God of love?

It seems that most every time I write something about God not hating gays or about what early Christians believed about hell, I get a healthy amount of reaction from people who feel that it is their duty, their holy obligation, to explain to me why I just don’t understand ‘love’ and how a proper understanding of God as a God of love must also include a significant amount of wrath, punishment and correction. I understand this view, as it was one to which I subscribed for a very long time.

The example most often used to describe how God is really being loving when God ‘punishes’ or ‘corrects’ people, when God sets clear boundaries, etc. is the role of a parent and a child. Of course, the reasoning goes, every decent parent knows that children must be disciplined, they must be corrected. Letting children do anything they wanted would be simply ‘unloving.’ This metaphor seems to be a natural metaphor for talking about God and the people of God. There are, however, problems with this line of reasoning.

It is one thing to say that a parent must correct and discipline his/her children when they talk back or try to touch a hot stove. It is another thing entirely, though, to say that who a child is at his very core is wrong. Where do we draw the line? A pop on the wrist may be fine, a spanking, but what about when it leads to a punch, or isolation, or forced cold showers? When does loving correction become abuse? Well, the parent who abuses his children doesn’t really love his children, you might say. But he is convinced that he does and that, in fact, it is his love for his child that makes him ‘correct’ his child in this way. If we want to use the metaphor of God as a parent, then we too have to distinguish between when God is lovingly correcting the people of God and when God becomes demeaning and abusive.

At the heart of this view of God is the idea that ‘justice’ equals whatever God does, or more accurately, whatever the Bible says that God does. That is, under this understanding of God, no one could ever question any of God’s actions because they are inherently just, for it is God who did them. As Nixon said, “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Or put another way, “when God does it, that means that it is not wrong.”

It is this type of reasoning that allows people to say that genocide is acceptable if God ordained it, as God very clearly does in the conquest narratives in Exodus, Joshua and Judges. It is this type of reasoning that can even entertain the idea that a God whom you call ‘loving’ is capable of, and right in, demanding the genocide of whole people groups simply because they lived in a small plot of land that this God had promised to another group. I know I’ve changed a lot over the years, but I simply cannot comprehend in what world this could be construed as ‘love.’

There is no denying that the Bible is full of portraits that present God as wrathful. There are also numerous portraits of God in the Bible as caring and loving. What I recognize and appreciate is that these various portraits of God tell us a story of how different people have experienced God over time and have attempted to understand this God. I can accept that different people experience God differently.

As I see it, this is not an issue of who has the correct description of God, of who has peered through the veil and truly glimpsed the character of God; for we all see dimly now. I am convinced that the absolute best and most honest thing that we can do is talk about the God of our understanding. I can accept that we have different life experiences, different world views, different personalities, and thus different understandings of God.

What I cannot accept is that I am somehow the one with a deficient understanding of ‘love’ because my definition of ‘love’ does not include hate, discrimination, and genocide.

Thomas Whitley

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Thomas Whitley holds a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity from Gardner-Webb University. He is currently working on a PhD in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. He regularly writes on religion, technology, and politics at thomaswhitley.com.

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  • http://www.samharrelson.com/ Sam Harrelson

    However, by layering Greco-Roman philosophical concepts such as “justice” and “injustice” onto scriptures written and held sacred by communities in Judea and Israel, you are being a complete relativist yourself, Wilkins.

    Our accepted tradition has God revealing the covenant to groups who weren’t using the same ideas of justice and injustice and even love that we’ve inherited in our western traditions from Greece and Rome. It’s a wonderful but demanding friction that we have to wade through as believers and Bible readers in a 21st Century western context.

    What Whitley points to in his post is that friction of wrestling with God over things we don’t understand because of our own backgrounds and tradition (which is how we got to the name Israel to begin with).

    For me and my family, we’ll continue to read and wrestle with God and follow Jesus as he leads us on a path that we can never fully comprehend but willingly take because we know that ultimate love is about discovery rather than doctrine.

    • Ray Wilkins

      The biblical concept of justice precedes Greco-Roman concepts and justice is equated with the will of God not Pax Romana. Not sure what point you are trying to make. Are you saying that we cannot know what God was revealing to Israel? I would disagree. I believe it is entirely possible through language, history, archaeology, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discover exactly what God was revealing.

      As for doctrine, living correctly under the love of God cannot be done without doctrinal truth. If doctrine is unimportant than most, if not all, of the NT is inconsequential. Your implication that ultimate love is about discovery has much more of a Hindu characteristic than a Christian characteristic.