Love is arguably one of the attributes of God that people most often twist and tarnish. R.C. Sproul says that “the problem in our culture is a view of God that carries with it a cheap view of love, and a sense of love by which all the other attributes of God are removed or stripped from his character and swallowed up by one attribute, which is the attribute of love. I don’t know how many times I’ve preached on God’s sovereignty or his justice and have had people come up to me and say, ‘But my God is a God of love.’”
The people who object in this way have a problem that’s fairly easy to identify. And I don’t mean that disparagingly – it’s a problem we have all likely been guilty of when it comes to our understanding of God’s attributes.
Sproul goes on in his lecture to identify this hang-up…which is that we often treat God as though his nature is divided into sections. One part love. One part justice. One part sovereignty. When we view God’s attributes like this, we are preventing ourselves from actually understanding them in truth. God is a whole, personal Being, and his attributes are only properly defined in relation with one another. His justice is not separated from his mercy, nor his transcendence from his knowability. In the same way, the love of God cannot be understood either on its own terms or according to human standards.
Our culture is going through another Romantic phase philosophically and artistically, and people everywhere are obsessed with the concepts of love, passion, and longing. The difficulty lies in the tendency of people to define the love of God more through a human understanding of the term than through a biblical understanding. They read verses like “God is love” (1 John 4:16) and build their entire perception of God on it; then they subject his other attributes to scrutiny whenever they seem to contradict with the worldly image of love that is typically being idolized. Such a “love” is manifested in emotional euphoria, obsessive infatuation, and the reckless abandonment of reason or wisdom.
I remember being asked to define love by my Sunday school teacher in tenth grade, and with good intentions, I replied, “Loving someone is wanting the best for them and putting them first.” If I remember correctly, I was praised by the teacher for this answer, but it would have been more helpful from a biblical standpoint to reject it…or at least request that I clarify myself. My definition did hint at the self-sacrifice involved in biblical love, but the last half of the phrase I recalled is what often trips us up culturally when confronted with true biblical love.
It’s at the root of people’s outrage when Christians speak against homosexuality or abortion, because from their perspective, love that doesn’t put its object on a pedestal and seek to fulfill its desires is not love at all. To the world, “love” that acts contrary to the happiness or satisfaction of its object is akin to hatred. But this approach to love turns into idolatry – it makes worldly love into a god, instead of seeing love as something that displays the full nature of God.
Even Christians get these definitions confused at times and are tempted to call God unloving when his will contradicts with their desires. This is why the love of God must be understood in light of its demonstration in Scripture.
Romans 5:8 is one of the most succinct passages in the Bible describing just what God’s love looks like. It says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
God’s gracious redemption of his people from their sin is the utmost demonstration of his love. As I mentioned in the beginning, such a love cannot be separated from his other attributes – his kindness, his patience, his mercy, his justice, and his holiness, to start with. He pours out undeserved delight, comfort, and provision on his people. From his fullness we receive grace upon grace (John 1:16).
I mean, think about it. How incredible it is that the God who created the universe is a loving God! I’ve pondered this a lot over the past few years, and I just can’t grasp its magnitude. It is already wonderful enough to recognize that we are created and sustained by him; the fact that he then cherishes us in such a personal way is beyond any good thing we could ever hope for. He owes us no allegiance – on the contrary, we are rebellious creatures who deserve to experience his wrath – yet because of Christ he has looked on us in love, and “because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-7).
Do you see it yet? God’s love is different from the world in its focus. The world’s love is hollow and cares only for what is temporary, whereas the love of God surpasses this by a margin I cannot even describe. In his love, God is concerned for our holiness. In his love, God is keen to provide for our earthly needs. And in his love, he has already provided for our greatest need, which is redemption and reconciliation with him . . . and he will sustain us in this redemptive love for all eternity to come.