I pulled from my bookshelf a few systematic theology books that I had not opened for a long time. I blew off the dust, cracked the stiff binding, and dove into the hundreds of pages filled with declarations about the attributes and characteristics of God. There they all were: God’s self-existence, knowability, immutability, infinity, immensity, unity, veracity, holiness, righteousness, omniscience, sovereignty, transcendence – and several other $10 words – with all my handwritten study notes in the margins. This corpus of work was intended to make the theology student feel confident – to demonstrate how right our doctrines are. But as I skimmed the pages I was made freshly aware of how distracted we have become.
For all of Christianity’s theoretical words and defenses, the Apostle John was simple and winsome with his definition of God: “God is love,” John said. If Christians daily practiced this definition instead of declaring and defending how “right” we are, I imagine the world would be a much different place. With the truth, “God is love,” rather than “God is on my side,” or “God hates you and your kind,” in the hearts of people and animating their actions, it would revolutionize the world. I know this talk about the power of love can trigger our gag reflex. We’ve heard enough of that, haven’t we?
Love-talk is the cue to braid our hair in pigtails and flowers, break out the hookah pipe, drink a little free Bubble-Up, and lay back on a bed of rainbows. That’s about all it is – just talk. The late George Carlin said, “Love is incredibly powerful. It is a beautiful thing. But if love had any power to change the world, it would have prevailed by now. Love can’t change the world. It’s nice. It’s pleasant. It’s better than hate. But it has no special power.” While tempted to agree with this assessment, I’m not ready to do so yet. I’m going to take John at his word: Love is God’s nature and love comes from God. Once this love gets planted in our hearts, it spills out to others, resulting in transformation; it changes the world, one person at a time.
Love isn’t ineffective. Rather, every generation must learn the same lesson: God’s love must become primary; more crucial than any other belief, creed, or doctrine to which we adhere. Such love will have infinitely more power than any theological explanation, and such power can be employed by everyone – from the brainiest theologian to the most common man on the street. To that end, there was a rabbi who became friends with a Persian fortuneteller. Every morning the two sat together and watched people head out of the village to work. As a man walked by, the fortuneteller said, “I foresee that this man will not come back. He will be bitten by a snake and die.”
The rabbi answered, “Maybe so, but only God knows such things.” They agreed to come together at the end of the day to see if the worker returned. At evening they saw the condemned man enter the village! The Persian ran at once to him, grabbed his backpack, and emptied it on the ground. An enormous snake spilled out of the bag; a snake very much dead. So the rabbi asked the man, “What did you do today to avoid misfortune?” The man answered, “I cut trees in the forest. Every day at lunch the workers place our food in a common basket and eat together. Today, one of us had no bread and was ashamed. So I told my friends, ‘Let me collect the food.’ When I came to him I pretended to take bread from him, so that he would not be embarrassed.”
To this the rabbi burst out laughing. He said, “My son, today you obeyed God’s commandment to love! You saved your coworker and also saved yourself!” And turning to his fortuneteller friend, the rabbi said, “When one loves from his heart, he changes the fates. Love saves the world from death.” Indeed, it does.