When Pope Francis visited New York City last year an elementary school student asked him what God did before he created the world. The Pope answered, “He loved”.
I first learned of this story from one of my professors and thought it to be incredibly simple and yet profound. Simple in that it was a two word answer. Profound in that it consisted of none of the frills or the metaphors that we tend to associate with God such as: holy, all knowing, omnipotent, omnipresent, sovereign, as well as many others. Instead, the Pope brought it back to the basics: love. “He loved” or as the Apostle John put it so succinctly, “God is Love”.
It’s well known that those children who grow up in incredibly loving environments, who know that they are truly loved by their parents, are more likely to succeed in life and live well adjusted lives. When we know we are loved we are more secure in who we are which has a direct impact on how we view ourselves and others. If we grow up in an environment where love seems uncertain at times, or at the least, seems conditional, this will undoubtedly have a negative effect on how we view ourselves and others. Ultimately, we human beings thrive when we know that we are loved. We were created to love and to be loved. It’s part of being created in the “Imago Dei”.
I think we can lose sight of this when we relate to God only in terms of works – what we do or what God does for us. Ultimately, this can lead to a view of God as one who is quite demanding and law oriented. But what if we began from the framework of love, of God’s love, and go from there? One of the consequences of only relating to God in terms of works, whether our’s or Jesus’, is that we end up forgetting that the Law was given after many great “gospel” moments. Remember the Sinai covenant is but the result of God’s faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant, which led to the liberation of Israel from slavery. It’s after the liberation that the 10 commandments are given. This does not mean that God does not get angry at sin or punish it, but rather it reveals that love is the starting point for the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s within this framework that we can better understand Jesus and his work.
It is the Jesus of John’s Gospel who famously said, “For God so loved the cosmos, that he gave his only Son…” And it is by this Son that “we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for others.” Maybe the real key for a better understanding of God’s love for us is bound up in the Greek work hilasterion , which is used by Paul in Romans 3:25 and has a few meanings such as mercy seat, propitiation, expiation. We often translate this as propitiation in Romans 3:25, just look at the ESV. The use of propitiation means that Jesus was put forth to pacify God or to appease his anger towards us, but such a notion has more to do with pagan conceptions of God. The use of expiate and mercy seat are probably more in line with what Paul is getting at here in Romans. As scholar James Dunn notes in regards to Romans 3:25, expiate means that God put forward Jesus in order to cleanse us of our sin through his blood. In other words, God becomes one of us in order to cleanse us of our sin in order that we might stand before God as holy and blameless. God, out of his great love for us, lays down his life for us so that we could be cleansed of sin. See how such a minor tweaking and understanding of meanings can have an effect on how we view and understand God?
As we think about God and our identity in Him maybe it’s best that we first begin with his unconditional love for us as it is particularly revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. As noted earlier, first and foremost, it’s very important for humans to know that they are loved. From there we can go into categories of righteous and unrighteous with the understanding that God reaches out to us to cleanse us from our sin rather than to serve as a sort of buffer from his wrath. Such an understanding will undoubtedly have an affect on our view of God, but also on how we treat ourselves and one another.