God is love, but love is not God. Oft-vilified Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle has been riding this pony for a while now. The first time I heard him say this was in a sermon preached shortly after we interviewed him for Hellbound? back in the fall of 2011. In fact, just over 39 minutes into the talk, he references our interview and then goes off on a rant about how God may be loving, but love is not God. God is not just loving, he is also holy, wrathful, just, righteous, etc. Our problem is that we take a single attribute, such as love, and elevate it above all of God's other attributes in order to make God more palatable to a modern audience. In truth, according to Mark, God doesn't just love, he also hates. And he doesn't just hate sin, he hates sinners. I'd recommend you watch him for yourself, starting at around 39:30.
In the Washington Post op-ed he references in his tweet, Mark also says,
Because "God is love," that means love does not come from our hearts, but rather through our hearts. In relationship with God through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, we receive God's love to share with others (1 John 4:7-21). Galatians 5:22 says, "The fruit of the Spirit is love . . ." And Romans 5:5 says, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."
Through the presence of God the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are able to continue loving others -- including our spouse. Even when we don't feel "in love" with our spouse, we can give love to them and receive love from them if we live Spirit-filled lives.
The Bible does describe love as a feeling. But rather than beginning as a feeling that inspires an action, love is often first an action based on obedience to God that results in a feeling. This explains why the Bible commands husbands to love their wives (Eph. 5:25) and wives to love their husbands (Titus 2:4) rather than commanding them to feel loving. This further explains why the Bible even commands us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-47).
I'm not sure about you, but it feels like the doctrine of total depravity is lurking somewhere behind this argument. According to this doctrine, we are so utterly corrupted by sin that we are incapable of generating a single ounce of love on our own. The best we can hope for is to be a channel of God's love to others. I'm not sure how to respond to an argument like that, except to say that even though we can observe how different regions of the brain function when we experience various emotions, no one knows for certain where our impulse to love originates. So if Mark wants to believe he's nothing but a radio antenna picking up a signal from God, that's fine with me.
The issue I want to hone in on is his distinction between love as "a feeling that inspires an action" and love as "an action that results in a feeling." In the first case, it seems that love is rather impulsive and beyond our conscious control. This runs counter to what Rob Bell argues in Love Wins:
Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject and rebel against God's ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.
I couldn't disagree more. Instead of a free expression of the will, in my experience love tends to hijack the will and lead us to do things we wouldn't consider doing otherwise. True love doesn't demand freedom; it is the very opposite of freedom. As my friend Brad Jersak said in a recent email exchange,
Have you ever fallen in love against your will? (Better, have you ever not?!) Have you ever been lured by love of the other into acts of selflessness and sacrifice? Certainly the love that forgives does great violence to wilfulness.
A case in point is me taking part in one of my four-year-old daughter's tea parties. Left to my own devices, I would never, ever participate in a tea party. But there I am ordering plastic food from a scribbled menu and pretending to enjoy serving after serving. This is a clear case of love as a feeling that inspires action. I don't participate in tea parties in order to generate feelings of love for my daughter. I do it because tea parties are important to her, and I love her so much it would break my heart to see the look of disappointment on her face if I said no.
So I'm suggesting that love is a form of bondage -- sweet, sweet bondage -- in which our will is bound up in seeking the welfare of the other. What could possibly trigger such an outrageous abandonment of our own desires? I think the answer lies in 1 John 4:19. "We love because [God] first loved us." It's the experience of being loved unconditionally -- by God or another person -- that elicits such devotion. Ironically, it's a form of bondage that frees us to abandon our natural tendency toward self-preservation and one-upmanship. If we struggle to love others, it's likely because we have yet to experience such love -- either that or we refuse to believe we are worthy to receive it, which is the most tragic situation of all, a state that should elicit empathy rather judgment.
In a way then, you could say that I agree with Mark on at least one point: Left to our own devices, we are incapable of generating love for others. We must first experience love before we are able to share it. But even then I would argue that our impulse toward self-centeredness is a by-product of the hominization process rather than the result of a mythical curse. But that's a conversation for another day...
In the second case, "love as an action that results in a feeling," love is almost tactical. We pursue certain behaviors in the hope that the discipline will eventually alter our brain state to produce the same sorts of feelings we experience spontaneously in other situations. I don't think there's anything wrong with this concept. In fact, a vast body of scientific research on neuroplasticity supports the idea that changing our behavior can literally rewire our brains. Practicing certain behaviors can affect us in other ways as well. My favorite example is if a man stands with his feet slightly wider than shoulder width and then clenches his fists and tries to look tough, he can actually increase the amount of testosterone his body produces.
The question is, what could possibly motivate us to act in a loving way toward someone we despise or, possibly worse, regard as inconsequential? A sense of obligation to a moral code is one possibility. So is fear. If God commands us to do something, we'd better do it or else! But can we really believe that behavior that arises from any of these impulses could ever produce genuine love?
Perhaps by forcing us into relationship with the despised "other," our "loving" behavior humanizes the person in our eyes. In time, stereotypes and prejudices fall away, and we develop empathy for him or her, which allows us to forgive. Victim/offender reconciliation programs are premised on this logic. However, I would still argue that if we are compelled to engage in such activities through a sense of duty rather than an authentic desire to be transformed through reconciliation with the other, they will merely result in resentment and possibly hatred. According to 1 Corinthians 13, true love "keeps no record of wrongs." So until we relinquish our right to keep score, we are incapable of expressing love. But what could possibly motivate us to do this apart from having our own record of wrongs erased? Love must always be preceded by love. That means love cannot be merely an action that results in a feeling. Behavior modification can never manufacture what was never there in the first place. The best it can do is remove barriers that impede the flow of love.
So let's circle back to God. 1 John 4:8 tells us, "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."
Question: Is the love spoken of here "an action that results in a feeling" or "a feeling that inspires an action"? That is, does God act lovingly in the hope that one day genuine love for us might spring forth from his heart, or does God's loving kindness flow uninhibited out of his very being?
The first scenario seems to set up a remedial situation where something has gotten between God and us that God must somehow overcome. However, this is difficult to reconcile with the definition of love given in 1 Corinthians 13, for example:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
The only way I could see God in a situation where he had to "will" himself to love us is if God is easily angered and if God does indeed keep a record of wrongs. So either the writer of 1 Corinthians is mistaken in his definition of love or else the essence of God is that other kind of love, "a feeling that inspires an action."
If that's the case, the essence of God is patience, kindness, humility, generosity, peace, forgiveness, trustworthiness, hope and unending perseverance. Can we really believe that any of these feelings would inspire God to condemn someone to eternal separation, torment or annihilation? I think not.
So in the end, I find myself agreeing with Mark Driscoll once again: Love is not God. But thank God, God is love.
Kevin Miller's feature-length documentary Hellbound? will be released on DVD and VOD on May 28, 2013.