What does it mean to say that God is loving? I think I would talk about what I think love is, which is impossible to do definitively, but I think can be done constructively. Then, based on what I say about love, I think what I’d say about God being loving will be readily apparent.
1. Love exists in relationship.
2. Love passionately seeks the best for the beloved.
3. Love creates selfhood through selflessness.
4. Love is both a helpless reaction and a conscious decision.
5. Love is victorious.
Love exists in relationship. You don’t love in a vacuum. You can’t love something you’ve never experienced. Love attenuates through separation. Love is fueled by proximity and interaction, by movement back and forth, by mutuality. It is possible to ‘love’ an object – say, in my case, Thai food or sharks, but this is not the kind of love I’m talking about, because God is not an object and neither are we. So God’s love is inextricable from God’s relationship, both in the trinitarian sense and in the sense of God’s relationship to us. In other words, if God is loving then God cannot love while remaining separated, or wholly other.
Love passionately seeks the best for the beloved. This is a fundamental difference between love and infatuation – infatuation focuses on one’s own gratification, on the wonderful feeling that being with the ‘beloved’ brings. Love, on the other hand, seeks the best for the beloved. The value of the lover is caught up in the beloved. The happiness and contentment and pleasure and fulfillment of the lover is inextricable from that of the beloved. If one suffers, both suffer. If one delights, both delight. This functions on a basic biochemical level in the brain even as it functions in the metaphorical or poetic sense. So God’s love is inextricable from our own blessedness, our own fulfillment. God’s love is God’s desire for what is best for us. Simiarly, God’s love is God’s connection to us. We reject God through sin and God is wounded. We lash out and God bleeds. One who is impervious cannot love.
Furthermore, love does no harm. I cannot love you and willfully hurt you. I cannot love you and beat you. I cannot love you and abuse you. Violence is an absolute failure of love, and never an expression of it.
Love creates selfhood through selflessness. It is the great paradox of love that in surrendering in the above way to the beloved, we find ourselves at last. The ego is a prison, and love is the key, the way out. In making ourselves last, we find that we are first. In dying, we find that we come truly alive. In emptying ourselves, we find fullness. This paradox is embodied in Christ, at the very core of our witness. It is fundamental to love and I think it is fundamental to God. “I” am truly who I am when the “I” disappears. Love is the thing that puts the I to death, leaving only a vaster Thou. We are made perfect in love.
Love is both a helpless reaction and a conscious decision. This realization came out of talking to friends who were getting married and through my thinking about my own decision to get married. I realized that a lot of love, especially early on, is just a helpless reaction. You are smitten. You are attracted, with almost no control over who will attract you. You are chosen out, overcome, overwhelmed and overthrown. The chemical cascade is launched and inexorably leads to the experience of attraction. This reaction fades, however, over time. It fades in intensity and changes in nature – this is necessary. Can you imagine feeling the way you feel when you first fall in love all the time? So then comes the second part of what love is – the part where you choose love.
This is best represented by marriage vows. You do not promise to always be smitten – you have no control over that, and so it would be dishonest to do so. You promise, in essence, to choose love. To return to love again and again. I think that theologically, the first kind of love can be likened to “calling”, and the second kind of love can be likened to “covenant”, and both are part of what true love is. With only the first kind, the intensity never lasts, and you move from love to love promiscuously, never finding fulfillment. With only the second kind, it becomes a drudgery of merely fulfilling requirements, something you force yourself to do because it is right in a kind of Kantian martyrdom. True love is both.
And yes, I think God is smitten with us. Not because of our moral greatness or any perfection, but for the same unreasonable reasons that we love anyone, especially our children, despite profound flaws. I also think that God’s love is expressed through commitment to love us even when we’re entirely unloveable. I’d say that in its obsession with the second kind of love and blindness to the first kind, Calvinism is handicapped in this area, but that’s another blog post.
Love is victorious. This is a faith statement. I say it because that is the world I want to live in, and because I cannot be certain it is not true. It is possible to overcome hatred with love, and I therefore take it as imperative that I seek to do so. That is the arc of salvation history, of which I am a small part – the final victory of love. I also say it because this is my experience. I have not experienced anything more powerful than love – including deep hatred, including agony, including loneliness. Sometimes, you know, its a close call, but I’m willing to say it nontheless – love is victorious. And in God’s ultimate love, God is ultimately victorious. God’s victory is the victory of God’s love, that the love and goodness in which creation was born is still the end to which it moves.