Disclaimer: pardon the grumpy tone and naming names, but I feel like someone has just tried to rob me of all my joy.
God is love ≠ love is God.
When the apostle John spoke of love as a predication of God’s being, it was not, either grammatically or theologically, independently intelligible. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). In other words, John speaks of God’s quality of love as a way of determining a quality of godlessness in humans. It was the second part of his discussion on how to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” since “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). There is a godless way of speaking and a godless way of living. Speaking of God without reference to Christ renders the speaker a false prophet inspired by the “spirit of the antichrist” (1 Jn. 4:3). Those who are unloving are not particularly inhumane but particularly human, because to love is the exception in this world, not the rule, and therefore points to something extrinsic to this world, namely that we have come to believe “not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10).
When the prophet Rob Bell and his disciples speak of love as a predication of God’s being, on the other hand, it is both grammatically and theologically independent from the rest of what John the Apostle and the Holy Bible says about both God and false prophets.
I only want to point out that the trend to speak of the love of god as an abstract and totalizing quality against which all other statements of god must be measured and judged is a textbook example of idolatry—imprisoning god to a human ideal and thereby denying him the most self-evident quality of his being: freedom.
The love of God is not that eternal quality in the nature of God that is commensurate to some eternal quality in the nature of Gandhi or homosexuals or tax collectors or the woman at the well or Judas or heterosexuals or republicans or born-again Christians or, worst of all, me; some inherent quality in us that makes God’s love for us our just reward, as though we should have expected nothing else, as though there is anything less surprising about the love of God than there is about the death of God.
Love does not win. Grace wins–for the God who is perfect love in himself to extend himself to we who are love’s negation, love’s form had to exteriorize itself in the form of its negation in order to embrace its negation in its ‘deeper still’ infinite depths. Hence: the Incarnation.
But even grace has become a prostitute in service of the increasingly watery and vapid English god-speak.
The prophetess Nadia Bolz-Weber assures that “grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word” (Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint). The cross itself, for B-W, was not really a necessary instrument for our salvation so much as it was a superfluous gesture of divine love, like two dozen roses from heaven. It is truly unfortunate that she was not there to speak on behalf of God when Jesus pled for “any other way” to avoid the inconvenience of those roses coming with so many damned thorns (Mt. 26:39).
In any case, for those of us who struggle with our self-esteem or feel that perhaps our “failings” might render us in some way deficient or needy, like something is wrong with us, we can rest assure that the cross exists to wrap the world up in a big, fluffy, divine hug and tell us that we are just fine the way we are and we better not let anyone tell us we need to change, especially some bastardized Son with bleeding hands, what with all his suggestiveness about our imperfections such that we might expect following him requires some self-denying change, as though there is almost certainly something wrong with us.
But God’s love, which comes as grace, and God’s grace, which comes as a cross, refuses to give us God’s Son without first painting the sky black. If we are going to believe what is good about the news of Jesus Christ, we must swallow what is bitter about the news about, say, Brian McLaren: that not even the nicest guy in the universe is anything remotely like God. Those who have sought but not discovered the wickedness of their hearts have simply given up too soon. One only needs to reconsider that selfishness is the most antithetical quality to the God who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it happens to be the most ubiquitous quality in the man who exists as a man.
God’s love in the cross of Christ does not suggest the loveworthiness of God’s creatures. It suggests quite alarmingly that the space the cross inhabits in this world is so utterly vacant of love that it could only be filled by an absolute source, no longer hanging on any human contingency, hanging all human contingency on public display for the world to see the truly human possibility. It is the single-most pessimistic statement about the nature of humanity, within which we discover the spitefulness of God’s love, which comes to us only as an imposition, as a nuisance, as a pearl in pig-slop or a fly in soup. It comes to us as the gift we would not receive and the gift we would not offer, the apology we have never uttered and the forgiveness for which we have never asked. Christ is the soldier who disarmed himself and crossed enemy lines holding a white flag on a wooden pole. And we are the enemy who took full advantage of the whiteness of his flag and the woodenness of the pole.
The closest thing in measure that we might use as an analogue to God’s love in this world is our hatred of it. We hate it in the way we hate all the good qualities of a kind boss who truly deserves the position we obsessively desire. But thankfully, God’s love finds no equal in its opposites. God’s love is not a reflex cooperating to some impersonal balancing principle of energy inherent in the universe, the yin to our yang. It is, instead, a lavish overflow of his own infinite resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, his decision to act according to who he is in spite of who we are. It is his choice to love us because he is God not because we are humans. And we receive love not because we have the capacity to receive love but because he has the capacity to enforce it, not just with a volume that fills the human void but with a gravity that bursts our dammed resistance. Grace is the bottomless logic of both the content God’s love and our capacity to receive it.
“God has demonstrated his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:8-10).
It is only if we understand ourselves in this way and God in that way that we can understand love in any way. And only when we understand that will we be able to come together to celebrate more than the self-congratulatory occasion of our coming together (Gen. 11). Indeed, only then will we be able to truly “rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11).