past our conversion and commitment to Christ. We cannot alter the truth that God is love, no matter what we do or don’t do. But to persist in a skewed understanding limits what we receive. Because He loves us, He respects our free will to choose our own way forward. Will we go for the full measure, or settle for the condensed version? What we choose will determine what we receive.
Lord, forgive us for diminishing the truth of You and Your love. Grant us the courage to look beyond the thing that are comfortable and agreeable, and to take hold of who and what You really are. Stir up a desire to know Your love in a new way, just as Jesus, our perfect example, did. Empower us to take a step into Your love, a step that will transform us, and enable us to make the right choice as the body of Your Son.