Monday, October 7, 2013

What Is Love?

    As we have seen, Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS, maintains that God hates most of mankind, and challenges the common interpretation of John 3:16 that "God so loved the world." As we have also seen, God very definitely hates sin and is angry with the wicked. But does that necessarily mean that He does not love them?
    Part of the problem with Mr. Phelps' thesis is the ambiguity involved in the English word "love." We love ice cream because it tastes good. We might show love to a homeless man because his condition is pitiful. The former kind of love is called by theologians a "love of complacency," i.e., we love something because we are pleased with it (Latin, "complaceo"). This kind of love is basically conditional – it depends on some sort of good found in the object of our love. This is the kind of love God has for His obedient children: "He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him . . . If anyone loves Me , he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him" (John 14:21,23; NKJV). Obviously God does not have this kind of love for the wicked!
    But there is another kind of love as well, a kind of pity or compassion that one has for those who are in need. We show love to others, not because there is anything lovable in them, but simply because we are loving – we freely respond to the needs of others. This kind of love is sometimes called l "love of benevolence," a desire to do good to others (Latin, "benevolentia," from "bene volo," to want to do well).
    One of the key passages describing God's attributes is Exodus 34:6,7. Moses is at Mt. Sinai, and God reveals Himself to him. Passing by He proclaims "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation." The Hebrew word translated "merciful" (rachum) often refers to the deep love that a superior has for an inferior because of some natural bond. The word "gracious" (chanun) signifies the heartfelt response to someone in need. "Goodness" (v.6) or "mercy" (v. 7 – both words translate the same Hebrew word, "chesed") is a kind of love that shows kindness to someone who is in a pitiful state. This benevolent love is the kind of love that God has for mankind in general.
    The classic description of this kind of love is found in Psalm 103:13:
        "As a father pities his children,
         So the Lord pities those who fear Him."
It is the very weakness and helplessness of the son that elicits that response from the father.
    It should be noted, however, that this kind of love does not lead God to overlook or excuse sin – far from it. We are warned in the passage in Exodus that God is"by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children." Rather, God's compassion expresses itself in a readiness to forgive those who repent and ask for forgiveness. He is "longsuffering" (lit., "slow to anger") and "does not afflict willingly" (Lam. 3:33), and is ready to forgive (Mic. 7:18-20).
    God's mercy and compassion extends even to those who are not His chosen covenant people. When God sent the prophet Jonah to pagan Nineveh, and Nineveh repented as a result, Jonah actually became angry. His prayer on the occasion was revealing:
    "Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore
     I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful
     God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing
     harm" (Jonah 4:2)
Jonah here repeats, practically verbatim, the declaration that God had made to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Only Jonah did not interpret these words to mean that God's mercy and love were restricted to His chosen covenant people. Jonah understood that God was compassionate by nature, and that His mercy extends to every human being who repents. Since love is an essential attribute of God, it is antecedent to, and not restricted by, any decree of election or any formal covenant relationship. Jonah knew what God would do if Nineveh repented, and he was right!


Next: The attitude of Jesus toward the lost.

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