Recently I was watching a science fiction movie with my husband, when something he’d once said, about whether we’d be able to see the sun in outer space, nudged me in the noggin. Now, I have almost no science. But it seems to me that light is only visible when it bounces off something. You can shine a light, but if the light doesn’t bump up against something to show it off, it’s pretty pointless. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? To which the proper answer is, literally, “Who cares?” Light is invisible until it affects something.
It occurs to me that love is much the same. C.S. Lewis refers to it as a “translunary virtue”, but even such a virtue is meaningless without a focus. Until love bounces off a subject, it might as well not exist. Love doesn’t just feel; love does. There is a paradox wrapped up in 1 Corinthians 13: without love, words are just noise, gestures are just robotic. But love itself can’t exist until it generates such words and gestures. And to do that, there must be someone on the receiving end. Without an object of love, there’s nothing to feel or do anything towards.
Faith likewise: faith without deeds is dead, for faith is both an inner evidential conviction and an outer evidential expression. Without faith it is impossible to please God, because without faith in His existence nobody would approach Him to please Him; and without faith in His rewarding nature, it becomes a futile or even a terrifying prospect. Note that God does not merely settle for “yes, Lord, You exist” but pushes for “yes, Lord, You exist and You welcome me”. The fear of the Lord might be the beginning of wisdom, but adoration of His loving nature is surely at the other end of it.
Hope, too, is a reflected value. Hope is often symbolised as the anchor mentioned in Hebrews 6:19. An anchor has to have something to grapple, or it is merely a big heavy object being dragged aimlessly along the seabed. In the case of Christian faith, the anchor of hope sticks on the premise and promise that those with Abraham’s faith are credited with righteousness as he was, whether they are his genetic descendants or not.
The idea that “God is love” comes from 1 John 4:8, where it says that you can’t know God without knowing love into the bargain. For John, knowing God, knowing love, loving God and others, and living as Jesus did were all of a piece (1 John 2). The acid test of knowing God was loving God and showing it by how you lived and loved.
God is love. It sounds so beautiful – so abstract – the translunary virtue again. But God’s love cost Him. He set that fierce love on us. He sent His only clone to be ripped apart to ensure He could get His adopted kids back. When we examine what that meant for God, it becomes astounding on more levels than we can count. In the words of Browning, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
One of God’s characteristics is that He is preexistent. That means He IS, before time and space existed. “I am that I am.” The Bible states that God IS love (not God WAS love or God WILL BE love). Therefore, love is an eternal descriptor for God, backwards and forwards and andwards and eckwards in eternity, in all directions and dimensions. God is love.
But if love must have a subject, then God cannot be love unless He really is a trinity. Back before He had invented subjects, He is love. So, back before there was anything but God, God is a community of three in one, living in perpetual love. If God is not a trinity, God cannot possibly be love – because, let us say, the “Earth Experiment” takes up a minute fraction of such an eternity. It would be innaccurate to say that God is only going to be Himself for the duration of that fraction. In eternity past, God had to already be love: wholly balanced, wholly satisfied, wholly pure, wholly unique, the only God, centred and self-sufficient in the fellowship of His tripartite being. Perfect communion, perfect unity, with no misunderstandings, mistakes or misappropriations.
And this holiness is what was sliced up for our sake at Bethlehem and at Calvary and at Pentecost. I cannot begin to fathom that. Their aeons-long intimacy, interrupted for the little Legoes they had made. Think of the closest love you have experienced. Now imagine sending your loved one to be tortured to death to save the life of someone who hates you. It’s mind-boggling. That intense love, opened up to let us in, and under such conditions!
When 1 Corinthians 13 says that this side of Heaven, we are left with faith, hope and love, and love is the greatest, I have a theory as to why love is the greatest.
The Bible tells us that it’s impossible to please God without faith. It’s faith that is the gateway to the grace that saves us. Why isn’t faith the greatest? And hope: “Abraham in hope believed” – doesn’t that make hope the precursor of faith? “In His name (Jesus, literally “God saves,” His identity as Saviour) the nations will put their hope.” If hope is essential to faith, and faith leads to salvation, why isn’t hope the greatest?
Nowhere does it say “God is hope”, though hope can sustain a soul. Neither does it say “God is faith”, though there is such a thing as positive thinking that gets results. No. Out of the three things that remain, God is love. He is action and sacrifice and providence and affection and commitment. It is not written, “For God so hoped for the world …” or even “For God so believed in the world …”. No. For God so loved the world that from its foundations He preempted action to save us … and gave. Love has its origins in the preexistent nature of God. Faith and hope, on the other hand, are temporary derivatives of the situation we find ourselves in.
In addition, as we’ve shown, faith, hope and love are all virtues that become complete blanks without a subject. But God does not exercise faith as we do: He knows all things, and does not have to take anyone’s word for anything. God does not hope as we do, for the same reason: He knows the ending from the beginning. But God does love. And I think that’s why love is the greatest: because we are given the gifts of faith, hope and love, but love alone is something we and God share reciprocally. Besides that, love alone is part of the divine nature. And we are invited to touch it! Reflect it! Revel in it! Copy it! Participate in it!
Unlike faith and hope, sermons and language barriers and prophecies, baby talk and naïveté, or a penpal you’ve never met – love never gets superseded by fulfilment or maturity. Love begins and ends as its own fullness, and so it never fails by becoming obsolete. Love is a dynamo whose use generates more love in perpetual motion, a battery that charges itself and far from gradually depleting, accumulates ever-increasing energy. If the universe collapsed tomorrow, God would still be a trinity and still be love within that trinity. How blessed we are to bask in the light of that love, and to be invited to live in it forever!