We live in a world where the harshness of life, its brevity, its seemingly random catastrophes, its hollowness, its moments of malignancy , and its violence suggest that there is no God and if there is a god, not a god of love. Yet the Christian community continues to insist that however bleak and confusing the human condition is, there is a God of love.
To believe in a God of love seems to be naïve and sentimental, a bit like believing in Father Christmas. Yet a search of the New Testament discerns a unique kind of love, the holy love of God, mirrored in Jesus Christ. This love is at the heart of the universe and it is demonstrated at its most vulnerable and profound in the cross of Christ. If there is one verse most Christians have memorised its John chapter three verse sixteen which begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his son”. This gift of love is viewed not just in the loving and compassionate life of Jesus but supremely in his selfless death on the cross. Love for Christians is not all sugary and fuzzy, it is not shaped by Hollywood but by the cross; self-emptying, self-giving and sacrificial love. Sometimes we think of the love of God in very human terms, like romantic love or self-indulgent love. The love of God has an altogether different quality.
Many years ago I read Anders Nyrgren’s book Agape and Eros. His book was more than a narrow study of two Greek words for two different types of love-agape and eros. Rather he was arguing that there is a love that comes from above, from God, agape love and a love that begins below, human love. While Nyrgren has his critics I think he makes a helpful point. There is the kind of love that begins with God and the kind of love that begins with self. One is essentially God centred while the other can be self-centred. Maybe it’s a bit like a story Jesus told about two people praying, a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18). In the story both come to the temple, both pray, but their prayers come from very different places and so their lives are lived out in two very different ways. The tax collector, probably a collaborator of the Roman occupiers, would have been deeply resented by most of the occupied population of Palestine. Tax collectors were known as having an unsavoury reputation; they lined their own pockets by overcharging and exploiting their position. The Pharisee by contrast was highly respected, a pillar of society, morally upright and in a position of influence. He was punctilious and devout .Moreover he was proud of his religious practice, parading it like a virtue.
The Pharisee was proud and self-sufficient. This led to a sense of self-congratulation and ultimately self-delusion. By contrast the tax collector was humble, deeply aware of the flaws in his humanity and painfully aware of what he had become. While the Pharisee looked to himself, the tax collector looked to God. The Pharisee wanted applause and recognition from others, while the tax collector wanted grace and forgiveness from God. One loved himself too much while the other knew he needed the love of God. The parable points to two kinds of love and two sources of love; human and divine. Not every expression of love is a good love. Like any gift from God, love can be distorted, misused and misdirected. At worse it can become narcissistic.
Yes the world needs love, but not any kind of love. The best kind is the one we find in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This holy love brings the best out in us and in others: and has the potential to bring healing, forgiveness and reconciliation to our broken world. This love is the love of Christ. I don’t know about you but I need more of it.