Throughout this blog I have referred to “the unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting love of God.” Years ago, when I mentioned this kind of love, a church member asked, “Does God have to love? Can God choose not to love? And what happens if God chooses no longer to love us?” The person asking these questions had in mind the Flood Story in Genesis when God, sorry that She had even made us, decided to return creation to chaos and thus annihilate humankind except for one family.
Much of the anxiety in religion, especially in fundamentalist Christianity, is based on fear—the fear that God’s essence may not be love. After all, according to that theology, the vast majority of humans who have lived on this earth are doomed to everlasting torture in the fires of hell because they have not “accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior” in the narrow way demanded by fundamentalism. With such a “faith,” one might claim “to be saved” but can never feel “safe.” So, it’s understandable why some Christians might wonder about the extent and limits of God’s love.
The Christian faith is based on the Christ Event (the life, teachings, deeds, example, death, and resurrection of Jesus). That is our foundation. However, the full truth and all the implications of that event are still being unfolded. God is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, but there is more about this revelation of the Divine Self than any of us can fully comprehend. God can reveal only as much as we humans are willing and capable of understanding. The ongoing theology of the church reflects the continual process of unpacking the magnificent and every-expanding impact of that revelation over time. I would suggest that much of the church, even after 2000 years, has still not understood, much less appropriated, the profound truth that “God is love.” (I John 4:16)
If the eternal essence of God is love, then God cannot not love. God doesn’t choose to love. God is love. The Patristic theologians maintained that God cannot do anything that is contrary to God’s essence. They saw love, goodness, truth, beauty, bliss, and consciousness as one in the “being” of God and as indivisible. These “transcendentals” cannot be separated from one another. God is One and the essence of that Oneness is love. Therefore, God doesn’t have to choose to love. Everything about God is in concert with love and is determined by love. God never agonizes over whether to love someone or any part of this creation. God’s love is inviolate, eternal, and inevitable. And paradoxically, this love gives God a radical freedom. God doesn’t have to agonize over choosing whether to love because love is God’s eternal nature.
We have been created in the image of and after the likeness of God. And we are destined to “become partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4). We are called to love as God loves. Jesus presented a God who loves Her enemies and causes the sun to shine upon the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:43-48). We best reflect the divine nature when we love.
Jurgen Moltmann, one of my favorite theologians, writes the following:
The person who chooses has the torment of choice. Anyone who has to choose is continually threatened by evil, by the enemy, by injustice, because these things are always present as potentialities. True freedom is not “the torment of choice,” with its doubts and threats; it is simple, undivided joy in the good.
Freedom as it truly is, is by no means a matter of power and domination over a piece of property. So total power is by no means identical with absolute freedom. Freedom arrives at its divine truth through love. Love is a self-evident, unquestionable “overflowing of goodness” which is therefore never open to choice at any time. We have to understand true freedom as being the self-communication of the good. (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 55)
Of course, we human beings are, at most, in the process of partaking of this divine nature. We all have a long way to go. But perhaps we can learn from Moltmann’s insight. The more we choose love in our relating to others and God’s creation, the less we have to choose. With faithfulness and practice and through intentional communion with God, love becomes our second nature as we gradually becomes partakers of the divine nature. Through intention, dedication, and practice, love can become the default of our being. God does not have to become love because God is love. However, we have to become love in order to be like God. Over time love takes deeper roots in our being until it becomes more and more our natural response to life. As love claims our being, we can find that peace which passes understanding because we need not suffer the “torments of choice.” We have already made that choice of love so that we eventually become that choice. The first question we begin to ask in every part of life is, “What is the loving and compassionate thing to do?” (That question should be the primary question of every follower of Jesus and every congregation as they decide a course of action in this world. Every other question is at best secondary and much of the time irrelevant if not suspect in its intention.)
I know that I have a long way to go before I can experience the freedom of not having to choose in this world. For most of us, baby steps are needed. But God is love, and according to Paul in his magnificent love chapter of I Corinthians 13, love is patient. Of course, patience like love brings its own kind of suffering (the English words “passion,” “compassion,” and “patience” all come from the same Latin root pati which means “to suffer.”) Love includes a type of suffering which is not the same as the torments of choice. It is a willingness to endure the cost of love and does so gladly because it trusts that love is the most powerful force in the world and that love wins.
I find some encouragement in the passage I mentioned above from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-49). That passage ends with these words: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Luke’s parallel to this passage ends, “Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.” Luke recognizes the nature of God’s love is compassion” (a divine solidarity as God understands and acts to meet our needs). “Perfect” in Matthew’s Gospel does not mean “perfect” in the sense we so often assume. Elsewhere in the New Testament the word is translated “mature.” Maturity implies growth. For us, God-like love requires a maturing process. We grow into that love until at some point in time or eternity it becomes our second nature. But we can and must begin the process now. We can already begin to become “partakers of the divine nature,” and as we do so with love becoming our default in life, we will be free of the “torments of choice.” We will be free to love.
(The daily practice of reading I Corinthians 13:4-8a can remind us of the nature of God’s eternal love. Substitute “God” for “love” and reflect on how radical God’s love is when compared to the misleading images of the Divine so often communicated in our world. Then substitute your name for love. We can begin each day immersed in that love and seek to reflect it in this world God so loves.)