I cannot think of a more simple, concise, and soaring description of the character and nature of God in all of Scripture than John’s elegant “God is love” (4:8, 4:16). And yet I can hardly think of any verse or descriptor that is more easily misappropriated.
The simple and pithy elegance lends itself to misinterpretation, for the phrase “God is love” is much easier to remember than the deep theological explanation that follows. Without really noticing our mistake, we take the precise descriptor “God is love” and we flip it around to assume that “Love is God.”
Within this easy fallacy, we deify in practice any emotion that we presume to be love. Understanding the real truth that God is the only one who can satisfy our innate longings to be known and loved, we go “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places” (Johnny Lee) and assign a deeply felt but pseudo divinity to what we find, whether in relationships, things, or experiences.
I told several girls in high school and college that I loved them. While I was (only occasionally, let’s be honest) sincere, in retrospect I can see that what I meant was, “I really like how good you make me feel.” I am quite sure that is also what they meant when they told me they loved me too!
Though there’s nothing wrong with feeling good, there can indeed be something wrong with where we go to get that good feeling. There was a profound self-centeredness in the type of “love” I was professing, and “I like[d] it, I love[d] it, I want[ed] more of it!” (Tim McGraw).
The reason all those romances eventually failed is that there was a limit to the other person’s capacity to provide that good feeling (or, as was more often the case, vice versa ☹). We can apply that to virtually every pseudo love we deify, including that of our spouses. And ex-spouses.
Love is not God, but God is indeed love. Love is the nature of God. His awesome creation, his perfect holiness, his terrifying judgment, and his sanctifying grace all are consistent with his character of love.
Yet when John writes that God is love, he is absolutely not saying that God really likes the way you make him feel; nor is he saying that God is a gushy feeling. We know this because of what John writes next:
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (4:9-11)
The love of God pours out in sacrificial self-giving. The love of God gives relentlessly without demanding any return on investment. The love of God finds its fullest expression in the atoning death of God the Son, covering us freely by faith and without any requirement of merit.
To say that God is love is not to say that all that we call love should be deified; rather it is to say that the very nature of God is to deserve our perfect obedience and affection, yet to offer his full life so that what he deserves from us is fulfilled on our behalf. To say that God is love is to say that he has paid the price to forgive our sin of self-satisfying unbelief.
I don’t mind telling you that I really like how good that makes me feel.