Many years ago I found myself visiting a friend’s church in rural Michigan. It was a modest church in my denomination and the people were welcoming. There during the Sunday School hour I was bewildered to hear for the first time God’s people talking about God’s love with great fear. It was like God’s love was a trap, a mirage. The speaker was clearly angry, talking about people who want to preach God’s love. “Of course,” he said dismissively, “but we have to preach the Law first!” Heads nodded in agreement. The message was clear: God’s love is not an appropriate topic for unbelievers. They need to hear about His wrath and justice first.
Recently I detected a similar sentiment visiting another church in my denomination. This was the pastor speaking from the pulpit, and he was much more cautious in how he put it. He had recently debated someone who was saying that God is love, and the pastor took him to Scripture to temper this man’s opinion. It was a comment in passing; he didn’t go into detail. But I sensed in that congregation that same fear about the love of God.
Since I was a visitor in both cases, I didn’t speak up. And I’m inclined to believe these men—especially the pastor—wouldn’t want to be caught dead denying that God is love. But there is a tension here that I think needs to be addressed: what’s wrong with the love of God?
First of all, let’s be crystal clear: GOD IS LOVE. I know this because it’s in the Bible.
“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8 ESV)
Or in 1 John 4:16, it says “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (ESV)
I could go on to cite other passages about the lavish love of God, His steadfast love, and how it is tied to His mercy and forgiveness and grace, but the point should already be clear: if you deny God is love, you deny Scripture. Period.
The question therefore is not “Is God love?” The question is what does that mean?
Some people think “God is love” means there is no judgment. Or that everyone will be saved. Or that God will shower us with material blessings. Or… well, you can kind of fill in the blank. “God is love” sounds to some like a golden ticket, a blank check, a genie at your service. If God really loved me, He would _______.
That’s not the picture the Bible paints for us. God is provoked by idolatry. God allows difficult situations to test people. God is even described as hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let the Israelites leave Egypt. Once He even said He was sorry He ever made mankind.
God can be a bit complicated!
For many people, that’s a tough pill to swallow. It’s too much tension; it’s contradiction. Could a loving God allow evil and pain? What about eternal torment? Does God choose who will be saved so that you have no say in the matter? These are truly VERY tough questions. And for many—maybe even you—it seems impossible that this God is love. So instead, we embrace the God we like—the “God is love” part—and wave off the rest.
So is God’s love a dangerous doctrine? No, I don’t think it is. Taking anything out of context is the problem. You cannot boil God down to just one or another truth, you can’t pick and choose the Bible verses you like. The danger is misinterpreting the truth.
I think I can understand why my brothers and sisters in Christ would want to distance themselves from false views of God, but I think shying away from the truth is the wrong approach. We cannot apologize for God’s love. We cannot hide God’s love—we dare not. God IS love, and thank God this is so! It is a beautiful truth to be shouted from the rooftops. It is light that cannot be hidden. The Bible doesn’t often say “God is” anything. This is a big deal!
Instead of tempering the idea that God is love, fearing it, running from it, hiding it, we ought to embrace it, proclaim it, and run to it! Our first response should not be “yes, but” but “yes, amen!” Of course, what follows might get messy, but that’s ok. That can’t be avoided either. That being said, I don’t think God’s love and judgment are opposed; I think His judgment is loving. I think there is love in His wrath and jealousy. They aren’t competing values in God’s heart, they work together perfectly, one through the other.
I’m not pretending to have the secret formula here. There are tough questions to be asked, with no easy answers. And where God has not been clear, let’s be cautious, not pretending to know more than we do. But “God is love” is about as clear as it gets, and far be it from us to muddy the water!