Note: This post is part of an ongoing series of posts related to the attributes of God. Here are the links to the previous posts (Why Study the Attributes of God, The Holiness of God, The Power of God, The Presence of God, The Knowledge of God, The Fatherhood of God).
God’s Love or The Love of God is the most known and often discussed among God’s attributes. 1 John 4:8 says “God is love.” The same is repeated later in 1 John 4:16 as well. Note carefully, it does not say God has love, but God is love. Love is not merely one of God’s attributes. Rather love is the very nature of God. Other attributes of God such as mercy, goodness, patience, and grace closely relate to love since they actually arise out of God’s love. The more we understand his love, the more our troubled hearts will experience peace, the more will be our love for him and our love for others. And in order to achieve that goal, we will be looking at 4 key characteristics of God’s love and then draw practical applications for our lives.
Characteristic # 1. God’s love is a VOLUNTARY love.
God was and is under no compulsion to love us. He didn’t set his love upon us because we were worthy to be loved. It is the exact opposite. We are unworthy people who have sinned greatly against him. Yet, God on his own, uninfluenced by any external factors has set his love upon us. We read in 1 John 4:10, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us.” Later, we read in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.”
This is not just a New Testament concept. We see this truth stated even in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 7:7-8, God describes his covenant love for Israel as not being based on Israel’s worthiness, but based on his voluntary choice, “7 The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” God loved Israel simply because he chose to love them.
Characteristic # 2. God’s love is a HOLY love.
God’s love does not cancel his holiness. God is love does not diminish or deny the other attributes of God such as “God is light” [1 Jn 1:5] or “God is a righteous judge” [Psa 7:11] or “For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice” [Psa 11:7]. Even in the famous John 3:16 passage, God loved the world in a manner that included the provision of an atonement for sin as indicated by the phrase, “he gave his one and only Son.”
God’s love being a holy love means that he cannot take sin lightly―even in the life of his children. That is why Hebrews 12:6 states, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” At times, that disciplining may involve sickness and even death [1 Cor 11:30]! A holy love cannot and will not wink at sin.
The newspapers once carried the story of a father and mother who, finding that their little girl had taken and eaten something from the cupboard, began to shake and slap the child. When the child became drowsy, they did not let up but continued their shaking and slapping for four hours. What seemed like a cruel punishment for such a little offense was actually compelled by love. The child had swallowed ten sleeping tablets, and the doctor said the only hope of saving the child’s life was in keeping her awake.
Similarly, we do not always understand the path through which God leads us, but we may be certain his chastisement is always born of love. God does not choose to stop the harshness of the winds, but he rather directs us through them.
Characteristic # 3. God’s love is a SACRIFICIAL love.
It is a love that gives even when the cost is extremely high. Human love is often characterized by lofty words, but empty actions as seen by great promises on the wedding day and often followed by bitter divorce months or years later. When there is a sacrifice to be made, human love for the most part just collapses. God’s love, however, is not so. It is sacrificial in nature. The supreme example of God’s love is a sacrificial love is nowhere seen clearly than at the cross. Here is where God gave sinners like you and me his very best―his One and only Son―the Lord Jesus Christ: John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Ephesians 5:22 says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
A story is told of a young man in France who was very much loved by his mother. However, he pursued a very wicked and sinful way of life. He became very attracted to a very wicked woman who dragged him further and further into sin. The loving mother tried to draw him back from sin and this caused the wicked woman to hate the mother. One night, the wicked woman got the young man drunk and accused him of not truly loving her. He promised that he did. She said that if he truly loved her, he would get rid of his mother who was trying to separate him.
The story went on to say that the young man rushed from the woman’s home and went to his home where his mother was asleep. In an act of great cruelty, he beat his mother to death and then went on to tear her heart and bring it back to his lover. As he was running to her home with the bleeding heart, he tripped over a stone, stumbled and fell. Immediately the bleeding heart cried out, “My son, are you hurt?” That’s the kind of sacrificial love God displays for terrible sinners such as you and me. Romans 5:8 declares to us “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Anytime we are tempted to doubt God’s love, we need to look at the cross and be reminded again and again how much God loves us. Will he who did not withhold his Son for our sake forget us? Will he abandon us? Never!
Characteristic # 4. God’s love is an EVERLASTING love. Human love is often based on sentimental feelings which go up and down. If my feelings are up, I will love you. If I feel down, I will distance myself from you. Or if you love me and never disappoint me, I will love you. If not, I cannot love you. God’s love, however, is not so. He does not change his mind. His love endures forever. He loved us even before the heavens were created [Ephesians 1:4-5]. And his love will endure even beyond the time when the new heavens and new earth will be created. It is an everlasting love.
Jeremiah 31:3 “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” While this primarily refers to God’s everlasting, electing, covenant love to Israel, this principle can be legitimately applied to all believers of all ages.
Romans 8:38-39 “38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul asks the question if anything on earth can separate us from God’s love [Rom 8:35] and he answers that question with a resounding “No” by listing all possible forces that can make it happen.
Indeed, his love is an everlasting love. What a comforting thought! Even if all the world―including our very near and dear ones hate and reject us, we can be comforted. The King of the Universe who made us and sent his Son to die for us, will never stop loving us. He will never hate or disown us―even when we fall miserably. Peter fell miserably by denying Christ 3 times. Yet, Jesus came personally to him and assured him of his love [John 21:15-17].
Even at times when we are going through intense trials and it feels like God is very distant or just forgotten us, we don’t need to lose heart. God has loved us with an everlasting love.
So, we’ve seen 4 wonderful characteristics of God’s love: it’s a voluntary, holy, sacrificial and everlasting love. What then are the implications of gaining this knowledge? 2 in particular: our love for God and our love for neighbors should increase.
In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus teaches us what the 2 most important commandments are through these words, “37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Let us briefly look at some practical ways through which this love for God and others can happen.
I. Our Love For God.
Our response should be that of the response of John who burst forth in praise, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” [1 John 3:1] and a commitment to walk in purity, “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” [1 John 3:3]. How can we hurt him who has loved us despite our wretchedness?
We express our love for God by spending time reading the Bible [hearing from him] and in prayer [talking to him]. This is the foundational expression of our love. We must constantly praise him for loving us without compromising his holy nature. We must not grumble or be angry at him when he disciplines us. It is for our own good. His holy love teaches us to pursue holiness in all that we think or do.
God’s sacrificial love whereby he gave us his very best demands that we never withhold anything back from being used for God’s purposes. Our money, our time, our possessions all belong to God. We need to ask ourselves, “Does the giving of my time and money for God’s purposes include a sacrificial element to it?” If not, we must repent and respond rightly. David said in 2 Samuel 24:24, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” When we love someone, we will not count the cost. Mary did not count the cost when she poured the expensive perfume on Jesus [John 12:3]. Why? She was moved by Jesus’ love for her and that love was expressed in a sacrificial manner.
We must continue to trust him and keep believing him. He who perseveres in his love for us deserves the same from us. We must persevere in our love for him even when we go through deep trials.
II. Our Love for Neighbors.
Ephesians 5:1-2 says, “Follow [or Imitate] God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” 1 John 4:11-12, “11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
How are some ways by which we can imitate God’s love in our love for our neighbors?
Voluntary Love. Just as God’s love toward us was not based on our worthiness, our love for others should be the same as well. We should be willing to love others no matter what color they are, what language they speak, how educated they are, how much wealth they might possess or how bad they might be.
Holy Love. We read in 1 Corinthians 13:6, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” If we are to imitate God’s love in this particular manner, our love for others should not cause us to be indifferent or silent about their sins. We should, in love, warn them. In addition, we must not do anything that would harm them either. Our words to others should be loving and kind words. We must always speak words that build others―not tear them down. It means no lying, gossip, slander and any kind of sinful speech [Eph 4:29]. It also means not being a stumbling block to them by our actions as well. A holy love for others will never give room for sin and thus make it an unholy love. That’s how we imitate God’s holy love.
Sacrificial Love. John makes it clear how we should respond in the light of such sacrificial love in 1 John 3:16-18,“16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” John then goes on give an example of how this sacrificial love can be expressed in a practical sense, “17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
Everlasting love. If God does not stop loving us when we fail him, shouldn’t we also not stop loving people when they fail us? We are reminded in 1 Corinthians 13:4, 7, “Love is patient, love is kind…[love] always hopes, perseveres.” Is our love like that? Is there anybody with whom we are cold in our love? Then, we need to set it right. The realization that we are loved with an everlasting love should motivate us to love others in such a manner also.
A greater understanding of God’s love should always lead us to a greater love for our neighbors, including telling the lost people around us about God’s love as expressed through Christ. Loving God and loving others are inseparable pieces of evidence of a truly changed heart. Where love for either is missing, the work of the Holy Spirit is missing thus indicating one is not saved. That is what God’s word declares in 1 John 4:20, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”
This supernatural power to love others―including our enemies is a very real proof of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit thus indicating we are children of God [John 13:34-35]. We are called to resemble the God who is love. So, we need to ask him to teach and energize us through the Holy Spirit to love him and others with a love that is similar to his love for us.