God is love. A truer statement was never spoken, but it necessarily begs the age old question “what is love?”
The church is called to answer this question and speak of God. However, as churches continue to splinter along theological, ethical, and missional lines it is worth asking both if and how the church can speak about God and love in a unified way.
Given the level of confusion within the church, we need to admit that we do not all know what we mean when we say God is love. God is love. God is truth. God is merciful. While all true, I fear that these phrases in isolation contribute to ongoing confusion in the church and can hinder a life of discipleship.
The primary difficulty with saying “God is love” in isolation is that we generally gravitate towards the more palatable passages of Scripture to find this God of love. We are perfectly content to point to passages where Jesus welcomes little children and multiplies bread for thousands of people and boldly proclaim “God is love!”
We have a much more difficult time proclaiming “God is love” when God banishes people from gardens because of their disobedience or sends a flood over the earth because of people’s wickedness.
God is not divided. Somehow all of God’s actions attest to his love, and if we pick and choose the passages we like to define a loving God we are making God of our own image.
If we are to speak of God faithfully, I think we must speak specifically. Let’s take “truth” for an example. If we say God is truth we speak rightly, but anyone who lives in our current political moment knows that the concept of truth is under assault. When my neighbors use the word truth I have a general understanding of what they mean, but I’m doubtful that we could all converse for very long without running into fundamental disagreements over the nature of truth. To communicate “God is truth” with any clarity necessitates that both people understand the subject and the predicate. We must both know what we mean when we say “God” and we must further know what we mean when we say “truth.”
As Christians, we don’t start with concepts like truth and then work our way to God. Instead, we begin with God because we have come to interpret the world and all of creation through the person who says I am the truth. If we learn who God is, we will subsequently come to know what truth is. If we define and come to know the subject we will subsequently come to know the predicate. The problem with beginning our knowledge of God with the statement “God is truth” is that we must necessarily begin with the predicate (truth) and work backwards towards an understanding of the subject (God).
At its worst, defining God through virtues such as truth allows us to make God into our own image and intensifies our echo chambers. Both Christians on the right and the left boldly proclaim “God is love,” but how this is manifested differs drastically.
Pick your topic or ethical question and I am sure that “God is love” undergirds the different conclusions that Christians hold. If we wish to speak meaningfully about a loving God, we will have to do better than simply stating that God is love.
The situation is pretty dire. In our attempts to speak about God, the potential for idolatry lurks at every corner as we mold God into our culturally constructed linguistic frameworks.
Is there another way?
If we are to recover a sense of God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s truth, a starting point would be to heed the example of Robert Jenson and speak about the God who is found in the participles. Jenson suggests that God is not first known through propositions (i.e. God is omnipresent, God is love), but is first known through the narrative of Scripture.
Within the Scriptures, we find the verbing God. Knowledge of God begins with the phrase “God is the one who” with the many actions of God continually filling in that blank. God is the one who creates within community. God is the one who liberates Israel from Egypt. God is the one flips tables in the temple. God is the one who cries out “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” God is the one who raises Jesus from the dead, bringing something out of nothing yet again. As the examples begin to compound, the discussion gets trickier. Paradoxes arise, texts must be held in tension, and the water gets murkier before it gets clearer.
This way of speaking about God is not easy. It is not quick and it is not predictable. And yet, as communities search the Scripture they are bound to find a verbing God that shatters their own preferences and affinities — not just the preferences and affinities of those over there.
When God encroaches on our preferences we would rather fall back on “God is love” to get our way than take the way of Jesus who says “pick up your cross and follow me.” Idolatry is sneaky and always finds a way to justify itself. The challenge to know and follow this verbing God is ultimately an invitation into prayer and a life guided by wisdom and humility. It is a quest of our minds and hearts that will never be complete because a verbing God is always placing a claim on our lives and upsetting our well organized systems of religion.
As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Great Divorce “A sum can be put right: but only by going back til you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” Perhaps by starting over and hearing the story of Scripture with fresh ears we will be able to more faithfully discern the movements of the Spirit.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to children. We will always be revisiting our ethics because the God of love is known by his love in ten thousand ways. It is a burden that can only be carried by the humble, and an invitation into the life of discipleship.