‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) – the simplest and most profound statement in the Bible.
It is often pointed out that everything we say about God is a metaphor. A metaphor says that one thing is like another, but not exactly the same. It is like it in some ways but not in others. When the Psalm says ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ it means that the Lord cares for me, guides me and feeds me like a shepherd, but it doesn’t mean he is fattening me up to sell me for slaughter. When we call God a Rock, we mean he is strong and reliable, but we don’t mean he is hard, cold and dead. Calling God ‘Father’ is a great statement of trust, but it doesn’t mean he fathered us in the usual human way.
But what about ‘God is love’? Is God like love in some ways but not in others? And how can God be ‘like’ love anyway? The biblical writer could have said ‘God is a loving person’, but I suspect that in saying ‘God is love’ he was trying to express something more than that. Even ‘person’ is a kind of metaphor when we are talking about God. A person is an individual, distinct from others, who can only be in one place at a time. So how can the God who pervades the universe, ‘walks’ alongside us and lives within us be simply a person? Perhaps ‘God is love’ means just what it says. Where we find love, God is there.
This is good news for everybody – not just for religious people, mystics or a spiritual elite. Every one of us knows what love is. Some experience more of it than others, some give more of it than others, but even the most deprived (or depraved) have some perception of what it is. There is something in every one of us, even if we deny it, that longs to love and be loved. If a relationship with God has to start with love, we are all ready to start.
At the same time, to believe that God is love is the most audacious act of faith. Where is the evidence? The universe doesn’t seem to care about our safety or happiness. Living things live by destroying and feeding on other living things. We share the planet with viruses and parasites that can cause us terrible pain and sickness, and animals that can kill us if they get the slightest chance. Human beings can do atrocious things to one another. Most of the universe is space in which nothing can live, and even this planet – which, as far as we know so far, is the only place where intelligent life exists – is subject to earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and collision with comets and meteors. In this universe, where is the evidence of a God who is love?
And yet love exists. We are loved and we love, and somehow we know this is the greatest thing there is. Something tells us to believe in spite of the evidence, and somehow by believing we make the evidence. In a world where absolute certainty does not exist, this is the best we have.