Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a B.A. in psychology and a minor in religious studies.
The "God is Love" Bible Verse (English)
1 John 4:7-8 "7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love."
Many people do not realize that there are actually two bible verses that say, "God is love". Both verses are in the same book of the Bible, and in the same chapter. John really wanted to emphasize the fact that God is love, since this is perhaps the single most important statement any human can make, and the most important realization that any person can have. There is no higher truth. So John repeats himself in 1 John 4:16:
"16 And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him."
God is Love
God is love. The beauty and simplicity of that phrase is exactly the same in the Greek as it is in the English. It is not the least bit watered down. It doesn't mean: "God is loving" or "God is a God of love". Without hesitation, John states that God is love. And just in case we may have thought we misheard him, he says it again.
God is love. The most fundamental essence of God, the very being and person of God, can be expressed as perfect, infinite, eternal love. Anyone who believes in God should marvel and rejoice at this knowledge.
The "God is Love" Bible Verse (Greek)
God is Dead
It often seems to me that for many people, God is dead. That is to say, God, as God truly is, is absent from our minds and hearts and dogmas and creeds and lifestyles. Several people have expressed to me that they don't appreciate all the "overemphasis" on God's love and mercy that they hear about these days. They want to hear more about God's judgment and wrath.
Personally, I see things through quite the opposite perspective. It seems to me that within religious communities in the United States, a disturbingly significant percentage already put a good deal of emphasis on God's judgment and wrath, typically to the neglect of His core nature (that is, love).
"But love is not God's core nature any more than his wrath," I can imagine someone saying. "God is love, but He is also justice!"
Why must we create this dualistic, split God, who must constantly weigh His desire to love against His crushing demand for "justice"? Are justice and love somehow mutually exclusive? Can God not exact justice from the very same individual whom He is in the process of loving? Is the justice of God not, at heart, the very same thing as His love? He is just, so he punishes sin (aka "error"), in order to drive it out of the sinner. What could be more loving than that? For were He to leave us to our own error, we could create for ourselves a far greater hell than He would ever create for us. So it is the justice and wrath of God against sin which saves the sinner from what would surely become his own hell: sin.
Can we suppose that God ever metes out justice without love? Impossible, for God is love. And if the justice of God is always an expression of His love, it is never merely a punitive justice. Love edifies, which is to say that it "builds up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Punishment for the sake of punishment alone does not have as its end the building up of anybody. God tears down, but he rebuilds. He does not tear down except that He may rebuild.
Someone once aptly pointed out to me that the justice/wrath of God seemed different than the "discipline" of God, the former being reserved for unrepentant sinners, and the latter being reserved for His faithful followers. They referenced the destruction of Sodom and the great flood in Noah's time, saying that these two events provided examples of God destroying with no rebuilding or restoration to follow afterward.
However, the Christian scriptures themselves point to a restoration to follow both of those ancient events. Both traditional tales told in the early Apostolic church (See: Wikipedia) and the Christian scriptures themselves suggest that when Christ died on the cross, he descended into the realm of the dead, preached good news to the captives there who had "once been disobedient [. . .] in the days of Noah" (1 Peter 3:20), and "led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men" (Eph. 4:8 - 10).
As for Sodom, Ezekial 16:53 states that God will "restore Sodom and her daughters from captivity", which interestingly shares the captivity motif seen above in Eph. 4:8 - 10.
The Vengeance of Love
But what of that saying, "Vengeance is mine, says the LORD"? Ah, but this only expresses a deeper level of the beauty of God's love. Nowhere does the Christian canon claim that "God is vengeance". But it does say that "God is love." As for vengeance, it is said merely to belong to God. That is to say that perfect, divine Love (God) is the only thing which has any right to take vengeance, as it is the only thing capable of taking vengeance in a spirit of pure love. Human vengeance seeks to destroy. Divine vengeance seeks to destroy, that it may rebuild something better, something lovely.
Divine vengeance is intent on utterly destroying all evil, and it will succeed. However, there is no way to utterly destroy sin except to turn every sinner into a saint. Sin can never be destroyed by merely punishing a sinner unto all eternity; the sinner will remain yet a sinner. Only by causing a sinner to "repent"--a word that actually refers to a complete transformation of one's mindset--is sin ever done away with. This is the only kind of victory that divine love can have, and will have, over evil.
Love will accomplish a complete victory over all evil, not a partial victory over some evil, because God/Love does not fail. So, every sinner who has ever lived will eventually be transformed into a true child of God.
The Categorical Imperative
Love is a universal imperative, a duty that is binding upon everyone at all times. It is an action, not merely a feeling, because love without action is dead. But love is more than a duty. It is more than action alone. Action taken out of duty alone, out of sheer respect for the "categorical imperative" of the law to love, devoid of all feeling and sentiment, is not any kind of love I want to live by.
I've had a number of people express to me that to love our enemies is not an impossible demand, only because doing so requires nothing more than that we pray for them and do good to them. It doesn't require that we actually come to feel love for them. We may pray for them and do good for them, all the while eagerly waiting to see God's vengeance taken out on them. Sadly, I am by no means exaggerating these statements and ideas.
The famous eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant said that this emotionless, duty-bound "love" is "practical . . . not pathological . . . in principles of action and not of tender sympathy; and it is this love alone which can be commanded" (Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals). According to Kant, we cannot be commanded to have affectionate love for anyone, let alone our enemy, but can only be commanded to be beneficent for duty's sake. Kant almost seems to imply that affectionate love is "pathological".
But the Greek word for "love" used in these scriptures is "agape", which, contrary to certain popular notions, most certainly does involve the emotions and affections, and in a strong way. The noun “agape” comes from a verb (agapao) which, when directed towards humans, can even be translated as “to caress” (LSJ, Middle Liddell). It involves action too, of course, but it is not action devoid of tender affection.
Kant is mistaken when he says that such love can not be commanded. It can be commanded, and it is commanded. God expects us to love as He does (John 13:34 - 35, Matthew 5:48), with all of our will and our emotions (Mark 12:30). He demands nothing less. Or do we suppose that when "God so loved the world", He did so out of sheer duty to perform beneficent actions on our behalf, all the while feeling no emotion besides repulsion towards us? Do we not hope and expect that God loves us tenderly, affectionately, as a good parent loves their own child?
The reason that such true love can be commanded, and commanded towards our enemy, no less, is because we are not expected to love in our own power. We are to love in the power and love of God. It is God Himself who works in us to will and do His good pleasure. There is no good thing in our flesh, but every good thing comes down from the Father of lights. And if He commands us to love our enemy, with all the tender sincerity and affection with which he loved us while we were yet sinners, then it is because He is the only one capable of producing such a love within us. It is His own Spirit which sheds His love abroad in our hearts. To suppose anything different--to suppose ourselves capable of fulfilling in our own power the divine command to love--is devilish.
The End of the Matter
And so, beloved, let us love one another. Let us love not in words alone, or feelings alone, or action alone, or from duty alone. Let us love with words, and with tender feelings. Let us love with our will, and in action. Let us love with utter dependence on the grace and love of God to live and love through us, and with the constant awareness of our duty to love. The one true and abiding joy of life, indeed, the essence of life itself, is to know love. God is love.
© 2011 Justin Aptaker