Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
What do you think is the central characteristic of God? What is that quality that is at the heart of God? What is it that makes God God?
There are many different answers to this question. And perhaps, in truth, it is not an answerable question. It is even harder than answering the question, “What is the central characteristic of your most loved family member?” Or even “What is the central characteristic of me?” People are complex, with many characteristics – reducing that complexity to just one characteristic is not only impossible, but also silly. How much more so with God, who is infinite – infinitely complex.
Nevertheless, it is an important question to attempt to answer. We should treat any answer we get cautiously, tentatively, and humbly. But endeavouring to understand the heart of God is a worthwhile and credible undertaking.
Let us think back to before the beginning of time, before creation, before God was interacting with creation. What do we know of God then? What can we imagine of God then?
Before the beginning, before God created time and space, there was God. Just God. We believe that everything that is was created by God. That there is nothing that is that was not created by God. That everything that is not God was created by God. That’s pretty inclusive! One of the implications of this belief (this doctrine) is that before creation, God is all that was.
What do we know of God before creation? Truly, we know very, very little. This suggests a very short chapter for today!
But what we do know about God is that God existed as three-in-one. The triune God. Three persons with one nature (or substance or being) is how the church finally agreed to define the Trinity in the Nicean Creed that we recite today. A theology of the Trinity is not provided in the Bible. But Christians throughout the centuries, reviewing and weighing up all of the evidence provided in the Bible and in our experience of Christ’s journey on earth, have repeatedly concluded that Father, Son and Holy Spirit all are God, distinct from each other in some way, yet one God, not three.
It gives me a headache! Like trying to imagine infinity. My brain is too small to adequately grasp it.
Happily, this is a devotional, not a systematic theology, so I am freed from the burden of having to define or explain it rationally. Instead, if you accept the doctrine of the Trinity, I invite you to work from that as a point of departure and see the implications of it. If you have difficulty accepting it, just suspend those for a few minutes and follow the path with me, and see if it speaks meaningfully to you.
Timeless fellowship between Father, Son and Spirit. Perpetual, complete, whole, seamless, perfect, fulfilled, intimate, satisfying fellowship. Intuitive mutual understanding. Never hurting – always cherishing. Always working together toward common goals. Never competing – always cooperating.
What word can we us to describe this kind of relationship?
When we imagine God before creation, we come to one basic conclusion. That God is characterised by love. Eternal, complete and perfect love. A love so strong, so intimate, that the three-ness of God draws so closely together to become one. Three in one.
There is a Greek term for this: ‘perichoresis’. It has various English translations, the most common of which is ‘interpenetration’. The idea is that Father, Son and Spirit penetrate into or merge with one another so closely, so intimately, that they become one. It is a mutual indwelling – a reciprocal choosing to immerse one’s self into the other – Father into Son, Son into Spirit, Spirit into Father. Three distinct persons. But so mutually and lovingly woven together that they are, in fact, one.
The heart of God, then, is love, for this is the quality of relationship inherent in the triune God from before the beginning of time. The most prominent characteristic of God is love.
But, many of us have been raised to believe that the most common characteristic of God is holiness or righteousness. This theology emphasises the purity and perfection of God, a purity that is repulsed by sin and brokenness, a perfection that can associate only with perfection.
Of course, the gap between God and us is immense. God is infinitely more pure, holy, righteous and perfect than we are. The apostle Paul is right to associate us with filthy rags. We are very much not up to God’s standard.
Placing God’s holiness as central to the character of God, which many of the Christian traditions do, means that we are always confronted with God’s frown. God looks at us and frowns, because we don’t look right – we smell off. We are sin-tainted, fallen, and imperfect. What follows is wrath – God’s wrath is poured out against humanity because we are, fundamentally, repugnant to God.
There is much in the Bible to support this view. Much of the Old Testament emphasises God’s purity and our impurity. We think of the Ark of Covenant – so holy and untouchable that one, well-meant touch by Uzzah lead to his annihilation (2 Samuel 6:6-11). We think of the temple and its many courts, each drawing closer to the Holy of Holies. And that inner place was so holy and so filled with God’s presence that no-one could enter, save one person (the High Priest), only once a year (Yom Kippur), and with much ritual and prayer (Leviticus 2). There is certainly a strong narrative thread throughout the scriptures emphasising God’s transcendent purity and evidence of God’s wrath in response to our lack of purity.
The problem with this view of God’s essential character is that it is anthropocentric – it centres on humanity. This only makes sense in God’s relationship to humanity. Indeed, only to humanity after the Fall. In effect, this theology rests on ourselves, rather than on God.
But a true theology of God must rest on God and God alone, distinct from God’s relationship with creation. And the only meaningful way to do that is to imagine God before creation, so as to get to the God who was independent of humanity.
When we do that, the concepts of holiness and perfection lose their meaning. Holiness makes sense only in relation to that which is not holy. Similarly, perfection makes sense only in comparison with that which is less than perfect. Set alongside imperfect and sinful humanity, God is indeed perfect and holy. But when we reflect on God as God, God without comparison, God in God-self, these concepts are as dry as the dust that blows away in the slightest breeze.
Instead, what does remain, when we think of God as God, God alone, God before creation, is God in love. God’s love is inherent within the triune relationship between and within the three persons of the Trinity. It is not a characteristic that requires comparison with anyone or anything else. It is a characteristic that is fulfilled within the nature of God.
And thus, we can and should regard love as a far more fundamental characteristic of God than holiness or perfection. God is indeed holy and perfect and surely does not like sin. But these characteristics come after creation, perhaps even after the fall, and are thus secondary to God. They speak, at most, to God’s response to our brokenness. They do not point to the heart of God.
When we look into God’s heart, we will not find wrath. Judgement, rage, shunning and impossibly high standards are not to be found in the heart of God.
Instead, when we look into God’s heart, we find love. Complete, whole, seamless, all-embracing love. A love that is strong enough to satisfy God for eternity. A love that is powerful enough to bind three into one. A love that could have continued to exist forever without any creation.
This love remains at the heart of God. It was not somehow watered down in creation. It was not lost in the Fall. God does not set aside love in God’s relationship with you. God’s first thought when glancing your direction is not anger or revulsion. It is love. Surely, God gets angry! What parent does not get angry at their children? But this anger is on the surface. It is a momentary and situational response. It is not the bedrock of God’s character. Nor is it the predominant feeling of God towards the world. Nor is it God’s predominant feeling towards you.
When God digs down into the depths of the heart of God, God finds love. God’s most basic impulse is to love. God’s greatest joy is to love. God’s most authentic self-expression is love. As John writes in his first letter, “God is love” (1 John 4).
We have to look more closely at God’s heart – particularly those of us who have been well schooled to think of God as wrathful. We have to peer back through time, back through creation, to perceive what is truly God as God, what is essential to God, what was present in God before everything else. When we do so, we will find Love.
Meditation for the Day
Imagine God as God, before creation. Imagine the relationship that existed between Father, Son and Spirit, Imagine the love that they shared, that made them complete and one.
Prayer for the Day
Loving God, help me to unlearn what I have learned about who you are. Instil in me a deeper appreciation for the love that is in the heart of you. Help to me share in that love.