The Water We Live In
Copyright 2019 Ken Orvidas (c/o theispot.com).
Adapted from Unconditional? The Symphony of Divine Love by Jose Philip (Singapore: Genesis Books, 2018). Used by permission.
Can fish live out of water?
Now before your thoughts run wild, catapulting you in a thousand different directions, let me tell you where I am going with this. Water, to fish, is not merely the space it occupies; fish live in water. The fish, however, if it were asked to, would struggle to describe the wetness of water. You will agree with me that the fish might not even be fully cognizant of why it can flourish only in water, or how precious water is to it, and so on. That notwithstanding, to take “water” lightly, or to forgo it, can mean only one thing for fish: Death.
What is true for fish is true for us, humans, as well. So, take a moment and consider what is essential for human flourishing; what do humans live in? Pardon me for throwing you so quickly into the deep end. My point is simply this: When we take what we live in—what gives us life—for granted, we become our own undertakers.
To be clear, I am not talking about merely the physical environment we find ourselves in. I am talking about the very core of what makes us human. I am talking about our relationship with each other, and ultimately with God. I am keenly aware that today, many find God talk “pastoral,” “personal,” and “unfit for public consumption.” Those who do not believe in the existence of God might even find this assertion that human flourishing depends ultimately on our relationship with God absurd. Hence, the necessity for this prescript. I ask that you give me a fair hearing. Take a good hard look at my hand as I lay my cards on the table. I am not neutral on the subject—I cannot be.
YOUR WORLDVIEW MATTERS
It is often said: We must learn to keep our personal views—and by that most people mean “faith”—to ourselves (and by that we mean “private”) when we engage in the public space. I find that deeply unsettling on many levels.
First, it assumes that humans can thrive while living compartmentalized lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one likes to be isolated, or to be with a two-faced hypocrite. Yet when we are encouraged to keep our personal convictions private that is exactly what we are forcing ourselves into—an environment of isolation and pretense.
Human beings, irrespective of how else we might think of ourselves, are relational creatures and, by virtue of being relational, we thrive in an environment of transparent trust, not in a culture of suspicion and deceit.
Secondly, and more critically, speaking of points of view, is there such a point of view as nobody’s point of view? I doubt it. We all hold to a basic set of beliefs about the most important issues of life (irrespective of what we deem as important), and we use it as a pair of glasses to understand and evaluate reality. This framework forms the fundamental perspective from which we address every issue of life and constitutes our worldview.
THE WATER WE LIVE IN
Take a close look at your worldview (as close a look as you can) and your faith. You will realize that your worldview and faith in God (or not) together shape what you pursue and how you do so. And therein lies the problem. Unless we are prepared to examine our assumptions and beliefs, and test their validity, our pursuits often end up becoming our problems. Progress in the wrong direction is not progress. It’s regress. And sometimes regression does more damage than merely setting us back; it could take us to a point of no return.
The negativity with which some view faith in God today is not without reason. Think about the sea of humanity that has been put to the sword in the name of faith in God down through the ages. Humans are not designed to thrive in strife, and so the appeal to do away with the notion of God gathered steam. It came to a tipping point in the eighteenth century, which was dubbed the Age of Reason, but strangely did not change a thing. As a matter of fact, the violence and bloodshed only increased. And for all the progress humans were making, humanity was not any the better.
As humans, just as much as we do not do well in strife, we also do not do well as cosmic orphans either—we need God. This raises a simple question: What will it take for humans to flourish?
I could answer that question in one word: Love. Just as water is to fish, so love is to a human being. Love is at the heart of what makes us human, and we would suffer irreparable damage if love were blotted out of the human experience. So central is love to human flourishing that it demands both our utmost attention and thoughtful explanation. And love ought to be the lynchpin that holds our worldview and our faith in God together.
Love is uniquely human—it is at the core of humanity and is intrinsic to human nature. Therefore, love cannot be explained away as the end result of an evolutionary process, or merely as a temporal or transactional necessity. My contention is that for love to be intrinsic, it has to be invested into humanity from without, not merely actualized from within—and this is why our worldview and our faith matter.
Let me try and bring these strands together now. Humans, as I mentioned earlier, are relational beings with love as the epicenter. Our relationship with each other, and ultimately with God, must be founded on love. This leads me to consider the first thing that the Bible says about humanity with great care:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
The biblical worldview of humanity is a being in relationship—with God, each other, and all of nature. A relationship that is conceived, crafted, cradled, and consummated in love. Since human beings are creatures of love, made in the image and likeness of God, knowing the God of love and the love of God deserves our utmost attention.
THE SYMPHONY OF DIVINE LOVE
Unfortunately, in our day, the love of God has been reduced to a divine disposition that makes us feel good and gives us what we want. Many understand God’s love as his favorable disposition, with no strings attached. But the idea that God’s love is indiscriminately unconditional is an unreflective position. That’s the nature of objects and ideas, or an immoral person, not a holy God.
You can speak of abstract ideas or inanimate objects as being dispassionate, or unconditional, in their relationship with other objects or ideas. Think about a chair, for example. It “allows” people to sit on it not because it wants to, but because it is designed to. The chair does not discriminate against whoever sits on it; it remains dispassionately available to be sat upon. But persons, unlike ideas or objects, are volitional beings. They choose!
God is not an idea or an object. God is a personal, relational being. Moreover, it does not make sense to speak of God’s love if God were an idea or an object, does it? God’s love involves God’s choosing to love. God’s unconditional love for every man, woman, and child without a care for our moral condition does not sit well with the notion that God is good. A God who chooses to be indifferent towards our moral condition and is uninvolved in mending the mess is not nonjudgmental and good, but immoral.
Herein lies our challenge. Will God sacrifice his holiness at the altar of his love, will He remain aloof, or is there another way? The sheer magnitude of the question should cause us to pause and reconsider “unconditional” as the only epithet of divine love. Surely, discipline is as much an expression of divine love as benevolence because God is good, is it not?
Is it not reasonable, then, to consider the love of God as a symphony of his benevolence and his justness? That is at the heart of what we read in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets. And most certainly what we hear from Jesus:
The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Numbers 14:18)
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you. (Psalm 86:5)
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13)
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2)
This, then, is where we should begin, and linger a while, if we are to understand and appropriate the love of God—an appreciation for the symphony of divine love.
THE DANGER OF GENERALIZATIONS
I was barely ten when I was stung by a scorpion while playing in my neighbor’s garden. At that age, spending every waking moment playing was very important to me, but then pain reorders priorities. The pain was unbearable, so I made my way back home, reluctantly.
Upon hearing what happened, my mother promptly took me to the doctor who lived a few blocks from our home. The doctor examined the puncture marks and gave me an injection. It did not take very long before I threw up all I had for tea. It was blue! The doctor pronounced me “safe” and said there was nothing to worry about as this kind of reaction was common to most cases with insect bites. Glad that things were now okay, my mother and I went back home.
But as time went by, my condition grew worse. My strength started failing. I was shivering, and my body became cold as ice. Just about then, providentially, our neighbor (in whose house I was stung) came to visit—she too happened to be a doctor, a pediatrician. The minute she took my hand and felt my pulse, she knew I was close to death. She organized for me to be rushed to the hospital where she worked. I reached the hospital almost dead, falling off my father’s shoulders as he carried me, with hardly a pulse. I remained in that condition through the night. It was not until the wee hours of the next morning that I was really safe, to the relief of my parents who watched over me and prayed through the night.
I tell you this story to underscore the fact that generalizations are not only unhelpful but also can be very dangerous. If confusing symptoms caused by a scorpion sting with an insect bite could have such severe consequences for a little boy, how much more severe will the consequences for all of humanity be when we erroneously generalize the love of God, confusing our expectations for truth?
God is love. No matter which God you believe in, the divine being, if there is one, is love. At least that is the word on the street. Now, that is a noble notion, but it becomes problematic when we examine the notion in light of different religious beliefs. How can God be love when at the heart of deism is an uninvolved being? Or in pantheism (even Buddhism), the ultimate reality is a non-personal entity? Or in Islam, God is the absolutely other, an utterly transcendent being? One could speak of the ultimate reality, or God, of these religions differently as a form of power, or a pathway, or a principle—even the principle of love. But to speak of all of them equally as love is a misunderstanding. How can the uninvolved, or nonpersonal, or absolutely other love?
This is not to dismiss out of court the claim that all religions do teach us to love one another. That may well be, and to the best of my knowledge they do, to varying degrees. But that, however, does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that all religions speak of God equally as love. To sketch every portrait of God or the ultimate reality using the same brush, namely “love,” is to ignore the essential uniqueness of the different world religions.
Divine love is the subject matter of the Bible. By that I mean in the Judeo-Christian worldview, God is described as love. The unique portrayal of God as love in the Bible, however, does not insulate the Christian from committing the same error. Far too often, the love of God, despite being the subject matter of countless number of sermons and the cornerstone of numerous promises and prayers, is reduced to one word: unconditional. It is a generalization we will do well to avoid.
In one sense, the love of God can be spoken of meaningfully as “unconditional.” God’s deep love for humanity does not depend on human invocation or action. God’s love for the world (John 3:16) is an overflow of his love for Himself (John 17:24). Self-love, when it comes to God, is not a narcissistic self-obsession because of who God is. God is Triune: Three co-equal persons and one eternal being. As Father, Son, and Spirit, God is simultaneously the supreme lover and beloved. His self-love is an unceasing “pouring out” of self by each person of the Trinity into the other two. God is, in that sense, entirely self-effacing, and this perpetual other-centeredness of the Triune God makes his love unconditional. It is the overflow of this unreserved love that we see in everything God does unaided—creation, for example.
We also see the same kind of love expressed in God’s providence: “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). We must not, however, quickly conclude that God’s love is always and only unconditional. What would that say about God’s morality? Does God not care about justice? Evidently, the notion that God’s love is only “unconditional” is fraught with problems.
We live in a culture that gives primacy to how we feel over everything else—even truth. This affects not only how we think but also how we live. We will slowly, but surely, become less tolerant of a God who is not favorably disposed towards us. This is evidenced in the ease with which people speak about the love of God offering guarantees and encouraging expectations without adequate reflection on the purpose of that love or his expectations.
When God is reduced to a figment of my imagination, then—and possibly only then—will He be a God without expectations of me. Seldom does the life I imagine for myself come with expectations of myself. It paints a pretty picture where everything, and everyone, is always (and only) for me. That is not the God we see unveiled in the Bible. In it we behold a God who is love and, at the same time, uncompromisingly righteous. God is holy; God is love.
God’s holiness and his love are not two different expressions of God, but they are both equally part of his nature. We have the privilege to throw ourselves at his mercy, appeal to his kindness, trust in his steadfast love. But we are not at liberty to choose who God will be. We will do well to resist the urge to conclude that the judge of all the earth would treat the wicked and the godly alike (Genesis 18:25). Moreover, to love without expectations or boundaries is to set up the one being loved for self-destruction.
God’s love is not meant to hurt or harm, but to prosper. The question is not whether God loves, but how and why He loves. The more we appreciate the diverse ways in which God expresses his love, the more we—like enjoying the way different instruments work together to form a symphony—will be able to understand his love and live as those dearly and deeply loved by God. The challenge, then, is to think about God and his love biblically, and to respond to the symphony of divine love appropriately.
When we say God is love, or that God loves humans, we are making assertions. The question is, are these assertions anchored in a worldview, or is it wishful thinking?
GOD OF LOVE?
I vividly remember sitting across the table from a Vietnamese scientist in Hanoi the year I graduated from Bible school. We were discussing two subjects I love—biology and theology—over dinner. Discussing biology was easy, but theology, not so much. We held to very different views of who God is. She disagreed with me the most on the idea of “divine love.” Why would God love?
She was more than puzzled with the idea; she disapproved of it.
I was waxing eloquent about the love of God and the cross of Jesus Christ. I even quoted the Christian’s go-to verse to describe divine love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son… ” (John 3:16). But it did not impress my conversation partner. She shut me up by simply saying, “That is not fair.” Being a Theravada Buddhist, she found it unfair that someone else would be expected to pay the price for her “wrongs.” Her objection was not without reason. According to her worldview, self-effort was central to her liberation, happiness, and well-being.
She has a point. Love does not increase the chances of our survival (by natural selection), nor does caring for ones whose woes in this life are the result of the karma of their previous birth change their ultimate destiny. It might change ours, provided it helps acquire “good” karma for ourselves. But none of this explains human love, much less divine love, does it? Especially when you recognize that love is volitional—love involves the genuine act of the will freely.
You can see why it is outlandish to suggest that matter, energy, or illusion “chooses.” Gravity does not choose to act; it just does. Choice, unlike mechanical function, depends on the one making the choice—the subject. Because love at its core is volitional, it will remain a misfit in a random or illusionary worldview. Naturalism (and atheism) is undergirded by survival. Benevolence is the cornerstone of Confucianism. Fate (karma), duty, illusion, or ignorance is at the heart of most pantheistic and non-theistic faiths. Not love. Love is not the bedrock on which any of these worldviews or world religions are built.
This is not to suggest that people from these different worldviews and religious backgrounds are unloving or incapable of love. It is only to point out that love is not the irreducible minimum of any worldview, save one. Even within theistic worldviews, the notion of divine favor unaided by human praise, petition, or penance is a strange idea.
Love is a mystery, and the mystery of divine love is magnified infinitely when we ask the question, why would God love? Surely, the survival of the Almighty is not contingent on us. God is uncaused, self-existent, and eternal. Moreover, God is unchanging, which means good (or bad) karma does not, or at least should not, affect divinity. It is not just my Vietnamese friend or Buddhism in general; outside of the Judeo-Christian faith, no other religion speaks of a God who is love.
I say this also to raise an important question, a question we should all pause and consider. Why, irrespective of our diverse identities or backgrounds, do humans love? What are we?
WHAT ARE WE?
There are many ways one could answer the question of what it means to be human. And to be clear, ideas have consequences; for as we think, so we live.
Take, for example, the naturalist. For the naturalist (or the atheist), nature is all there is. Therefore, appealing to the supernatural to explain human existence or essence is a mindless endeavor. Humans, the naturalist would argue, are a product of a long evolutionary process. There is only a slight (but significant) modification in the genetic makeup of our nearest cousins—the apes. As a matter of fact, humans share almost 99 percent of their DNA material with chimpanzees!
Yet, this tiny bit of unshared DNA makes a world of difference—a difference that cannot be explained by reducing humans beings to biological machines, or the human will and emotion to mere chemical reactions. Naturalistic explanations strip humanity of what makes us human. Devoid of a soul, humans would be rendered heartless—without thought, affection, or intention. In a naturalistic worldview, human beings, no matter how complex and capable, can be nothing more than chanced creatures, mere mannequins in motion.
Naturalism reduces human life—identity and worth—to the days lived between the womb and the tomb and what is acquired or accomplished. Yet not every nontheistic system blurs the distinctions between humans and other life forms nor limits human worth to what is done under the sun. Confucianism (especially that of Mencius) is founded on the assertion that a thinking, compassionate heart sets humans apart from animals. Mencius was a follower and disciple of Confucius, and easily the most influential figure in Confucian thought.
Confucius believed in human potential. He taught that all humans are fundamentally the same, and are extremely malleable—capable of immense good or unspeakable evil. It is true that Confucius did not qualify whether this nature was essentially good or evil; he did not set out to write a treatise on human nature. Confucius was chiefly concerned with human actions. “Benevolence,” according to Confucianism, is at the heart of what makes us human. While desire is common to all, it is how we think and choose to act that makes us human. However, Confucianism, like other Eastern worldviews, does not describe what humans are; it merely prescribes how humans ought to live.
According to Hinduism, humans, like all other entities—divine or demonic, animate or inanimate—are lower level manifestations of the ultimate (and only reality) Brahman. Brahman (not to be confused with the deity of creation, Brahma) is inexpressible and entirely other from anything open to us through our sense experience. At the same time, Brahman is in everything, the ultimate reality, or the only truly real. All life emanates from Brahman.
The notion that you are not what you see, but rather what you do not see, undergirds Hinduism’s discourse on what it means to be human. Atman, or the ultimate self, therefore is not what I am but of what I am a part. In reality, the individual does not exist. The disconnected self or ego (ahamkara) is what we most readily identify with; it is expressed in the form of our body, social standing, etc. One must be careful, therefore, not to be obsessed with self.
Buddhism, in a similar vein, teaches that there is no self (anatma). Everything is transitory. There is nothing fixed, permanent, or unchanging. The goal, therefore, of human existence is Moksha (salvation) or Nirvana. Nirvana, which literally means “nothing,” actually implies nakedness in the sense that there is no further distinctive as individual. The individual becomes the enlightened one as he or she merges with the ultimate in non-differentiated oneness.
Pantheistic and nontheistic systems do not really address the question of what it means to be human. But monotheistic faiths describe humans as created beings. That, however, does not mean the different monotheistic faiths share the same view on what it means to be human. The Islamic view of humans is instrumental whereas the Judeo-Christian worldview presents humans with intrinsic worth. Although the Quran uses a language similar to that of the Bible in describing humans as created beings, the two texts describe what it means to be a created being in very different terms. God, in Islamic theology, is entirely transcendent, and hence there is no essential relationship between the Creator God and the created human. The supreme attribute of Allah is “greatness.” It naturally follows that in Islam, humans as created beings are functional representatives (Khalifas) of God on earth. Consequentially, liberties are not absolute nor do humans have real freedom. Human identity is etched in human function and duty, the supreme duty being submission to divine will.
However, the Bible, in sharp contrast, declares that humans are created with real freedom and true liberty. The supreme attribute of the God of the Bible is love. It follows, therefore, that humans are creatures created in love to love. True love is contingent on true freedom. Humans are not mere agents submitting to and executing divine will (as in Islam) or suffused with divinity (as in Hinduism) but are created Imago Dei, in the image of God.
What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
Consider this: Nature is governed by (natural) laws, not by desires, plans, or purposes. Creatures are governed by instincts, not by wishes, wants, or dreams. Humans alone (in all of creation) are able to imagine, desire, plan, and pursue dreams. Humans are part of nature and are creatures, but we are also much more than that. We are beings with a particular makeup. Humans are moral, religious, relational beings with the power to choose. Essential to being human, I believe, is the intertwining of our cognition, emotion, and volition, endowing us with the unique ability to exercise creative and moral action, and a social and religious disposition. In other words, humans are intelligent, intentional, codependent (social-moral-religious) persons—not accidental, independent entities—who care for each other and for the world under their care.
The Bible describes humans as being intentionally created!
The Bible asks the question “What is man?” five times. And with the exception of Hebrews 2:6-8, where the person in question is Jesus Christ, in every other instance humans are revealed as being intentionally created by an intelligent, loving Creator (see Job 7:17-18; 15:14; Psalm 8:4-5; and Psalm 144:3-4). Christianity (and Judaism for that matter) affirms that human beings, male and female alike, are created in the image of God. This alone, above all, is why all humans irrespective of ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, socioeconomic standing, literacy, ability—even the unborn—have intrinsic worth. Every human being is invested with dignity and is unique. We are valuable for who we are; that is how we were created.
Similar to the way a ray of light is formed by the convergence of seven colors, at least five aspects converge in the making of a human being. I am here not referring to the aspects or composition of what makes us human (the body, soul, spirit), but rather the dimensions that reflect that we are created in the image of God. These dimensions are:
- Rational dimension (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:20, 22-24; Psalm 8:8-9)
- Social dimension (Genesis 2:18, 23; 3:6-8; 4:1)
- Ecological dimension (Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8:4-8)
- Moral dimension (Genesis 2:17, 25; 3:7; Ecclesiastes 7:29)
- Spiritual dimension (Genesis 3:8,10)
These five dimensions—rational, moral, social, ecological and spiritual—are, at their core, relational. In that sense, humans are essentially “relational creatures,” and love holds them together. Morality, rationality, knowledge, freedom, spirituality, creation care, and social responsibility are all expressions of human love. As moral beings, humans possess a moral conscience and make moral decisions. We express guilt and self-restraint and celebrate good. We have a moral perception of self and God, and pursue wholesome lives in communities.
As rational beings, we seek to know and understand the world around us, and as religious beings, we seek to know God the best way we know how. The human quest to know God is not merely a cognitive exercise. Humans long to love, to express their devotion to God. Above all, as free, volitional beings, humans have the power to choose and make choices according to personal preferences. The view that humans are moral, religious, relational beings with the power to choose is uniquely biblical—a truth beautifully expressed in Psalm 8.
SEEING GOD THROUGH THE IMAGE OF GOD
Now, if humans are created in the image of God and his likeness, what are we to make of God? If relationships are the bedrock of what it means to be human, then it stands to reason that the source of humanity must be a being in relationship, a being in love. A word of caution before I continue. We are created in God’s image. He is the truth to which we must conform. If we fail to hold unswervingly to this truth, we will run the risk of remaking God in accordance with our inclinations.
God is love. Twice the apostle John categorically states that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Love is God’s nature. Love is not merely a friendly persona He projects. Love is in essence who God is. That God is love is one of the most sublime, uplifting, and reassuring truths ever announced to humanity. God will always act in love because He cannot do otherwise. Love is the way He is. And knowing God’s love is the key to a well-balanced, satisfying life of peace, productivity, and power.
God’s engagement with his people, Israel, is a testament to this truth that God is love. In the book of Ezra, we read: “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel” (Ezra 3:11). The books Ezra and Nehemiah record the last events, chronologically, in the Old Testament period, an era more commonly referred to as “post-exilic.”
God had originally brought Israel out of the slave markets of Egypt during the Exodus. Israel was chosen by God to be a holy nation, a royal priesthood (see Exodus19:3-6). Yet only a few centuries later, God declares through Isaiah and Jeremiah that his people have forgotten Him and who they are (see Isaiah 1:2-6 and Jeremiah 2:1-13).
As we reflect on the history of the people of God as it comes to us in the pages of Holy Scripture, we discover the truth that God’s love is unlike anything we know. We humans are fatally forgetful; but God is eternally faithful. Our love is self-serving; God’s is self-giving. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. The God of the Bible is a God who loves humans with an everlasting love. It should come as no surprise then that God would say this to a rebellious people: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jeremiah 31:3).
The apostle Paul puts it this way, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). Love involves action. It is chiefly expressed in the giving of oneself for the good of another, so it always demands an object.
When we talk about love, we are suggesting that there is more than one person involved. There must be at least two—the one who loves and the one who is loved. This raises an important question. If God has always been love and love demands an object, who did God love before He created angels or humankind? The more you think through the question, the more you appreciate why, outside the Judeo-Christian worldview, God is not described as love.
God is not contingent on anything other than Himself to be who He is. This was beautifully expressed in Jesus’s prayer. He helped us catch a glimpse of the love that existed between the persons of the triune Godhead from eternity past when He prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
God is complete and sufficient in and of Himself. He did not need to create other beings in order to express his love. God perfectly expressed his triune love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in divine communion from all eternity.
Creation is an act of divine love! Our love is often selfish and demanding. We ask, “Why did God create humans if He knew that we would sin, and our sin would bring unimaginable misery for all?” The answer is love! God created us free, in spite of the real possibility of sin, in his image to love.
Love is contingent on freedom. Where there is no freedom, there can be no true love. For freedom to be real, one must be able to choose between real options (which require real consequences). This means intrinsic to what makes true love possible is also what makes rebellion possible—the freedom to choose. So, if we were to ask what explains all the mess we see in the world, the answer involves freedom.
It is interesting to see how the different worldviews frame the fundamental human predicament, and what they offer as a remedy. Confucianism sees the fundamental problem as chaos; hence, the solution it has to offer is social order. Hinduism sees the fundamental problem as distraction and ignorance, and it proposes ways and means to overcome distraction (do our duty, overcome ignorance, and realize our divine status). Buddhism sees the problem as suffering and presents a way to be awakened and become enlightened. In Islam, the problem is human pride, and the solution is submission. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, sin is much more than wrongdoing. It is separation from God. The solution is that we return to love; we return to God.
The creation narrative points us to a God who created humans in love in spite of knowing that creating them in his image would come at great cost to Himself. True love does not seek its own. It seeks the good of the one being loved. God’s continuing engagement with an estranged world should make it amply plain that God loves us in spite of ourselves. Not because of what we are or what we do. Divine love offers a lifeline to the world trapped in feigning to be what it is not. We no longer need to pretend to be what we are not to be loved. God loves us. It is his nature to love.
God’s love is pure. Because He is love, He gives. Jesus said God gives good things to those who ask Him (Matthew 7:11). James went so far as to say that every good gift finds its source in God (James 1:17). Since God is love, we can expect Him to give fully and freely of Himself, and that is what we see in the Bible as the supreme act of divine love: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Most people expect God (if they grant there is such a being) to be benevolent, caring, and involved in human affairs for human good. However, not every worldview speaks of God as love. This should alert us to the danger that lies lurking in the shadows. We are prone to nurture expectations of how God should behave because of what we have imagined God to be. Is it any wonder that a vast majority of people who believe in God are disappointed with God?
God is love, and love is the nature of persons. At the heart of knowing another person is revelation. Unless the persons we seek to know reveal themselves to us, we will be hopelessly consigned to assumptions and speculations. However, with revelation, we can know them for who they truly are. The same is true of God.
God has progressively revealed Himself in the Bible. Paying attention, then, to the biblical portrayal of who God is guards us against faulty expectations, false promises, and fake gods. Moreover, it helps us grow in our appreciation of divine love for all its worth:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
A question worth thinking through is, “Who, or what, is the source of your understanding of divine love, and how does that compare with what we see in the Bible?”
Jose Philip is a speaker and writer with RZIM in Asia.
This article appears in the 27.2 edition of our award-winning magazine, Just Thinking. Click the button below to download a PDF of this edition.
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