Love in Action

In pop theology, the love of God basically means God really likes all people a lot. Similarly, loving God means a person really liking God back. It is part of a common understanding of love as a subjective preference, an inner feeling. For example, the way love is talked about in modern Christian music is virtually indistinguishable from love in pop music. While love as an inner feeling is certainly one sense of what it means, in the Bible that is not what primarily the love of God is, particularly in the New Testament (NT).

In the NT, the love of God is primarily an “enacted narrative.” By this I do not mean love is a mere fiction but rather what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (who coined the term) astutely observed about the central importance of narratives to the way humans live their lives. He points out as individuals, we live out and make sense of our lives according to internal stories we tell. Furthermore, Biblical theologian Richard Bauckham contends (based on the insights of another philosopher Paul Ricoeur on the importance of narrative identity) that it is quite appropriate to fundamentally understand God in terms of a personal narrative because he is portrayed in Scripture as a personal being similar to us. Therefore, the love of God as an enacted narrative means God’s actions in the world regarding humans as well as the narrative from him about what those actions mean. Both action and narrative equally matter because the narrative motivates and makes sense of his actions but without concrete actions in the world, the narrative is a mere fiction.

According to the NT, the concrete acts of God’s love are accomplished in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The narrative that defines those actions as love is what I summarised in The Story of God’s Love which is, “God loved the world so he sent his only Son to save us from death/judgment by giving his life for our sins so that whoever believes in him might have (eternal) life.” So the love of God is his saving acts which he accomplished in the Messiah Jesus through the sacrificial death and life-giving resurrection of his Son for the world. This is the underlying narrative of what the love of God is in the NT. It is about what God has done for the world in and through the Messiah Jesus. This narrative can be discerned in major discourses on the love of God throughout the NT such as John 3:14-18, Romans 5:6-10, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:4-7, 5:2, Titus 3:4-7 and 1 John 4:9-10.

The relationship between God and Jesus is the paradigm for what love means in the NT. Jesus is the personal embodiment of divine love, which is why Paul talks about the “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39.) God’s love for humanity is demonstrated in the sacrifice of his only Son, even when humanity was opposed to him. What it means for humans to love God is exemplified in Christ’s faithful obedience to God, even to the point of death. What it means for humans to truly love one another is to give their lives, even for their enemies, just as Christ did. So even when love is understood as an ethical command, that is a standard of moral behaviour that God requires from us, it means embodying that enacted narrative of love in our own lives. In other words, we are to follow and live out the perfect example of God’s love, which was manifested in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This extremely brief survey of the NT reveals the crucial difference that I initially hinted at with the general understanding of love in Christian pop theology, and even in wider, culture compared to the Bible. God’s love is not defined by his inner sentiments towards us but rather by his concrete actions for us. While it is certainly true that God has unparalleled affections for us, if his love remained only that, an inner feeling, it really wouldn’t matter since it would be of no consequence to our actual lives. In other words, if he had not acted we would not have known his love for us. However, God did act on that love and it was made manifest to us in the Messiah Jesus. (Romans 5:7-8.) God freely gave his Son to save us. Since the New Testament foregrounds God’s actions over his sentiments towards us, we should understand love in the same way. Loving God and one another is about our actions over what we feel. Without action, even the most sincere sentiment of love remains just that, a sentiment.

Recognising the love of God as enacted narrative we are to embody in our lives is not only important but especially poignant for today. Christian pop music is often filled with overly saccharine portrayals of God’s love and what it means to love God. As I earlier said, it is often indistinguishable from the romantic love you find in pop music. Now there is certainly an emotional aspect to loving God but the problem is emotions ebb and flow. There are days we have an intense passion for God and feel his love overwhelm us. There are other times when he seems distant and we feel no passion for him.

I have heard many sermons that “abandoning your first love” in Revelation 2:4 means being less enthusiastic about the things of God, especially compared to when you first “got saved.” This can be very disconcerting as it can create major doubts about your spirituality or even your salvation, especially when you have heard warnings that in the last days “the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12.) If love is primarily about what you feel, what does it mean for Christians going through serious difficulties like debilitating illness or extreme persecution? Can you callously dismiss them as not really loving God in such situations where doubts and frustration naturally arise? Surely you cannot say, as they faithfully endure these hardships, that they do not love God if they don’t have warm fuzzy feelings whenever they think about him.

If God’s love is about his real world actions for us, how we feel about him, whether positive or negative, does not affect his love for us. As Paul famously says, nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:39.) The constancy of God’s love is grounded in the unshakeable foundation of God’s completed work in the Messiah for us. This means we can have confidence in him no matter what. What really proves his love is not simply about preference or sentiment, it is that Christ died for sinners. It is not that we merely annoyed God. We were his enemies, opposed to our own maker and legitimately deserving of the wrath he had reserved for us. So we can’t say God approved of us or particularly “liked us” but by sacrificing his beloved Son for us we undoubtedly know he loves us. Similarly we shouldn’t measure our love for God by how we feel about him but by our actions as we live in obedience to him, regarding others above ourselves (John 14:15.)

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:1-11 ESV

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