This is the third in the five-part series on “Being God’s Beloved”, delivered at St Martins Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa, on 26 March 2014. Today, we explore the relationship between human sin and divine love and wrath.
Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
Having spent many days reflecting on God’s love, some may be becoming a bit anxious that God seems soft, even spineless. Where are the standards, the commandments, the consequences? Ideally, we might like to live in a nice, mushy, lovey-dovey world, but in truth we live in a fallen world where people do bad things to other people. Where does God’s love fit into that? What about justice, punishment, judgement? Are we really all called to love one another to such an extent that we allow wrongdoers to get away with murder? Does forgiveness mean no-one is held accountable for their crimes?
These are complex questions, to which there are no easy answers. When we place God’s love in the centre of life, things get harder not easier. When holiness or righteousness are central, it is much easier – God loves you but expects you to do right, and if you do wrong there are consequences, so you better watch out! The eye-for-an-eye philosophy of justice is very workable. But then Jesus comes and says, “Turn the other cheek” and “forgive 70 times 70 times” and that is very hard to understand, let alone live out.
So, let us step back a bit and define these key words: love and justice. This in itself is a huge challenge as there are so many understandings of both. But let me suggest some definitions for us to chew over.
God’s love for us, and our replicated love for others, is intended to be unconditional – it emanates from the goodness of God and God’s superabundance of love. God has so much love that God is able to love even if we don’t love God back, even if we don’t believe in God, even if we hate God. In this way, God’s love is dependent entirely on God, and not at all on us. We sometimes call this agape love – self-less, self-giving love that seeks nothing in return.
But this is not the whole of God’s love. While God’s love is indeed unconditional, it also greatly desires relationship with us. God’s love is not conditional on the relationship, unlike chesed, which is contingent on the covenant relationship. However, God’s love yearns for covenant relationship, seeks mutual and reciprocal exchange of love. We see this in God’s behaviour. Rather than sitting in heaven and loving us unconditionally from afar, God decided, because of extravagant love, to extend God’s self into the world by sending the Son to us to work for reconciliation between us and God (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11). Divine love, then, while unconditional, seeks relationship and reciprocity.
Christian love – that is, our love for others – is modelled on God’s love. Linda Woodhead has defined it as “an active desire for the well-being of the neighbour, and for communion with him or her, based on a recognition of the neighbour’s unique worth”. Her definition is helpful, if challenging. Christian love is initiated by ourselves, and in this way unconditional – we choose to love because we choose to love, not because the person is love-worthy. We love because of the inherent worth of the other as one of God’s creatures, but we do not whitewash all people with the same inherent worth – a bland, faceless love for everyone. Rather, Christian love emphasises recognition of unique worth; that is, I extend myself to seek out particular aspects of that individual that are loveable and even likable. And it is two-way, seeking not only to express love at arm’s length, but also to establish relationship, communion, fellowship. And all of this is just the way God loves me and you and the other person.
And justice? Justice can be thought of as God’s desire for right relationships between people and others (God and other people). ‘Right relationships’ includes freedom, human rights, access to resources, dignity, opportunity to get ahead, the absence of exploitation or oppression, having a voice, having power, acceptance, respect. So, where there are wrong relationships, there is no justice, and God’s vision and desire for humanity is violated. When we think of God working for justice or righteousness, then, we are thinking of God working to establish right relationships between people. In other words, God’s commitment to justice is a commitment to liberation.
God’s motive for justice is love. And the result of justice, as defined above, is love. So justice and love are not incompatible – they are very closely related. Love requires justice, because love cannot stand idly by and watch God’s beloved being harmed. But justice requires love, because justice can easily degenerate into a dictatorship. Fortunately for us, in God love and justice are in perfect balance, with God’s love for all of creation in the centre.
Let us accept God’s love for every individual, both good people and bad people, both believers and unbelievers. God does not merely love abstractly – God loves relationally, personally, by name. Thus God is constantly at work to establish fellowship with each of these individuals. In so doing, God seeks to establish a right relationship between God and each individual. Various life events, then, including both happy and unhappy life experiences, may be agents of God’s efforts to establish such relationships, thereby working for justice in the divine-human relationship.
But what does God do when one person (or group of people) harms another person? The first person is not exercising love and is behaving in an unjust way. How does God balance love and justice in such a situation? If God merely forgives that person, where is justice?
The problem with these questions is that they stem from an inadequate grasp of love and justice. And of course, from the pain of being harmed, and particularly so when it is someone we love, such as a spouse or child, who has been harmed.
God’s love, as we’ve defined it above, is for the well-being of the individual and for communion with her or him. So, when God loves that person, God desires their well-being. And our well-being is tied up in our being in right relationships with those around us and with God. So love cannot condone or accommodate harming others – this is antithetical to love. God’s love desires wholeness in that person, and wholeness involves right relationships, and thus God’s love does not overlook the wrong doing, but works towards repentance and reconciliation.
In this way, there is no conflict between love and justice. Justice demands right relationships, and right relationships are vital to well-being and communion. Thus, God’s justice requires repentance by the one who has harmed another. Repentance, contrition, penitence are essential elements of justice and necessary for reconciliation.
But notice that this kind of justice is not about throwing perpetrators into jail (or hell) and throwing away the key. It is not an eye for an eye. It is not just about punishment or retribution. Rather, divine justice, Christian justice, is ultimately about setting things right – relationships, values, respect, wholeness, wellbeing. When all is right, all is just.
We ourselves have experienced this with God, even if we don’t feel like we were a very bad person. Our sin left us in a wrong relationship with God and other people and, indeed, ourselves. According to justice defined as retribution, we deserved to be punished, cast out, thrown down. But God’s love for us desired justice defined as right relationship. And so God sought out what is loveable in us, called us to change, established a clear relationship with us, and prompted us to clean up our act and to engage in wholesome relationships with those around us. Even so, none of us does all of these things very well. Yet God still loves us, and works for our righteousness.
We have been justified with God. And “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand… God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:1-2, 5-8).
Meditation for the Day
Think about your own salvation, how God expressed divine love in reaching out to you, in spite of all your sin, and has been working ever since for you to be in right relationship. Think about someone who has harmed you. How do you transfer what God has done for you to what you do for that person? This is not easy.
Prayer for the Day
Oh God of justice and love, please work in me your great work of love to transform me into your likeness and to establish righteousness and justice in my relationships with the world around me.