True love. It’s what we all long for deep in the recesses of our being. It is why we are stirred by stories of great sacrifice by persons for one another and inspirational forgiveness by those who are wronged. We desire, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, to be loved with a love that knows no limits. Only an infinite being can truly love with no limits. As great as human love can be, it is nonetheless limited and those we wish to love us are not perfect. That’s not to say that human love is not wonderful. It is and make no mistake about it – we need human love. Many of us can recall people in our lives, whether they be parents, siblings, friends, aunts, uncles, coworkers, fellow churchgoers, or even total strangers, who have poured the sweet nectar of love from their hearts into our own and, in doing so, have invigorated our lives, given us strength, and helped us become more loving people ourselves.
However, we also can recall those people whose personal misery and destructive bitterness wrought havoc in our hearts. They may have abused us verbally, physically, sexually, emotionally or spiritually. People like this make you feel shameful about who you are and deaden you on the inside. It is especially tragic for us when these bitter people are those whom we have given a great trust such as parents, teachers, or ministers. And, sometimes, it is well-meaning people’s twisted understanding of what love really is that poisons our minds and makes us question whether love is all it’s cracked up to be, or whether we can really trust someone who claims to love us.
So what exactly IS love? And what does it mean to say that God’s essence IS love? And how does God love us in a way such that selfishness does not taint our experience of it and in a way such that He heals us from hurts those people we just referred to have inflicted on us? It is the experience of God Himself – True Love – which is the beginning of all healing and the inner transformation that accompanies it which makes us into the loving images of Himself He intended us to be. Let’s take a look at what the Apostle Paul said true love looks like and then we will gain insight as to the answers to these questions.
We saw in the last article on this topic that in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 Paul gives us a list of qualities or characteristics that are true of love. It really is a listing of how love acts, so, first, let’s define what love IS. Love is a qualitative experience of interpersonal relationships in which one person seeks to bring about the ultimate happiness of the other. This may be a bit different than what you’ve heard before, but the essence of what love IS comprises not of some “thing”, but of the actual dynamic that takes place between the persons of the Trinity. The Being we call God is a relationship – a relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – a divine community in which each member of the Trinity meets the other’s needs and seeks to bring them the utmost of happiness (for those of you fundies who get nervous with the word happiness, think of its functional equivalent – blessedness). True, pure, selfless love could be defined then as the qualitative experience of the interpersonal relationships between the three members of the Trinity in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit seek to bring about the ultimate happiness of each other. The way each member of the Trinity treats each other is what we call “love” and that is what Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 13.
Okay, that’s the philosophical, technical part, but it’s important for you to know what love IS so that you know what we mean when we say that God IS love. To put it another way, to state what love IS in its true, purest form is the same as stating what God IS. Now that we’ve defined love, the apostle begins to describe what love does – in our terminology, he is describing that interpersonal dynamic that one person expresses to another and that finds its purest expression within the Trinity. Paul begins by saying that love is patient. You will hear preachers talk about “biblical patience” as being the ability to endure trials, but that is not what the Greek word here means. Love is patient, patient with people. Patience is not giving up on someone regardless of how many times they fail and how long it takes them to “get it” and it is displayed in the story of the Prodigal Son by the father who watched and waited until his lost son finally came home. William Barclay, world-renowned Greek scholar and Bible commentator of the 20th century, described another aspect of patience in personal relationship when he wrote, “[It] is the word which is used of the man who is wronged and who has it easily in his power to avenge himself and who yet will not do it. It describes the man who is slow to anger” (Barclay, 1956).
The sad fact is that fundamentalist Christianity has painted a picture in the American mindset of a vengeful God who is always ticked off and ready punish, judge, condemn, and destroy all those who oppose him. According to Paul, nothing could be further from the truth. God is not trying to restrain Himself from launching destruction on America or any other country for sins committed, because God – True Love – is patient! Contrary to fallible human love which often disappoints us or, worse, hurts us, God does not “run out of patience.” God is an infinite being and thus cannot ever stop being patient. He will never come to a place where He says to you, “That’s it! I’ve had it! I’m done with you! I give up on you!” Instead, He is calmly waiting for us to realize that the love available to us is free, is unconditional, and is what will satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. And He is willing to wait forever. Think about that for second. He will wait forever if that’s how long it takes for you to discover and experience His love for you! What could be more beautiful?
You see, He is not hovering over you, waiting to strike you for something that you’ve done that is wrong, but is waiting in love until you realize that you won’t find life apart from Him and that through repentance you can return again to fellowship with Him. When you feel like God has had it with you because you keep messing up with the same thing over and over again or because you ran away from Him years ago and now feel as if you could never be loved again, remember: God is patient! He is waiting for you to return to the safety of His loving arms and hear Him whisper into your ear, “I will never give up on you and you will never be so far from me that my love cannot overcome the distance between my heart and yours. I will wait as long as it takes for my love to penetrate your illusions and your brokenness until it brings wholeness to your heart. I love you, my child, always and forever!”
If you are a fundamentalist or come from that background, you may find these descriptions shocking. You see, the god of fundamentalism is a myth that was invented by people who themselves had obviously not known true love. They were people who did not encounter True Love in all His fullness, because had they done so, they would have realized that the mean, bitter god that they so often describe is nothing but a product and projection of their own unloved hearts. As Anne Lamott quotes a priest friend of hers, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when He hates all the same people you do” (Lamott, 1995). No where can this be seen any more clearly than in the extremist wings of the radical religious right. They (i.e. Pat Roberston) believe in a god who is ready to send earthquakes to condemn an entire island of people for something a few of their ancestors did centuries ago. This so-called god is not worthy of worship and is simply a symptom of these people’s demented, loveless understanding of the divine. So, if you hail from that background or, like me, were traumatized by it, then you will find it shocking, healing, and liberating that the God Who is love is none of the aforementioned.
Then Paul writes that love is kind. This word really could be translated “sweetness” (Barclay, 1956). Have you ever met a person who was very, shall we say, moral? They do all the “right things” and seem to be above reproach, but they’re not really the nicest people. They would never be described by someone as “sweet.” Then there are those people who may not seem to have it all together, but there is a genuine warmth and sweetness to the way they relate to you. The former is the result of legalism, the latter the result of intimacy with True Love Himself. You see, a person is not loving if they don’t have this warmth of personality that they communicate in their relating to you. Kind people are sweet and gentle in the way they handle someone, especially when they are disciplining and/or correcting them. Sarcastic and critical spirits have not been nurtured by love. They are caustic, and are this way because they have not encountered the warm, sweet, kind spirit of love in a life-changing way.
God is sweet. A sweet spirit that is warm and welcoming instead of harsh, punishing and condeming. Sadly, and often because of their experience with a false Christianity during their upbringing, many people see God as that moralistic person who never smiles and is not very nice instead of the very essence of sweetness itself. Remember this: when God is speaking to your heart, it will not be with that harsh, critical voice that so many of us have been taught He uses. You know, the voice He supposedly used with Charlton Heston on Mount Sinai in the Ten Commandments movie! Think of someone you know who is gentle and soft-spoken. They are light-hearted and docile in the way they relate to you. This is the way God is with us. He is not vindictive or mean. When you hear messages in your heart and mind that are the opposite of this, know that they are not from God, but from internalized critical voices from your encounters with people who, sadly, were just taking out on you the frustration they felt in the emptiness of their own unloved hearts. God’s messages to you, regardless of their content, will fill you with the awareness of the sweetness of spirit that is God Himself.
We’ll stop there for now. Meditate on the fact that the God who IS love is forever patient with you and infinitely sweet! Praise God that the One we long for to be loving and kind to us is, indeed, the very Being we need Him to be!
Barclay, W. (1956). The daily study bible series: The letters to the Corinthians. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor Books.