God is love vs. love is god
Books | The world’s notion of love is nothing more than a desire to rule ourselves
by Jonathan Leeman
Posted 6/22/19, 12:17 pm
Jonathan Leeman’s The Rule of Love explains why the Biblical pronouncement that “God is love” does not mean zapping moral boundaries or judgments, or unconditionally accepting everything except authority and institutions. Leeman’s balanced, Biblical view is particularly crucial at a time when some say, “God is love” and push us to ignore His other attributes. I hope you’ll benefit from the following excerpt, courtesy of Crossway. The Rule of Love was an honorable mention selection for WORLD’s 2018 Book of the Year in the Accessible Theology category. —Marvin Olasky
When Love Is God
“We got to let love rule.” —Lenny Kravitz
God is love, says Scripture. It’s one of weightiest and most precious truths imaginable for a Christian.
God is love like oceans are wet and suns are hot. Love is essential, love is definitional, of God. His goodness is loving. His holiness is loving. His judgments are loving. His affections, motions, purposes, and persons are loving. Father, Son, and Spirit abide together purely and forever as love.
How sweet is that! The One who designed comets and acorns, who sustains our souls and bodies, who knows every one of our days before each comes to be—he is love.
Yet slow down. We need to think about what the Bible means here. When it says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), it’s not saying there is this thing out there called love and that God measures up to it. There is no dictionary definition of love hovering outside the universe, independent of God, so that God answers to it. Rather, God in himself provides the definition, the reality, of what love is. Love is not an abstract concept but a personal quality of God.
It’s super important that you understand this. God’s own character gives us the definition and standards of love. Dictionary writers should observe God and then draft their definition of love on that basis. Anything called love that does not have its source in God is not love.
Which means that understanding what love really is requires us to look at everything else about God—his holiness, his righteousness, his goodness, and so forth. God’s righteousness, for instance, shapes his love, just as his love shapes his righteousness. The two are inseparable. Lose one and you lose the other.
Which also means that people today might say they love love, but if they reject God, they don’t really love love.
Now, you and I could name dozens of romance movies and love songs popular today or yesterday. Love sells. Love is enticing. We devote a holiday to it every February, and our children give each other stale heart-shaped candies in celebration. Love is in the air and in the culture. But remember what I’ve said. Most fundamentally, love is not something independent of God but is a personal quality or characteristic of God. So to reject God is to reject that quality or characteristic, at least in part. We might think we love love, but rejecting God means it’s something else we love.
Today you can justify pretty much anything by invoking the word love: “If they really love each other, then of course we should accept …” “If God is loving, then surely he wouldn’t …” Yet notice what’s happening in these statements. We’re no longer interested in the God who is love. Rather, we’re interested in our own ideas of love, which become god. “God is love” is traded in for “Love is god.” Instead of going before the Creator of the universe and saying, “Tell us what you are like and how you define love,” we start with our own views of love and deify them.
As a result, we harbor an idol hid in an utterly convincing costume, a lie no one can recognize, an angel of light. Love—or our notion of it— becomes the supreme justifier, boundary setter, and object of worship. That’s what a god is and does.
So now we carry around something called love which possesses all the moral authority of God himself. The trouble is, it’s not God. It’s nothing more or less than our own desires—especially the desire to rule ourselves.
A “Love” Story
I read a love story in high school that popularizes this kind of costume. Generations of students have been shaped by it.
The story opens on a sunny summer’s morning with five women gathered on a grassy plot outside a town jail. The date is unspecified, but it’s sometime in the seventeenth century. The place is a small Puritan settlement in New England called Boston.
The action begins with a hard-featured woman of fifty offering counsel to four other women:
Goodwives, I’ll tell you a piece of my mind. It would clearly be for the public’s benefit, if we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should be given responsibility for handling a malefactress1 like this Hester Prynne. What think ye, gossips? If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, would she have come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? I think not.2
The so-called hussy, Hester Prynne, has committed adultery. The proof is the infant daughter cradled in her arms inside the jailhouse. On this particular morning, the town’s magistrates have decided that Hester will emerge from her cell, proceed to the town scaffold, and receive several hours of public scorn for her sin. Along the way, and for the remainder of her days, she will be required to don an embroidered scarlet A on her chest. The A stands for adulteress.
The church is mortified, and the church’s preacher, Reverend Dimmesdale, is aghast. A second woman explains, “People say that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come on his congregation.”
It’s not just Hester’s sin that scandalizes the church and the town. It’s the fact that her illicit lover, the child’s father, remains unknown. A hypocrite is at large, a hard fact to stomach in a “land where iniquity is searched out and punished in the sight of rulers and people.”3 Hester’s refusal to reveal the father’s identity doubles her guilt, and the gaggle of gossips wants blood. A third matron speaks: “The town magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but too merciful. At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.” Then a fourth: “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there no law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and in the statute-book.”
I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter, in my junior-year English class. Perhaps you did too. The entire class was scandalized—not at the tragic heroine Hester but at the townsfolk. Did people like this really exist? We glared at them with all the disdain they poured onto Hester. How could they be so self-righteous, cruel, benighted?
Hawthorne’s own sympathies in his story are hardly hidden. His descriptions of the five gossips make them look like gargoyles. This last woman he describes as “the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges.” Compare this woman’s portrait with Hawthorne’s portrait of the woman she is attacking. The young Hester
was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. … And never had Hester Prynne appeared more lady-like … than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even started to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.
The contrast is clear. The reader can sympathize either with ugly and pitiless old women or with Hester’s shining halo of beauty—not a tough choice for most people. Who wouldn’t choose to sympathize with Hester? Employing a beautiful woman to “make the sale” is hardly an innovation of our marketing-hysterical age.
The reverend mentioned by the gossips, Arthur Dimmesdale, has a character of more complexity. It turns out that he’s the secret scoundrel who impregnated Hester and left her to absorb the town’s attack. Yet his character is more pitiful than malignant. He and Hester speak several times through the course of the book and at one point plan to run away and begin a new life together. Yet Arthur remains torn between his affections for her and society’s hold upon him. Love pulls him in one direction; the Bible and the church, in the other. All but the most pitiless reader can’t help but cheer for his liberation and their reconciliation. Ultimately, he is destroyed by the conflict between heart and mind, soul and society.
Hester’s disgrace, ironically, frees her from church convention and social constraint. Never stingy with his symbolism, Hawthorne places her ramshackle shack outside civilization in the woods where witches and Indians abide, like the unclean Jew or Gentile dog outside the ancient Israelite camp. Yet it’s out there, beyond the boundaries of respectability, that Hester is freed to love truly and divinely. She can forgive Arthur and her persecutors. She can dream of a different future with him. She can begin her career of caring for the community’s poor. She can raise the sprightly daughter who will, in the novel’s climactic moment, bend down to kiss her broken father’s forehead. Hester and daughter almost shine like angels.
Assumptions about Love
If Hawthorne were living today, he might describe himself with the well-known mantra “spiritual, not religious.” His fictionalized Puritan church codified every conceivable moral transgression and then handed these codes to the magistrate to be enforced. The problem was not the moral or spiritual impulse, Hawthorne would say. Spiritual impulses are good. The problem was placing these impulses inside a religious structure. The problem was institutionalization. Institutionalizing people’s spiritual impulses is like covering flowers in concrete in order to protect them. See how long those flowers last.
It’s worth noticing how Hawthorne managed to hit all of today’s panic buttons: the church has subsumed the state; the private has become public; religious hate-mongers scorn the young, beautiful, and free. Even an innocent daughter is made a victim.
So just what kind of “love story” is The Scarlet Letter? It is one that well illustrates the assumptions about love that many people were beginning to make in the nineteenth century when Hawthorne wrote his book, assumptions that are foregone conclusions today.
Assumption 1. No moral boundaries or judgments can be placed on love. Rather, love establishes all the boundaries. You can justify anything by saying that it’s loving or motivated by love. Heart plus heart equals marriage, teaches the bumper sticker. Love justifies extramarital affairs, divorce, fornication, cohabitation, depriving children of their biological (surrogate) mother in order to fulfill two men’s dreams of being a family, never disciplining one’s children, speaking dishonestly, and more.
Assumption 2. Love means unconditional acceptance and the end of judgment. Daytime television host Ellen DeGeneres had a guest on her show who describes herself as “nonbinary.”4 That means she refers to herself as “falling somewhere outside of the boxes of ‘man’ or ‘woman.’” She wants to be known not as a she or her but as they or them. Ellen struggled with this language but finally concluded that love gives us our answer: we accept this woman’s identity claim. “I think it’s just about letting people be who they are and love who they want to love, and if you’re not hurting anybody then there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne never envisioned any of this, but there’s a surprisingly short trip from The Scarlet Letter to a society’s acceptance of a transgender movement. If love means unconditional acceptance, so that we should accept Hester’s marital unfaithfulness, we should also accept a woman’s claim, “God did not create me as a male or a female, but as something else.”
Assumption 3. Love and authority have nothing to do with one another. Authority restrains. Love frees. Authority exploits. Love empowers. Authority steals life. Love saves life. This disassociation between love and authority is nothing new. They have been divided ever since the Serpent suggested to Adam and Eve that God’s love and God’s authority could not coexist. Yet the contrast between love and authority came into even sharper relief with the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment Romantics.
Assumption 4. It follows that love is anti-institutional. Institutions, after all, impose authority on relationships. They are rule structures. In our minds, the words love and institution just don’t fit together. Love helps relationships. Institutions hurt them.
This means we are inherently suspicious of everything in a church that smacks of institutionalism and authority. That includes talk about membership, discipline, offices, leadership structures, and so forth. Don’t make me sign anything, please. Just let me show up, enjoy the show, sing, laugh, develop relationships organically, and head to lunch with whomever I want. Once or twice a year you can ask me to volunteer in a soup kitchen. I’ll accept an annual dose of guilt. But please avoid words like commit, covenant, and correct. Those are legalistic and authoritarian.
Our Trouble with Authority
That brings us to the other topic of this book: authority. It’s something that befuddles Westerners today. We don’t like the idea of authority, as I was just saying, but our lives are suffused by it: hospital procedures, building codes, traffic laws, parental responsibilities, marriage covenants, student requirements, office rules, the laws of state, the grammar of language, the meaning of words, the rules of sports—on and on we could go.
Authority is the glue that enables people to live together. Apart from authority, all of life would be shaped by the preferences of the moment. There would be no traditions, no predictability of behavior, no stability of meaning, no shared morality.
Behind every authority structure, after all, is a moral claim. When we say, “You must do this” or “We must obey him,” we are saying it’s right to do so, and wrong not to. We are making a moral claim. “Honor your father and your mother,” for instance, is the moral basis for the authority structure between parent and child.
The trouble is, we are a society that has destroyed its own ability to say “right” and “wrong.” We have no moral vocabulary left beyond personal desire and identity. Which means it’s nearly impossible with today’s vocabulary to validate any claim to rightful authority. Even the authority of the state is typically grounded in every person’s self-interest.
Yet how then do we organize our lives together? More crucially, how do we enjoy anything of transcendent value worth protecting over time? We protect something with rules. But how do we live as anything other than beasts whose only law is writ in tooth and claw? To decry all authority is to decry anything of transcendent value in human life. It is dehumanizing.
But if we do want to affirm the good of authority, who gets to say whose evaluations and structures are right? What if someone uses his or her evaluations and structures to oppress me? History offers a heart-breakingly long list of such abuses. One group of people creates a story— a particular telling of history—that enables them to rule over another group of people, exploiting them for personal gain. Reacting to such exploitation and abuse, we become anti-authority and anti-morality.
And yet, we cannot finally escape moral evaluation and authority structures. Even a society of angels abides within them. Life indeed is impossible without them, putting Westerners into an unresolvable bind.
The Local Church
Standing against all this, opposing the world’s misconceptions of love and authority, is the divinely irksome while vaguely attractive local church. To the world, the church is both a fly in the ointment and the ointment. It spoils natural desires and inspires supernatural ones.
The world presumes to understand love and authority, like it presumes to understand God. Yet it understands these things only in their fallen forms, not in their created or redeemed forms. God, being gracious, has embedded in the hearts of humanity signs and symbols of true love and authority. Think of a wife’s love of a husband or a father’s rule over young children. Yet, at best, the world understands these things in a two-dimensional, shadowy way.
The local church serves, therefore, as a three-dimensional display of God’s love and God’s authority. No church is perfect, but there you begin to discover what God’s love and rule are like. You receive his love and authority, experience them, learn them, even practice them. This living, breathing, and ordered collective called a church demonstrates love’s demands and authority’s blessings.
By God’s design, the local church defines God’s love and authority for the world. And it’s both the relationships and the authority structures that do the work. In a biblical church, relationships and structures are inseparable, like a body and its skeleton, a game and its rules, a marriage and its vows. The love-defining life of a church depends specifically upon a structure we call a covenant, and is nourished through the oversight of elders or pastors.
Since Genesis 3 the world, the flesh, and the Devil have denied that love and authority belong together. But God’s love draws lines. It puts up boundaries. It exercises authority. It makes commitments and offers corrections. Loving churches will do the same.
To be sure, churches can draw lines, exercise authority, and offer corrections unlovingly. They often have. But don’t judge a gift by its abuses. Instruct and warn against the abuses, but then look to Scripture for guidance about the better way. It’s crucial to keep one eye fixed on lessons from the fall to guard against misuses of authority. Yet we must cast another eye on lessons from creation and redemption.
1. A woman who violates the law.
2. This and the following quotations within the same conversation are taken from the edition of Nathanael Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter that I read in high school (New York: Washington Square, 1972), 51–52. I have slightly modernized the language in several places.
3. Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, 62.
4. “Ellen Meets Trailblazing Actor Asia Kate Dillon,” March 19, 2017, https://www.ellentube.com/video/ellen-meets-trailblazing-actor-asia-kate-dillon.html.
Jonathan is editorial director for 9Marks and an adjunct professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.