Words often become misused. And when a word becomes misused, its true meaning often gets lost in the jumble of nuances and colloquialisms. The word “love” is just such a word. Today our word “love” can mean anything from the highest expression of self-sacrifice and devotion to no more than lustful self-gratification or a fondness for a particular flavor of ice cream. Knowing that the word “love” can have multiple meanings, the Greeks had four “L-words” to express various aspects of love. The word eros, where we get our word “erotic,” is not even used in the New Testament due to its association with pagan practices. Family love, especially the love between parents and children, is expressed by the word storge. A third word for “love,” philia, lends itself to the name of “the city of brotherly love,” Philadelphia; it expresses the love of friendship, liking, warm affection, and attractive appeal. Probably the one most familiar to Christians and non-Christians is the word agape, and because it is so popular it is often misunderstood. It is the love of choice. Personal appeal or attraction has nothing to do with it. God does not love us because we are so attractive and appealing, but because He chose to love.
Misunderstandings About God’s Love
God’s love for man has been the subject of innumerable sermons, books, speeches, and articles–as well it should. There is no greater truth than, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). But there has also been a great deal of erroneous, harmful, syrupy, sentimental, and misleading information propagated by people who impose their own understanding on what the Bible teaches. Many have changed “God is love” (1 John 4:8) into “love is God,” thus replacing the God of the Bible with a god whose nature consists of only one attribute. While much has been said about God’s love of us, comparatively little has been said concerning our love of God. What sort of response should come from people who claim to believe that God does in fact love them and has given His Son for them?
To tell most people today that God loves them comes as no surprise. That’s His job, right? After all, what’s not to love? But ask someone if they love God, and you are likely to be answered with a blank expression. It is like asking someone if they love broccoli; they know it is supposed to be good for them, but they can’t stomach a steady diet. No matter that this is the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind;” (Luke 10:27; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5). But what does it mean to love God with all your mind? It means to love God as He really is, as He has revealed Himself in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. It means to think rightly of God and not impose on Him our own prejudices of what we want God to be like. It means to worship Him as He really is, in spirit and truth, and not a god of our own imagination.
It is a simple fact that no one can love that which they do not know. The heart cannot be drawn to that which it has no understanding. Without an understanding there is no inducement to love. Before a person can love, he must have some knowledge of the object of his affection; otherwise, his affection has no object, and this is contrary to human nature and all rational thinking. Knowledge is indispensable to love, and love is impossible without knowledge. If, however, a person’s love is based on inaccurate, misleading, or faulty knowledge, then his love is based on what he imagines a person to be, not on who he really is.
Those who prefer to think of “God is love” and only love, forget that the primary object of God’s love is Himself, not mankind. God loves Himself above all else. He is the supreme object of His love. God loves all that is holy, righteous, good, just, and pure. Since God is the epitome of holiness, He cannot but love Himself more than He loves any creature which is less holy than Himself. He is jealous of His holiness, of His glory, and of His righteousness. God can no more jeopardize these attributes without jeopardizing His own nature. If He were to be other than He is, He would cease to be God. “I am the LORD, that is my name; I will not give My glory to another, nor my praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8).
We Cannot Impose Our Own Understanding
When people impose their own understanding on God, when they imagine Him to be someone other than who He is, they in essence believe the god of their own imagination is more perfect than God as He is revealed in His revelation. They find fault with God as He is. Perhaps He does not conform to their human sense of fairness, or is not as tolerant of sin as they would like Him to be. Perhaps His demands seem too strict, His definition of sin too narrow, His assessment of man’s nature too demeaning and pessimistic, His commands too restrictive and unyielding, His plan of salvation too exclusive, and His government too authoritarian. They prefer their own conception of God over what He has revealed Himself to be. They believe their own understanding of God to be superior to the Bible’s revelation of God. Like the elders of Israel, “these men have set up their idols in their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:3).
We are totally dependent on divine revelation to know anything about God, especially information regarding salvation, repentance, sin, our nature, and what God requires of us. The information which God has revealed about Himself in creation, mankind suppresses in unrighteousness (cf. Romans 1:18-23). Not only did God reveal Himself in His word, but He actually took on human flesh and bones, and He lived among sinners to show us the true nature of God (cf. John 14:8, 9; Hebrews 1:3). This is why the most devout and fastidiously religious people in the world rejected and hated the Son of God–because He was so unlike what they imagined God to be, and so unlike what they expected the Messiah to be. The reason the Jews rejected Jesus was because they had already rejected God as He is. Jesus confronted the religious people of His day with their willful rejection of biblical truth,
And you do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament), because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you might have life…Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you had believed Moses (and they didn’t) you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me. But if you do not believe his writings (and they didn’t) how will you believe My words (John 5:39, 40,45-47)?
They did not believe Jesus because they did not believe the Bible, and they did not believe the Bible because, just like their forefathers who were exiled to Assyria, they did not believe in God. Their hope was in their own ability to keep the Mosaic Law, not in the One who gave the law. They worshiped a god of their own imagination. They had “a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2). Despite all their scholarship, all their ostentatious religious practices, all their effort, all their devotion, all their external displays of religious ceremony and symbolism, and all their meticulous study, they never really knew God, “they do not know the One who sent Me” (John 15:21b). They rejected God’s righteousness and sought to establish their own (Romans 10:3). While claiming to be teachers of Scripture and experts in the law, in practice they actually rejected the very Scripture they professed to believe and hated the very God they professed to love. Jesus said, “He who hates Me hates My Father also” (John 15:23), and they hated Jesus enough to kill Him. It can’t get any clearer than that.
When You Sincerely Love God
When someone sincerely loves God as He is, each new discovery into the nature of God, each new insight into His character, each fresh understanding of His attributes is met with a sense of wonder, awe, and astonishment at the immensity, greatness, and power of God–as well as a humbling of our own self-importance and a sense of our own sinfulness and nothingness. Job discovered this after being interrogated by God, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5, 6). And with this new knowledge comes a greater love for God, a greater awareness of our own inherent wickedness, and the recognition that our love falls far short of what God deserves. We desire to love Him more than we are currently capable of loving Him. A true knowledge of God does not provide an ego boost.
We can only love God because He first loved us enough to reveal Himself to us, and He loves that He may be beloved. When we love God as He is and for who He is, when we return the love that we have received, we then have communion with Him. This is the whole purpose of salvation, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (Ephesians 1:4, 5). It begins in the love of God to us and ends in our love to Him.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our brief video interview with John Fast about his ministry and writing process.