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God Is Love, But Love Is Not God

  • 1 John 4:8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Years ago (maybe around 2002 or so), shortly after I had become a Christian, there was a cryptic little quote that popped up frequently on advertisements for a TBN show that featured a woman musing upon 1 John 4:8. I have tried for a couple of years to locate this video online but have not found it as of yet. If memory serves me correctly the woman in question was making the point that she had come to realize that if God is love, then love is God. Then she went on to repeat herself, multiple times: ‘Love is God, love is God…’

Even as a young Christian, something struck me as odd, and flat out wrong, about this statement. Years later I decided to study 1 John 4:8 in depth and found that no less a heavyweight than Augustine of Hippo made a similar statement:

And this passage declares sufficiently and plainly, that this same brotherly love itself (for that is brotherly love by which we love each other) is set forth by so great authority, not only to be from God, but also to be God (De Trinitate, Book VIII).

In context, if I am not mistaken, Augustine makes his case for such a statement based on his view that the Holy Spirit is indeed Love itself – the Love that is the bond between the Father and the Son. Yet I do not see how that equates to the idea that love is ‘not only from God’ but also God itself.

I take the position that it is idolatrous to claim that ‘love’ is God, and that the realization of this fact is absolutely vital. The classic example of this is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Several years ago when I preached on this text I cited the the ‘star-crossed lovers’ as the classic fictional example of love-idolatry. I had not actually read the work at that point. But years later, reading it, I came across this line (and it is quite famous). Juliet is speaking to Romeo in Scene II:

Do not swear at all;
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee.

Shakespeare understood quite well what I am about to write.

Romeo was effectively Juliet’s ‘god.’ She lived for him, she died for him. She bucked the rules for him. She broke the commandments for him (not only the first commandment, but the sixth as well). She sacrificed herself upon the altar of love. Romeo was a love that Juliet declared to be a god.

Love becomes God when love becomes the supreme Judge and Justification of all things. I have often used this idea in counseling young people. It is easier to illustrate this than to explain it, so here goes:

Take, for example, a young Christian woman who is living with (and having sex with) her boyfriend. ‘Don’t you realize that sex outside of marriage is wrong?’ she is asked. ‘I know, but I plan to spend the rest of my life with him. I love him. I would never sleep with someone I didn’t love. God knows that I love him,’ is her answer.

That’s the classic pomo (postmodern) Christian answer. But the question therefore becomes, ‘Who then is your God?’

In point of fact, love has become this young lady’s functional god. Love justifies breaking God’s law concerning adultery. Love, then, has become the supreme law-giver. If love says ‘go for it,’ then by all means go for it, regardless of what God says.

The standard idea of ‘how can God judge me if I’m only following my heart’ is actually idolatrous. God will judge us for making our hearts,  love, that is, a ‘god before him.’

Now this post has primarily to do with sexual/romantic love. Adultery of any form (that is, any sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman) is not simply adultery, but idolatry as well (because the approval of the lover, or the pleasure of the self, has become more important than the approval and pleasure of God). But this can be the case with many other forms of love. Love for cars, houses, and material things in general can lead a man to deny himself and follow after riches rather than Christ. Christ is the true ‘pearl of great price’ for which we should be willing, for joy, to give up all. But we often treat many other things as greater pearls because of our love for them.

‘God is love’ suggests that God is love personified. It suggests that we cannot properly understand love, or possess it, or love God and others, unless we understand it in terms of God – who He is, and what He has done. God’s love is manifested supremely in the giving of Christ as a sacrifice for sinners (Rom. 5:8, 1John 4:10). All true love will be consistent, in some way, with the love of God in Christ. It will be sacrificial, it will hurt, it will forgive sins, it will desire the best for the beloved, and it will care about the standard of holiness – God’s Law. But if we elevate love itself to the position of God, we have not only misunderstood love – we have misunderstood God as well. Adultery is idolatry, and idolatry is adultery.

This is not to diminish the importance of love, but to put it in its proper perspective. C.S. Lewis summarizes the point perfectly well in chapter three of The Four Loves:

If Affection is made the absolute sovereign of a human life the seeds will germinate. Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.

0 comments

  1. Michael says:

    “‘God is love’ suggests that God is love personified. It suggests that we cannot properly understand love, or possess it, or love God and others, unless we understand it in terms of God – who He is, and what He has done.”

    Actually, if you look at the whole passage, you have it backwards. You can’t understand God if you don’t love your fellow man. “He that loveth not knoweth not God for God is love.”

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