As we speak of God’s love what comes to mind for us? Is it a dose of sugar, syrup and all things sweet? Or is it rough, tough and as strong as steel?
I hope the question and the comparison seems absurd! Love, and God’s love in particular, is a relational reality that invites more profound analogies than these.
So why do I ask? Because I’ve experienced the syrup analogy more than a few times as I’ve spoken to varied audiences of God’s love as the basis for both salvation and spiritual growth—with saving faith located in our response to God’s love. Most of the time the critique isn’t offered to me directly nor with that exact analogy; rather it comes indirectly, through comments that float back to me. As in: “I don’t believe we’re called to follow our emotions—real faith is much more objective than that.” Or, “We’re called to be committed to God’s word, not to our inward impulses!”
So there it is: a quick rhetorical dismissal. By this bit of rhetoric an objective and strong-minded—“reliable”—version of faith is pitted against a subjective faith that depends on selfish and misguided impulses of love. The charge is no stronger than the sloppy analogy of steel versus syrup, but it often works in dismissing the affective thrust of the gospel while replacing it with a dispassionate faith.
But the latter course is wrong—dead wrong. The biblical reality is that God’s love is at the center of all our other realities. It divides truth from falsehood: we will either love God or hate him; we serve him or despise him. His love accounts for our creation and salvation as he created us to be his Son’s eternal possession, the bride of Christ, which comes into being when, in faith, we are united to him. It was love that caused the Son to be lifted up on the cross for our sakes—to save us at the cost of his redemptive death. It was winsome love that invited John to press himself nearer to Christ in tender devotion at the last supper. It was Christ’s love that turned Lazarus, Mary, and Martha into his committed followers who could all face death without losing confidence in him. It was love birthed in God’s heart which, in turn, is meant to move our hearts as well.
Jonathan Edwards makes the case for love in a brilliant set of sermons, published as Charity and Its Fruits, in which he unpacks Paul’s chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. By treating it as vastly more than a wedding text he traces how love is to be the defining motivation for all believers. Love is, he wrote, “the sum of the Christian spirit” which disposes us to imitate God. Every other work or spiritual activity flows from the gift of God’s love; and any activities done apart from love—even in the name of Christ—are void of value.
I invite readers, then, to ask how often the charge of subjectivity—of our supposed preference for syrup over steel—has deflected us from listening to God’s heart. Yet if we ignore our detractors, and as we affirm biblical love as our ultimate motivation, then we have only begun to get it. Our ambition in eternity, after all, will be to know Christ’s love for us “which surpasses knowledge.” That, my friends, may take forever. And through eternity our bond with this one who is both profoundly strong and forever tender will expose the rhetorical nonsense of this age for what it is: absolute nonsense.