I clearly remember being down at what used to be Tom and Lib Phillip’s field (now Robert and Mariam Hayes Stadium) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It was a beautiful spring afternoon and I was chatting in the outfield during batting practice with one of my non-Christian teammates about God. As these conversations often do, our discussion moved towards the topic of the afterlife. Without any hesitation at all he said to me: “But God is love and would never condemn anyone. I believe that we will all be in Heaven together one day.”
Not only do the majority of people today still believe in God, my experience tells me that most of them share a similar conviction with my old friend on the baseball team.
It’s popular or “in” to conceive of God as loving. Rarely will you hear of a Westerner say that they find the idea of a loving God grotesque or undesirable. Who would, right?
But this presents a major problem for bible-believing Christians.
Why? Wouldn’t it create some common ground and make the “bridge building” process between Christians and non-Christians easier?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think it makes it significantly harder.
Because the other beliefs that non-Christians hold along with their conception of love simply cannot be married with a Christian worldview. Which means “love” as Christians conceive of it, is not the same “love” that can be found in popular culture or in non-Christian belief systems. So if you’re a Christian, your neighbor probably doesn’t in fact agree with you about this thing called love. As D. A. Carson states:
“If people believe in God at all today, the overwhelming majority hold that this God—however, he, she, or it may be understood—is a loving being. But that is what makes the task of the Christian witness so daunting. For this widely disseminated belief in the love of God is set with increasing frequency in some matrix other than biblical theology. The result is that when informed Christians talk about the love of God, they mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture. Worse, neither side may perceive that that is the case.”
The Importance of Context
We all know that words change meaning depending upon the context in which they are used. To give a really simple example, take the word chair. As a noun it can mean a seat with a back and four legs in one sentence, as in
“Jennifer got up to throw her gum in the trash and then returned to her chair.”
Or the word chair can mean “the person in charge of a meeting or organization” in another: “John spoke up and addressed the chair.”
If you take the second sentence and use chair in the sense that it is used in the first sentence, you end up talking not to person, but to a seat with four legs. (Something that most of us would consider a bit unusual.)
Our belief system too can function this way. Take the concept of death for instance. If you are a Christian, death is bad. It was introduced into the world in response to human sin; it is a form of judgment. But if you are an atheist who believes in Darwinian evolution, then death can be conceived of much differently:
“Death…in the biblical worldview is an intruder into an otherwise ‘very good’ world, and the consequence of human sin. For the Darwinian, on the other hand, death is the necessary method of selecting out those less well-suited to survive and pass on genes, and therefore part of the ‘creative process’ of life which resulted in the arrival of human beings.”
That’s a pretty big difference.
Love too is like that. Just because two people can say that they think God is loving doesn’t in any way mean that they are on the same page. In fact, they could be in completely different ballparks.
This is what makes the task of the Christian challenging in today’s world. We have to be able to parse the differences in the various meanings of love when we are talking with our neighbors or on Sunday mornings from our pulpits.
Love is Tricky and Sticky
I think the sum of what I’m wanting to say here is this: just because your local community member says that “God loves everyone” or that “God is love”, that does not in any way mean that they agree with the Bible which says things like “God is love” and “God so loved the world…” and so on. I’ll go back to Dr. Carson to close:
“To put this another way, we live in a culture in which many other and complementary truths about God are widely disbelieved. I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God–to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity.”
God’s love cannot be conceived of in whatever way we want it to. In biblical Christianity love is something that is possible only because of God (1 John 4:19), sees discipline as necessary and healthy even (Proverbs 3:11-12), believes there is a connection between truth and love (Ephesians 4:15, 1 John 3:18), considers others as better than self (Philippians 2:3), sees the cross as the paradigm of love (Philippians 2:1-11), and the loving marriage relationship between a man and a woman as a picture of Christ’s love for his church (Ephesians 5:21-33), and finds the ultimate meaning of human love in the mutual love that existed from eternity between the members of the Trinity (John 17).
This is hardly the picture of love that we find in popular culture.
So when we assume that what we say and what the world says is the same, we may find that we are telling people that we are addressing the four legged seat with a back and not the chair of the meeting.
No wonder the world looks at us a bit cross-eyed when we talk about love.
My life is one of contradictions. I’m a southern boy living in northern New England; a boring guy married to super-fun girl; a conservative pastor in a progressive Christian denomination; a changed man in need of change; a sinner loved by a holy and perfect God.