Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
You came near when I called on you; you said, “Do not fear!” (Lamentations 3:57)
Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)
My six-year-old grandson was recently given an assignment by his first grade teacher to write a list of things he was worried about. They had just read a book called Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes about a little mouse who worried about everything—things both great and small. Wyatt’s list was heartbreaking: “Tornadoes come. I die. My baby sister gets hurt. Mom dies.” For me, it was a great insight into the mind of a small child. Many of us think that young children are worry free. Quite the contrary, they are consumed by existential fears.
I remember as a child going into the dark and dank basement of my house, an aging two-story two-family flat. A light switch on the second floor dimly lit the winding stairs to the basement, but at the bottom, the basement itself was engulfed in darkness and held hidden terror. Several feet from the foot of the stairs was a single light bulb with a string attached to a chain pull. One had to step out into the fearful gloom and reach out in the murky darkness to find the string and turn on the light. Until the light came on, the experience was gut-wrenchingly frightening. Even then, with the sole bulb lit, evil seemed to lurk in the surrounding shadows. I remember a sense of dread and panic overtake me each time I had to descend alone into the darkness.
But children are not the only ones with fears of terror and misfortune. Adults worry too—about things great and small. Currently—at least if you listen to the 24/7 cable news channels—Americans are consumed with fear about the Ebola virus in Africa and Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq, dangers that are far away and unlikely to affect us here. Strangely, they seem to ignore the much more significant threat of gun violence by their armed neighbors at home. Mostly, however, they worry about the practical things of life—jobs, financial security, college costs, medical coverage, retirement, illness, and death. We are all plagued by anxiety about what the future holds. But the Bible says repeatedly, “fear not!”
The expression ‘fear not,’ or ‘have no fear’ or ‘do not be afraid’ is found approximately 115 times in the Bible, spoken again and again in the Hebrew Bible by Yahweh and the prophets, and in the gospels by Jesus and angelic messengers. It is also found in the Hebrew Psalms and in the letters of various authors in the New Testament. Altogether, it is one of the most commonly found phrases in the Bible. In the larger sense, the biblical message seems to be that although things may appear bleak right now and that evil seems to be winning, there is hope that God will act to transform the future.
Yahweh: rescuer and protector
In the Hebrew Bible, the recurring message is that Yahweh/Elohim is an all-powerful God who will act to save both the nation and the individual from harm. It was Yahweh who delivered the people from slavery in Egypt. It was Yahweh who fed the people on their journey through the wilderness. It was Yahweh who directed the tribes of Israel to conquer a new homeland by slaughtering the previous residents. Yahweh was the savior of the people and the victor over their enemies.
Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:8-9)
Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah reminded the people of Israel that Yahweh would continue to protect them.
Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2-5)
Other Hebrew writers conveyed a similar message: to take strength and courage from Yahweh’s continuing presence among his people.
Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is Yahweh your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:6)
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for Yahweh your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)
The Psalmists took this message to a personal level, no longer speaking just of Yahweh’s concern for the nation, but also of the individual.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock. (Psalm 27:1-14)
the gospels: a leap of faith
In the New Testament, a message of courage and hope begins with the arrival of angels. In the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the sudden appearance of angelic messengers was surely enough to cause trepidation, but the fears of Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds were met with the words “Do not be afraid.” Listen, the angels announced, there is good news of great joy! Things are about to change! Take comfort that God is continuing to work on behalf of God’s people—God will come to the aid of the poor and the needy.
Later, as Jesus called his disciples to leave their everyday occupations to follow him, he encouraged them to move past their fears about embarking on the unknown.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10)
Take this leap of faith with me, Jesus tells his followers. Simply believe that we can change the world and God will give us the power to do it.
Jesus called people out of their comfort zones and comfortable lives into the risky business of the kingdom of God. In the end, however, his mission of healing and hope for the poor got him arrested, beaten, and killed by powerful men who wanted no part of the change he proclaimed. When things turned bad, the disciples fled in terror. Fear consumed them.
At dawn on Easter Sunday, an angel announced a message of hope and courage to the frightened and cautious women who came to the tomb to anoint the body.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” (Matthew 28:1-6)
When Jesus later appeared directly to the surprised women, he offered the same message of courage.
Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 28:10)
the Son of Man: turning the tables
Before the story of the resurrection, an earlier episode in the tenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel provides a glimpse to what actually happened to Jesus’ followers over the next four decades following his death. It reflects an apocalyptic view of the future. In a lengthy monologue, Jesus tries to encourage his followers to remain faithful in the face of persecution and possible death with the words “do not worry” and “do not fear.”
See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them [the religious authorities], for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:16-23)
In these passages from Matthew, Jesus speaks of two related kinds of fear: first, an anxiety about slander and persecution by friends, family, and religious leaders, and second, fear of bodily harm and possibly death at the hands of civil authorities—governors and kings. These are the consequences that Jesus himself suffered by being faithful to his vision of God’s new reign in the midst of a domination system. And facing these same consequences must have caused great anxiety among those who sought to follow him.
Yet, many scholars of the historical Jesus suggest that these words were placed in the mouth of Jesus by the writer of Matthew’s gospel and were not the authentic words of Jesus himself. In this passage, Jesus is describing events that followed the massive destruction of Jerusalem and Herod’s temple in 70 CE about 40 years after his death. Without the institution of the temple and its priesthood, Judaism had to reinvent itself as a synagogue-based institution in order to survive. In the years and decades that followed, Rabbinic Judaism found itself in conflict with Jesus Judaism, resulting in a purge of Jesus’ followers by synagogue authorities and a growing division from more orthodox Jewish neighbors and family members. The anti-imperial stance of the Jesus movement also put his followers into conflict with the civil authorities appointed by Rome. Matthew wants to remind the followers of Jesus that in order to remain faithful they must be prepared to suffer the same fate that Jesus did.
A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! (Matthew 10:24-25)
Early in Mark’s gospel, the Scribes and Pharisees had accused Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, and not by the power of God. (Mark 3:22) In Matthew’s gospel, the author suggests that Jesus himself had been labeled with the denigrating title ‘Beelzebul’ by his religious opponents. The Semitic term Ba’al Zebul means ‘lord of the flies,’ implying that Beelzebul is a master or ruler of a demonic realm that reeks of filth, garbage, or excrement (the ‘lord of dung’ might be another way to put it) and that his followers were like the flies that swarmed about the rotting stench. This is the implication hurled at Jesus and his disciples by religious authorities. But Matthew’s Jesus offers words of encouragement to his followers that all this will soon change.
So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (Matthew 10:26-28)
Here we again hear the voice of Matthew coming strongly through the words of Jesus. Initially, the message is this: do not fear your persecutors because God will soon reveal the truth about those who are truly faithful and righteous. You will be vindicated. All the talk, abuse, wrong accusations, lies, and mistreatment inflicted upon the followers of Jesus will be dealt with by the apocalyptic Son of Man on an imminent Day of Judgment. Take hope, for there will soon be a cosmic reckoning. Some folks are going to be very sorry for the torment they have inflicted, while others will regret their lack of faithfulness in the face of persecution. The coming Son of Man will take revenge: persecutors will be persecuted and tormentors will be tormented.
A second message is that we should not fear death at the hands of the authorities, because there are worse things than bodily death. Compared with the fate that awaits unbelievers and the unfaithful, physical death is a far less fearful prospect. Matthew’s Jesus declares that his followers should instead fear God who has the power to destroy both body and soul in the fires of Gehenna—a metaphor for a place of punishment similar to our concept of hell. In typical Matthean fashion, Jesus implies that eternal rewards and punishments will be meted out at the Day of Judgment when the Son of Man returns.
Centuries earlier, a Hebrew poet had similarly reflected on the human threat of death:
The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? (Psalm 118:6)
Although Matthew’s Jesus gives his followers words of encouragement, they seem to be rooted in hopes for a future apocalyptic vindication (a carrot) and the avoidance of eternal punishment (a stick). For many Christians, this is still the kind of religious hope they cling to.
fear of God
Throughout the Bible, two concepts about fear are often intertwined: first, that we should not fear the power of other human beings, and second, that we should have an appropriate fear of God. If anyone is to be feared—the Bible seems to say—it is God. In other words, it is desirable to have the biblical God as one’s friend and not one’s enemy.
On a softer note, Jesus reminds his followers of God’s compassion and care.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)
Jesus declares that God is watching over his children with love and tenderness. Thus, side-by-side in Matthew’s gospel we find two seemingly irreconcilable images: God’s abiding love today and God’s eschatological vindictiveness tomorrow. The life of Jesus continually revealed a God who is characterized by love, compassion, and forgiveness. The later New Testament image of a vindictive God is inconsistent with everything that Jesus taught and embodied. Matthew unfortunately has led us astray in our understanding of Jesus and the God who empowered his life.
Luke, however, takes this same message about the sparrows and the hairs of our heads and tacks on an eschatological warning about remaining faithful.
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. (Luke 12:6-9)
The apocalyptic Son of Man is not to be trifled with. The early church transformed the teacher of love, forgiveness, and peace into a returning warrior and judge.
facing our fears
Nowhere does Jesus promise his followers that God will protect them from harm, but instead implies that God will be on their side if they remain faithful to the vision of the kingdom of God. There is a big difference. We have plenty to fear in this life. It is inevitable that we will all experience loss, suffering, pain, and death. That is the very nature of human existence. Franklin Delano Roosevelt counseled a country that had experienced the worst economic devastation in its history with the words “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear can be debilitating. It can sap the life out of us. To be a faithful follower of Jesus, however, we must learn to confront our fears and move beyond them. Still, it is difficult to face our fears alone. That is why we need one another.
If we are able to stop living in fear, we begin to live authentically in the Way of Jesus. Only those who can get beyond fear by trusting in God and/or those around them can truly learn to forgive and love. This is a trust that we are not alone as we go through misfortune. A psalmist stated that trust is the only antidote to fear:
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (Psalm 56:3)
Yet, fear and anxiety seem to be the hallmarks of contemporary life. Fear consumes us. Our sense of anxiety is an interpretation of the primal fight-or-flight survival mechanism as filtered and distorted by thousands of years of civilized living. Fear leads to a stance of self-preservation at the expense of others expressed in a lifestyle and a politics of selfishness. Fear pits people against people as competitors. It is the root of racism and homophobia. It leads to building walls along our borders to keep out desperate strangers. It is the leading cause of gun ownership in the United States today. Fear leads to an exaggeration of overseas threats and the dedication of over half of our national tax revenue into military expenses. It diverts our treasury from the common good into the arsenals of never-ending war.
To counter our fears, we typically try to control the world around us, but it is simply beyond our control. It is only when we surrender ourselves to the idea that we can’t actually control anything and begin to confront our fears, that we have the chance of moving past fear into lives of faith, hope, and love.
Jesus counseled his followers to move beyond their anxieties about daily life.
And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:22-26)
a God of weakness
Much of the traditional theology expressed in the Bible is based on the idea that God is an all-powerful being concerned with our welfare and that God has repeatedly intervened in history and will continue to intervene in the future for those who put their trust in God—those who rely on God’s power and not their own.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) disagreed. He came to regard God not as an omnipotent interventionist, but as weak and powerless. In Jesus—as an image and icon of God—he saw weakness and suffering as the way God operates in the world. He reasoned that if Jesus is the decisive revelation of God’s nature, then the weakness and suffering of Jesus on the cross can be viewed as an image of God’s weakness in the world. In one of his letters from prison, Bonhoeffer said:
[God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us . . . Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a Deus ex machina. The Bible however directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help.
The Latin phrase Deus ex machina (day’-us eks mack’-in-ah) meaning ‘God out of the machine,’ refers to situations in ancient Greek theater in which a crane was used to lower an actor playing the part of a god onto the stage. Bonhoeffer uses the term to refer to the religious hope that God will miraculously step in to resolve a hopeless situation like a comic book action hero. Bonhoeffer believed that God does not step in and does not intervene in history to save us. His view of history from the first half of the twentieth century—two world wars, the holocaust, and a global economic depression—was evidence enough that God does not act in this way.
Bonhoeffer, who saw God in Jesus, believed that God is found most definitively in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. But he went further to state that God suffers not just with Jesus, but with all the victims of the world. “Our God is a suffering God,” he said. But exactly how does God suffer? And what does that mean about the nature of God?
Our belief in God is predicated on two human needs. First, we need to understand the universe—how it came about, how it works, what it all means. This is primarily an intellectual need. When faced with the mystery of the cosmos and with things we simply cannot explain, God is our answer. Second, we need to feel that someone greater than us cares for us and looks out for our welfare. This is a psychological need. When faced with pain and suffering, with emptiness and despair, with tragedy and death, God is our answer. We deeply desire a God who will walk beside us and comfort us, like a loving parent with a child, loving us unconditionally.
So, we find two dimensions of God to be important. God is simultaneously both cosmic and personal. God plays the distinctly different roles of creator and comforter. Another way of saying this is that God is both transcendent (wholly separate from and beyond the material universe) and immanent (a presence that exists within our personal lives).
We long for a powerful God who can alter reality, perform miracles, and rescue us in times of need. But there is little evidence that this supernatural being exists or is active in this way. Instead, we witness tragedy on a personal and global scale. One of the bloodiest centuries in history lies behind us. In the wars of the twentieth century, more than 62 million civilians were killed (including the six million victims of the holocaust), in addition to 43 million military combatants. For the last 100 years, about 500,000 civilians per year have been killed by warring nations. More people were killed in twentieth century wars than all those in the preceding ten thousand years. And so we ask, how has God intervened in history for human good?
Instead, we witness God’s hiddenness and silence. This is what Bonhoeffer reflected on. God has not stepped in to save the victims of violence and economic deprivation. Children around the world remain hungry and diseased. So, we need to rethink the nature of God in the face of this reality. And in the face of this, who do we trust to help us in times of need?
If God cannot not help us, it is up to each of us to become the hands and feet and voices of a God of love. Rather than waiting for God to act, it is now up to us.
a God who dwells among us
Near the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, we find a remarkable image by a writer who offered courage in the face of a demonic imperial power. The images and metaphors in Revelation were intended to provide the followers of Jesus with a message of hope. The author, who we know as John of Patmos, describes the image of a new city of Jerusalem descending from the heavens to the earth.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3)
The message at the end of the book was that humanity was now to be the dwelling place for God. The new city of Jerusalem was the author’s metaphor for the church—not the institutional church, which did not yet exist—but instead a symbol for the people of God in the Jesus movement. Rather than a transcendent God somewhere out there, the message was that God now dwells among us here and now. God’s presence among us is a source of hope and courage in the face of despair.
I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this passage:
Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women!
This is a different way of looking at incarnation. Rather than God being incarnate in one special person—Jesus—God is no longer seen as a separate being who dwells apart from us in a temple or in the clouds, but is now imagined as incarnate in everyone. God has become one with humanity. God is part of each of us, a sacred spark at the core of every human being, a divine presence hidden deep within. For countless centuries, humans have located God outside of themselves. But, a theology of incarnation locates God within.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink (1935–2012) came to a similar conclusion that God dwells with and within humanity, but from a different biblical tack. In The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, Wink addresses the Genesis claim that humanity is created in the image of God.
To say that we humans are made in the image of God, male and female, means that we are somehow ‘like’ God in our mundane existence. But we are not yet fully human. For now, we are only promissory notes, hints, intimations…
If God is in some sense true humanness, then divinity inverts itself. Divinity is not a qualitatively different reality; quite the reverse, divinity is fully realized humanity. Only God is, as it were, Human. The goal of life, then, is not to become something we are not—divine—but to become what we truly are—human. We are not required to become divine: flawless, perfect, without blemish. We are invited simply to become human, which means growing through our sins and mistakes, learning by trial and error, being redeemed over and over from compulsive behavior—becoming ourselves, scars and all. It means embracing and transforming those elements in us that we find unacceptable. It means giving up pretending to be good and, instead, becoming real.
From Genesis to Revelation, we find biblical glimpses that God has taken up residence in humanity, that God is no longer somewhere out there, but is instead found deep within the human spirit.
a new image of God
So, some religious thinkers—both ancient and modern—believe that God has come to dwell with humanity. God has become one with us. If God is not found at the heights of creation, but at the most profound depths of our being, then a new image of God emerges. The term ‘God’ now becomes a language symbol that represents the deepest and best parts of human nature—our capacity to love.
What we are seeing is a profound shift in our understanding of God. It is not necessarily a new view, but it is becoming more prevalent. In this theological viewpoint, God is no longer transcendent—out there, separate from us and our world. God is now immanent—existing completely and entirely within the hearts and minds of human beings. God is no longer omnipotent—an all-powerful being. Now God is as weak and powerless as we are, as weak and powerless as Jesus was on the cross. God is now present with us in our suffering and joy, and is active in our love and compassion for others. God no longer intervenes in the world in some magical way. God now works through us to save, to heal, to comfort, and to establish justice and peace in this life. This is an image of God that totally rejects the God of supernatural theism. An immanent God is no longer supernatural, but is at home in nature, especially within human nature, because God is essentially a part of us. Many atheists and agnostics could conceivably embrace this understanding of divinity, since what they have reacted to with their position of disbelief or unknowing is the image of a supernatural theistic God.
Of course, like any other image of God we cannot know if this theological construct is true. But if we act like God is within us and among us as we take on the divine task of caring for the welfare of all people and all life on earth, then we make it true. Like any image of God, it is only necessary to believe it—and to live like we mean it—to make it real in a tangible way.
This is a conception of God that can be meaningful for modern and postmodern people. It has biblical foundations, yet it doesn’t restrict God to one tribe or religion on the earth. This is a God who lives within and among all people. This is an image of God that transcends religion. Perhaps this is a concept of God that does away with religion altogether—the foundation of a ‘religionless’ Christianity.
God as love
A remarkable document in the New Testament, written about 70 years after the death of Jesus, took theological thinking in the early Christian community to a significantly new level. We have no idea who wrote the treatise that we now refer to as the first epistle or first letter of John. Some authorities claim that this writer is the same author who wrote the gospel of John, but without much evidence other than tradition to back that up. Although the writing style is different, the author of ‘First John’ seems to have some familiarity with ideas expressed in the gospel of John and may have come from the same community as the gospel writer. Whoever he was, the author of this letter developed an extraordinary theology sometime around the end of the first century.
Here is what he wrote:
God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)
As far as I know, the New Testament has only three definitions for God: God is spirit (John 4: 24), God is light (1 John 1:5), and God is love (1 John 4:7-8). The first definition comes from the gospel of John and the second two derive from the first letter of John. So these metaphors all may derive from the same community.
The God of love that this author describes is different from the transcendent God of the universe. God as love is a description of a fully human quality as a divine power. When we reverse the phrase to its complement “Love is God,” we truly begin to understand the profundity of the concept. For if love is God, then love becomes the relationship and activity at the depth of human existence in which we discover a divine reality. God thus discovered as embodied and incarnate in the human relationship of love. This is what the biblical writers meant when they declared that God has now made his dwelling within humanity. God becomes the name we give to that deepest quality of human experience.
When we say that love is God, the divine is no longer a transcendent reality somewhere outside of the known universe (supernatural theism), nor is God an impersonal creative reality woven through the fabric of the cosmos (panentheism), but instead God becomes an immanent reality within our hearts, within our minds, within our relationships, and in our actions. Love is a reality that animates us, empowers us, and transforms us from self-centered and selfish individuals to self-giving people.
Theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965) said that religious faith is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of life.” God, then, is whatever we see as an ultimate concern, that which matters most in life, our highest values. But some of our highest values and goals may not necessarily reflect the fullest depth of human existence. Love is qualitatively different from a value like truth or beauty or honor. Love is our deepest human experience. Perhaps because love is so powerful, it convinces us of the presence of something greater than ourselves in life. If love for another is one’s ultimate concern—that which matters most in life—then love is God.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12)
The author of this letter tells us three things: (1) God is love; (2) love is the incarnation or indwelling of God in humanity; and (3) we know and experience God through the experience of human love.
Scholar Don Cupitt (b. 1934) has written:
In the New Testament, in the First Letter of John, we are told that the words Love and God are convertible. You can’t slip a knife between them. If you love your fellow human being, you know God and are in God, whereas if you don’t love, you don’t know God… The word God doesn’t designate a distinct metaphysical being; it is simply Love’s name.
Anglican bishop John A. T. Robinson (1919–1983) said:
To assert that “God is love” is to believe that in love, one comes in touch with the most fundamental reality in the universe, that Being itself ultimately has this character.
The English phrase ‘God is love’ is written in the Greek New Testament as theos ein agapē (theh’-ohs ayn ag-ah’-pay). Agapē (ag-ah’-pay) is one of four different Greek words which we translate into English as love. Philia (fil-ee’-ah) refers to loyal friendship or a brotherly love, eros (err’-ohs) is used to describe passionate erotic or romantic love, and storgē (stor’-gay) is used in relation to the natural affection of family love, like the love of a parent for a child. Most usages of the word agapē in ancient Greek literature come from the writings of the New Testament where it implies a self-giving love, often an unconditional love. This is the kind of love people saw in Jesus. And for the early Christian writers, it described the love of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw Jesus as ‘a man for others.’ John Robinson, commenting on Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison said:
Jesus is “the man for others,” the one in whom Love has completely taken over, the one who is utterly open to and united with, the Ground of his being… Because Christ was utterly and completely ‘the man for others,’ because he was love, he was one with the Father, because “God is love.”
Bonhoeffer believed that following Jesus is a way to correct our self-centered individualism, because it involves a transformation from being “men and women for ourselves” to becoming “men and women for others.” He said,
Our relation to God is not a religious relationship to a supreme Being, absolute in power and goodness, which is a spurious conception of transcendence, but a new life for others, through participation in the Being of God.
love as God
Marguerite de Porete (c.1250–1310), a medieval French mystic, saw the possibility of divinity in humanity when she wrote the remarkably modern statement “I am God, says Love.” We know little about Marguerite’s life except that she was well educated and was associated with a lay monastic movement called the Beguines. Sometime around 1290, she wrote The Mirror of Simple Souls, which expressed her belief that when the human spirit is truly full of love, it is united with God. As someone filled with the presence of God’s love, Marguerite concluded that she was one with God. She not only saw divinity within herself, but saw it manifested as herself.
Marguerite was deeply affected by the theology of the First Letter of John in the New Testament. In response, she wrote:
I am God, says Love, for Love is God and God is Love, and this Soul is God by the condition of Love. I am God by divine nature and this Soul is God by the condition of Love.
The Medieval church became alarmed by her writings. The idea that the human self could be in union with God was deemed heretical. Known as autotheism—from the Greek autos (ow-tos’), meaning self and theos (theh’-ohs), meaning God—this heresy undermined the distinction between fallen humans and their creator. As a result, the concept denied the necessity of the church and its sacraments for salvation. Followers of autotheism believed that they could communicate directly with God and did not need the Roman Catholic Church or its priests for intercession.
In 1310, a Dominican inquisitor put Marguerite Porete on trial in Paris for her radical views about love and sin. A commission of twenty-one theologians reviewed her writings and declared them heretical. Because she refused to recant, the church condemned her to death and burned her at the stake.
The church incinerated Marguerite because when one affirms that God is love, mediators between God and humanity no longer become necessary. A lot of traditional Christian theology gets thrown out of the window. It no longer holds up under this definition of God.
God as love does not exist as a disembodied reality in the universe. Love simply does not have that character. Love is not a thing, or a being, or even the source of all being. Love is a human relationship, pure and simple. The theological proposition in the First letter of John—that God is love—teaches us that in the relationship of self-giving love, we find the presence of God. It is there—in that humble yet profound human interaction—that we find ultimate reality.
Although some may assert that a loving relationship exists between humanity and a cosmic being separate from our world, it is impossible to verify that claim apart from rare ecstatic testimonies. In reality, love must be embodied in an intra-human relationship, in actions between one human and another. In other words, we should not look for God somewhere beyond the four dimensions of space and time. We should look for God in those whom we love and those who love us. And, as Marguerite believed, we should look for God within ourselves.
When we affirm that God is love, we discard the belief that a supernatural being is guiding the universe with a master plan for salvation, or a detailed plan for individual lives. When we affirm that God is love, we abandon the idea that there is someone else—either God or Satan—to blame for the suffering of humanity. As Walt Kelley’s cartoon character Pogo the Possum said in 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” When we affirm that God is love, we discover that there is no one outside ourselves to hear our prayers. Our love—human love—is all we have to rely on. And that will have to be enough.
Our love for one another is the only thing that can allow us to face our fears. The Apostle Paul saw the power of love the needed antidote.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)
In the end, I believe that the God of love is found in those around me, in those who love me and care for me. Perhaps that is enough. And I pray that in some small way, I am able to represent the God of love and compassion to others.
Thinking back to my youth, descending those stairs into a dark and terrifying basement, all that I really needed was someone beside me holding my hand. Together, we could have faced the fear of the unknown with a bit more courage and confidence.