Divine Love (Agape)
Challenge: Sum up Every Aspect of Theology & Church History
Karl Barth arguably was the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. His twelve-volume Church Dogmatics, alone, consists of over ten thousand pages of systematic theology. Toward the end of his life, Barth made a tour of the United States, where he had the opportunity to speak at several of our nation’s top universities. During a question and answer time following one of his lectures, a student posed, what seemed an impossible question to answer.
“Dr. Barth, you have written extensively on every aspect of theology and church history. I’m wondering if you could sum it all up in a short sentence or two.” The room fell silent. Dr. Barth just stood there for a moment, carefully considering how to respond. Some of the professors and students who were there clearly began to feel awkward that such a trifling question would be asked of such a brilliant scholar.
Finally, Karl Barth turned toward the student and succinctly replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Christian Love: the Antithesis of Envy
The Christian’s self-understanding is that she is precious before God—however much a sinner, however much a failure (or success) she may be by the standards of worldly comparisons—and that every other person she meets has the same status…This vision is not only one that levels every distinction by which egos seek…glory…This vision, when appropriated, is also the ultimate ground of self-confidence.
For the message is that God loves me for myself—not for anything I have achieved, not for my beauty or intelligence or righteousness or for any other “qualification,” but simply in the way that a good mother loves the fruit of her womb. If I can get that into my head—or better, into my heart—then I won’t be grasping desperately for self-esteem at the expense of others, and cutting myself off from my proper destiny, which is spiritual fellowship with them.
Robert C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 69. See the updated chapter in his Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
The Circle of Giving
In all life we see this circle of giving, which is the law of love. Consider electricity: when electricity moves through metal wires it does so by the movement of electrons from one atom to another. They flow in what we call a current, but they can only do so if the current forms a complete circle, which we call a circuit.
When you flip the switch to turn on a light, you have “closed” the electrical circuit, thus forming a complete “circle” allowing the electrons to flow and the light to come on. Conversely, when you flip the switch to turn off the light, you break the circle, and the electrons cannot flow. It is only when the circles (circuits) are complete that electricity flows. This is how nature was built to operate. The law of love is the design template for all God’s creation because all life flows from him and God is love.
A Dream of Immanuel
When he was a young boy, twelfth-century church leader Bernard of Clairvaux fell asleep outside a church while waiting to go in for a Christmas Eve service. In his sleep he had a dream, a kind of vision, in which he saw very clearly and distinctly how the Son of God, having espoused human nature, became a little child in his mother’s womb. In that act he came to see how God’s heavenly majesty was mingled with sweet humility.
This vision so filled young Bernard’s heart with comfort and jubilation that throughout his life he kept a vivid memory of it. What was it that filled his heart with joy? It was nothing other than the fact that God chose to be with us: Immanuel. Out of love Jesus was conceived, and out of love he chose to die. There is something in us that God finds lovable. It is certainly not our sanctity, nor is it our fidelity. When I look at my own baseness, my incredible ability to sin at a moment’s notice, I wonder what God sees in me.
The Love of God Wrapped About Him
The sense of Presence! I have spoken of it as stealing on one unawares. It is recorded of John Wilhelm Rowntree that as he left a great physician’s office, where he had just been told that his advancing blindness could not be stayed, he stood by some railings for a few moments to collect himself when he “suddenly felt the love of God wrap him about as though a visible presence enfolded him and a joy filled him such as he had never known before.”
An amazing timeliness of the Invading Love, as the Everlasting stole about him in his sorrow. I cannot report such a timeliness of visitation, but only unpredictable arrivals and fading-out. But without doubt it is given to many of richer experience to find the comfort of the Eternal is watchfully given at their crises in time.
When God Looks at You
Patti and Bruce,1 feeling a tug from Jesus, welcomed a four-year-old foster child into their home. Originally the child welfare organization told them Jonathan would be staying with them and their four other children for about a month. Five months later, after a couple of attempts to place him back with his mother, he’s still living with Patti and Bruce.
The process has been messy and complicated. This little boy is sweet, charming, and winsome at times, but angry and confused at other times. So sometimes he cuddles and hugs, but other times he acts out: yelling, scratching, hitting, and even biting.
My friends have loved this child, even as he tries their patience, even as they sometimes despair over the difficulties his birth family faces: poverty, illness, and so on. When they tuck him in at night, they ask him, “Jonathan, when God looks at you, what does he say?” And they have taught him to answer, “He says, ‘I sure do love that little boy!’”
Which God Do You Believe In?
Does it matter which God-concept we hold to? Recent brain research by Dr. Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania has documented that all forms of contemplative meditation were associated with positive brain changes—but the greatest improvements occurred when participants meditated specifically on a God of love.
Such meditation was associated with growth in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain right behind our forehead where we reason, make judgments and experience Godlike love) and subsequent increased capacity for empathy, sympathy, compassion and altruism.
But here’s the most astonishing part. Not only does other-centered love increase when we worship a God of love, but sharp thinking and memory improve as well. In other words, worshiping a God of love actually stimulates the brain to heal and grow.
Wound With Mercy Round and Round
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love. St. Paul reminded the Romans of this when he wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39). God’s love for us cannot be changed.
Why? Because it is not based on anything we do. It was the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who declared, “I say that we are wound with mercy round and round—as with air.” We cannot escape God’s love and mercy because it is everywhere. It enwraps and enfolds us wherever we go; it surrounds us and penetrates us even if we are not aware of it.
You Are There First And Forever
In this short prayer by Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher describes how the love of God always precedes our own devotion:
“Father in Heaven! You have loved us first, help us never to forget that You are love so that this sure conviction might triumph in our hearts over the seduction of the world, over the inquietude of the soul, over the anxiety for the future, over the fright of the past, over the distress of the moment. But grant also that this conviction might discipline our soul so that our heart might remain faithful and sincere in the love which we bear to all those whom You have commanded us to love as we love ourselves.
See Also Illustrations on Love
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