qualification, without ifs, ands, or buts, God's word tells us, straight as
a left jab, that love is the greatest thing there is
(1 Corinthians 13: 13). Scripture
never says God is justice or beauty or righteousness, though he is just and
beautiful and righteous.
But "God is love"
(1 John 4:8).
Love is God's essence,
his whole being. Everything in him is love. Even his justice is love. Paul
identifies "the justice of God" in
(Romans 1:17) with the most unjust event
in all history, deicide, the crucifixion, for that was God's great act of
But no word is more misunderstood in our society than the word love. One
of the most useful books we can read is C. S. Lewis' unpretentious little
masterpiece The Four Loves. There, he clearly distinguishes
agape the kind
of love Christ taught and showed, from
storge (natural affection or liking),
eros (sexual desire), and
philia (friendship). It is agape that is the greatest
thing in the world.
The old word for agape in English was charity. Unfortunately, that word now
means to most people simply handouts to beggars or to the United Fund. But
the word love won't do either. It means to most people either sexual love
(eros) or a feeling of affection (storge), or a vague love-in-general. Perhaps
it is necessary to insist on the Greek word agape (pronounced ah-gah-pay)
even at the risk of sounding snobbish or scholarly, so that we do not confuse
this most important thing in the world with something else and miss it, for
there is enormous misunderstanding about it in our society.
Feelings come to us, passively; love comes from us,
actively, by our free choice.
The first and most usual misunderstanding of agape is to confuse it
with a feeling. Our feelings are precious, but agape is more precious. Feelings
come to us, passively; agape comes from us, actively, by our free choice.
We are not responsible for our feelings-we can't help how we feel-but we are
responsible for our agape or lack of it, eternally responsible, for agape
comes from us; feelings come from wind, weather, and digestion. "Luv" comes
from spring breezes; real love comes from the center of the soul, which Scripture
calls the heart (another word we have sentimentalized and reduced to feeling).
Liking is a feeling. But love (agape) is more than strong liking. Only a fool
would command someone to feel a certain way. God commands us to love, and
God is no fool.
Jesus had different feelings toward different people. But he loved them all
equally and absolutely. But how can we love someone if we don't like him?
Easy-we do it to ourselves all the time. We don't always have tender, comfortable
feelings about ourselves; sometimes we feel foolish, stupid, asinine, or wicked.
But we always love ourselves: we always seek our own good. Indeed, we feel
dislike toward ourselves, we berate ourselves, precisely because we love ourselves;
because we care about our good, we are impatient with our bad.
We fall in love but we do not fall in agape. We rise in agape.
God is agape, and agape is not feeling. So God is not feeling. That does
not make him or agape cold and abstract. Just the opposite: God is love itself,
feeling is the dribs and drabs of love received into the medium of passivity.
God cannot fall in love for the same reason water cannot get wet: it is wet.
Love itself cannot receive love as a passivity, only spread it as an activity.
God is love in action, not love in dreams. Feelings are like dreams: easy,
passive, spontaneous. Agape is hard and precious like a diamond.
Love's object is always the concrete individual,
not some abstraction called humanity.
This brings us to a second and related misunderstanding. Agape's object
is always the concrete individual, not some abstraction called humanity. Love
of humanity is easy because humanity does not surprise you with inconvenient
demands. You never find humanity on your doorstep, stinking and begging.
Jesus commands us to love not humanity but our neighbor, all our neighbors,
the real individuals we meet, just as he did. He died for me and for you,
not for humanity. The Cross has our names on it, not the name "humanity".
When Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, he said he "calls his own sheep
by name" (Jn 10:3). The gospel comes to you not in a newspaper with a Xeroxed
label, "Dear Occupant", but in a handwritten envelope personally addressed
to you, as a love letter from God to you alone. One of the saints says that
Jesus would have done everything he did and suffered everything he suffered
even if you were the only person who had sinned, just for you. More than that,
he did! This is no " if" ; this is fact. His loving eyes saw you from the
Cross. Each of his five wounds were lips speaking your name.
Grandfathers are kind;
fathers are loving.
A third, related, misunderstanding about love is to confuse it with
kindness, which is only one of its usual attributes. Kindness is the desire
to relieve another's suffering. Love is the willing of another's good. A father
can spank his child out of love. And God is a father.
It is painfully obvious that God is not mere kindness, for he does not remove
all suffering, though he has the power to do so. Indeed, this very fact-that
the God who is omnipotent and can at any instant miraculously erase all suffering
from this world deliberately chooses not to do so-is the commonest argument
unbelievers use against him. The number one argument for atheism stems from
the confusion between love and kindness.
The more we love someone, the more our love goes beyond kindness. We are
merely kind to pets, and therefore we consent that our pets be put to death
"to put them out of their misery" when they are suffering. There is increasing
pressure in America to legalize euthenasia (so far only Nazi Germany and now
Holland have ever legalized euthenasia), and this evil too stems from the
confusion between love and kindness. We are kind to strangers but demanding
of those we love. If a stranger informed you that he was a drug addict, you
would probably try to reason with him in a kind and gentle way; but if your
son or daughter said that to you, you would probably do a lot of shouting
Grandfathers are kind; fathers are loving. Grandfathers say, "Run along and
have a good time"; fathers say , "But don't do this or that." Grandfathers
are compassionate, fathers are passionate. God is never once called our grandfather,
much as we would prefer that to the inconveniently close, demanding, intimate
father who loves us. The most frequently heard saying in our lives is precisely
the philosophy of a grandfather: "Have a nice day." Many priests even sanctify
this philosophy by ending the Mass with it, though the Mass is supposed to
be the worship of the Father, not the Grandfather.
"God is love" is the profoundest thing we have ever
heard. But "love is God" is deadly nonsense.
A fourth misunderstanding about love is the confusion between "God
is love" and "love is God." The worship of love instead of the worship of
God involves two deadly mistakes. First it uses the word God only as another
word for love. God is thought of as a force or energy rather than as a person.
Second, it divinizes the love we already know instead of showing us a love
we don't know. To understand this point, consider that "A is B" does not mean
the same as "A equals B." If A = B, then B = A, but if A is B, that does not
mean that B is A. "That house is wood" does not mean "wood is that house."
"An angel is spirit" does not mean the same as "spirit is an angel." When
we say "A is B", we begin with a subject, A, that we assume our hearer already
knows, and then we add a new predicate to it. "Mother is sick" means "You
know mother well, let me tell you something you don't know about her: she's
sick." So "God is love" means "Let me tell you something new about the God
you know: he is essential love, made of love, through and through." But "Love
is God" means "Let me tell you something about the love you already know,
your own human love: that is God. That is the ultimate reality. That is as
far as anything can ever go. Seek no further for God." In other words, "God
is love" is the profoundest thing we have ever heard. But "love is God"
is deadly nonsense.
You cannot be in love with love.
A fifth misunderstanding about love is the idea that you can be in
love with love. No, you cannot, any more than you can have faith in faith,
or hope in hope, or see sight. Love is an act, a force, or an energy, but
persons are more than that. What we love with agape can only be a person,
the realest thing there is, because a person is the image of God, who is ultimate
reality, and God's name is I Am, the name for a person. If anyone says they
are in love with love, that love is not agape but a feeling.
If God is not a Trinity, God is not love. For
love requires three things: a lover, a beloved, and a relationship
A sixth misunderstanding about love is the idea that "God is love"
is unrelated to dogmatic theology, especially to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Everyone can agree that "God is love", it seems, but the Trinity is a tangled
dogma for an esoteric elite, isn't it? No. If God is not a Trinity, God is
not love. For love requires three things: a lover, a beloved, and a relationship
between them. If God were only one person, he could be a lover, but not love
itself. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit
is the love proceeding from both, from all eternity. If that were not so,
then God would need us, would be incomplete without us, without someone to
love. Then his creating us would not be wholly unselfish, but selfish, from
his own need.
Love is a flower, and hope is its stem. Salvation is the whole plant. God's
grace, God's own life, comes into us by faith, like water through a tree's
roots. It rises in us by hope, like sap through the trunk. And it flowers
from our branches, fruit for our neighbor's use.
Faith is like an anchor. That's why it must be conservative, even a stick-in-the-mud,
like an anchor. Faith must be faithful. Hope is like a compass or a navigator.
It gives us direction, and it takes its bearings from the stars. That's why
it must be progressive and forward-looking. Love is like the sail, spread
to the wind. It is the actual energy of our journey. That's why it must be
liberal, open to the Spirit's wind, generous.
Agape is totally defenseless against an objection like Freud's: "But not
all men are worthy of love." No, they are not. Love goes beyond worth, beyond
justice, beyond reason. Reasons are always given from above downward, and
there is nothing above love, for God is love. When he was about six, my son
asked me, "Daddy, why do you love me?" I began to give the wrong answers,
the answers I thought he was looking for: "You're a great kid. You're good
and smart and strong." Then, seeing his disappointment, I decided to be honest:
"Aw, I just love you because you're mine." I got a smile of relief and a hug:
"Thanks, Daddy." A student once asked me in class, "Why does God love us so
much?" I replied that that was the greatest of all mysteries, and she should
come back to me in a year to see whether I had solved it. One year later to
the day, there she was. She was serious. She really wanted an answer. I had
to explain that this one thing, at least, just could not be explained.
When you give yourself away you find that a new and
more real self has somehow been given to you.
Finally, there is the equally mind-boggling mystery of the intrinsic
paradox of agape: somehow in agape you give yourself away, not just your time
or work or possessions or even your body. You put yourself in your own hands
and hand it over to another. And when you do this unthinkable thing, another
unthinkable thing happens: you find yourself in losing yourself. You begin
to be when you give yourself away. You find that a new and more real self
has somehow been given to you. When you are a donor you mysteriously find
yourself a recipient-of the very gift you gave away.
There is more: nothing else is really yours. Your health, your works, your
intelligence, your possessions-these are not what they seem. They are all
hostage to fortune, on loan, insubstantial. You discover that when you learn
who God is. Face to face with God in prayer, not just a proper concept of
God, you find that you are nothing. All the saints say this: you are nothing.
The closer you get to God the more you see this, the more you shrink in size.
If you scorn God, you think you're a big shot, a cannonball; if you know God,
you know you're not even buckshot. Those who scorn God think they're number
one. Those who have the popular idea of God think they're "good people". Those
who have a merely mental orthodoxy know they're real but finite creatures,
made in God's image but flawed by sin. Those who really begin to pray find
that compared with God they are motes of dust in the sun. Finally, the saints
say they are nothing. Or else (Saint Paul's words) "the chief of sinners".
Sinners think they're saints and saints think they're sinners.
Who's right? How shall we evaluate this insight? Unless God is the Father
of lies (the ultimate blasphemy), the saints are right. Unless the closer
you get to God the wronger you are about yourself, the five groups in the
preceding paragraph (from scorners to saints) form a hierarchy of insight.
Nothing is ours by nature. Our very existence is sheer gift. Think for a moment
about the fact that you were created, made out of nothing. If a sculptor gives
a block of marble the gift of a fine shape, the shape is a gift, but the marble's
existence is not. That is the marble's own. But nothing is our own because
we were made out of nothing. Our very existence is a gift from God to no one,
for we were not there before he created us. There is no receiver of the gift
distinct from the gift itself. We are God's gifts.
So the saints are right. If I am nothing, nothing that is mine is anything.
Nothing is mine by nature. But one thing is mine by my free choice: the self
I give away in love. That is the thing even God cannot do for me. It is my
choice. Everything I say is mine is not. But everything I say is yours is
mine. C. S. Lewis, asked which of his many library books he thought he would
have in heaven, replied, "Only the ones I gave away on earth and never got
back". The same is true of our very self. It is like a ball in a game of catch:
throw it and it will come back to you; hold onto it and that ends the game.