This is the second post in a series of posts from the booklet How is God Love? To read the series introduction, click here.
When we say that God is love, what are we saying? Where does this idea come from?
What are we really saying by saying that God is love?
There’s a lot to think about here, but here’s a way in: Have you ever stopped to think about the different ways we define love, and wondered how they apply to God? If God is love, does that mean he is…
• …a feeling of romantic attraction?
• …an affirming stance towards who we are?
• …help for what we need help with?
• …a big smile and a thumbs up?
• …all of the above?
See the problems here? Which one should we pick? Are they all true? And in the end, how could we know if we were right or not?
Christians have a quick answer to this question: The Bible says that God is love. (It’s in a letter known as 1 John, chapter 4, verse 8). And certainly, in our culture, that is where this idea has come from. In fact, it’s debatable whether or not any culture ever comes to the idea that God is love apart from exposure to the Christian scriptures. Research it for yourself.
That’s not to say that no other belief system has the idea of some sort of god with some sort of love; it’s just to affirm that the idea “God is love” is a specifically Christian idea, and comes exclusively from the Christian scriptures. And of course, it’s not just one verse or one book of the Bible that affirms that God is love. It’s the constant message of the entire scriptures, and it is brought to light and explained in the New Testament.
In other words, this idea that God is love is not simply incidentally related to Christian thought—it’s right at the heart of what Christians have to say to the world.
And so, the Christian thinking goes, if this idea of God came from the Bible, we will look to the rest of the Bible to tell us what it means that God is love.
What does the bible mean by saying “God is love”?
First, let’s have a fresh look at the actual wording of our sentence by looking at it in its original context:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
The author, the Apostle John, is intent on saying that true knowledge of God will lead people to be loving. He commands us to love, because love “comes from” God, and then he says that if someone doesn’t love, it shows they don’t know God. Why? Now at this point he could have said, “because God is loving,” or he could have repeated “because love comes from God,” but instead, he goes deeper. It’s not just that God has love coming out of him, or that he is loving, but, he is love. That is, love is something central to the essence of who he is. God is, in the very center of his being, love. And evidently, to know this God is to be transformed into being like him. Since he is love, clearly a person who doesn’t love doesn’t know Love himself.
But wait—what does this mean? God is love? We could stop here and say that it must mean that the most ultimate thing there is this energy, this positive will, this good force that lifts everything up…but then we’d be back outside of Bible territory. We’d be moving away from the very writings that told us that God is love in the first place. And we’d be totally misrepresenting what John meant when he wrote “God is love.”
We know this because we know who John was. He could never have meant that God was some impersonal force or energy. We can say this with confidence, because John himself wrote all kinds of things about who God was. In fact, in the very next sentence in his letter he writes: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” John’s story is that he met God, in human flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. So he knew that God is intensely personal, and could never be reduced down to a force or energy, even one as great as the force of love.[If you want to download the entire booklet to read, without waiting for the posts, you can get it here.]