The Love of God
--Don Natelborg 2012
“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace
Whose mind is stayed on Thee.” --Isaiah 26:3
Foreword “The love of God” has meant more to me than any other single thing I can think of; and while the phrase may sound simplistic, it conveys an idea that people have grappled with since the dawn of civilization. It is an idea with two separate sides, either one of which is meaningless without the other: the love God has for us and the love we have for him. It also suggests two questions: what is God, and what is love?
Is God for Real?
For the vast majority of human history people believed that the earth was at the center of everything, and the sun, moon and stars all orbited around it on a perfectly regular and daily basis. It was the most logical explanation for what they could see with their own eyes. Anyone who didn’t believe it would be considered at least out of touch with reality. “Simply look up,” one might argue, and how would it be possible to conclude otherwise?
But there was one problem with this view, and you had to look very carefully to find it. It seemed that in all the thousands of stars, including the Sun and moon, there were five that behaved differently than all the rest. While all the other heavenly bodies traveled from east to west in a regular and orderly direction, these five seemed erratic. You had to observe them for quite some time over many consecutive nights. One, for example, sometimes traveled from west to east for a short distance, and then did a small loop before it returned to its normal direction. The others frequently appeared in different parts of the sky, and often could not be seen at all with the others.
The ancient Greeks and other civilizations knew this, as eventually it was no big secret, yet it seemed to defy logic. Why would these five behave differently? Was there something wrong with their entire view of the way things were, or was there something wrong with just these five? Of course, it was much easier to conclude there must be something wrong with the five. After all, it would otherwise mean going all the way back to “Square One” and trying to refigure everything out. No one wanted to do that. The Greeks called them planets, “aster planetes,” literally meaning “wandering stars.” No one knew of course why they wandered; it was just an accepted mystery.
Then in the Sixteenth Century a man named Nicolaus Copernicus spent the better part of his life studying the motions of the stars, Sun, moon, eclipses, and particularly these five wandering stars; and he eventually arrived at a most startling conclusion. It was not the earth that was at the center of the universe as everyone had believed, but the Sun. It was the first time anyone had seriously challenged the beliefs that everyone had taken for granted. All who had found comfort in concluding that the five wandering stars were aberrations, rather than throwing out everything they had known and going back to Square One, were now confronted with the idea that maybe it was necessary to go back to Square One. Even the Church had already concluded that the earth was at the center, so you can only imagine the immense controversy that Copernicus raised in his explanations. He was eventually excommunicated and his books were placed on the “List of Forbidden Books.” Though he remained convinced of his beliefs he died in 1543, his books and ideas buried with him as far as most were concerned.
Today, of course, we know that his ideas did not die with him; and the world eventually did go back to Square One, throwing out everything they had known, for a very simple reason: Copernicus was right. Oh he wasn’t totally correct, the Sun was not the center of the universe as he thought; but he was a whole lot closer to the truth than anyone else had been, and everything we know today about the earth and the universe can be traced back to that Square One that Copernicus forced us to return to.
We learned something else as well, how little we really know, and how totally wrong we can be.
Is God for real? I believe he is, but some believe he isn’t. The true answer to that question can only humbly be sought by each individual who’s willing to ask.
The Will to Survive
There is something in Nature that is blatantly obvious, and yet often overlooked in our search for a greater being. Did God create the universe as described in the first book of Genesis, or form and implement the laws and forces of Nature which gradually brought about that which we see today; or, if there was no God, did everything come about because that’s just the way things work? It seems to me it would be quite forward for us as a human race to define the answers to those questions, remembering that for most of our history we believed the earth was flat and at the center of the universe. I’d say we were pretty far off on that one, now we suddenly possess the knowledge and wisdom to answer these even deeper questions?
Still, there are things that can be seen in Nature that cause us to wonder. The will to survive that seems to exist in every species of life is such an example, and you don’t have to look very far to see the immense power of that will. Anyone who’s tried to catch a fly that was loose in their house has seen the power of the will to survive. Why would such a seemingly insignificant creature, such as a fly, have such an incredible will to survive? If all species of life came about by random accident, mutation, the fit ones surviving while the others perish, constantly being replaced by new species as time goes by; then why do they have such a will to survive, and where did this come from? Was it too an accident, a mutation? Perhaps, but is it a coincidence that it exists in every living thing? And it’s not just the will to survive, it’s a seemingly insatiable desire to grow and improve, to adapt to the changes in Nature, to become better and not worse. Where did all that come from?
Maybe these questions can’t be answered, but they cannot be ignored or forgotten either. And even if they can’t be answered, this idea of the will to survive and desire to grow representing a force reaching out to something greater in the universe, is certainly more plausible than the idea that life exists only for itself and has no other purpose.
Why Are We Here?
Looking at it from the other angle also raises questions. If the universe was created by God, either through a single act of creation, or the forming and implementation of the laws of Nature; then the question is why, for what purpose, to what end?
Now here again we may not be able to answer that question, but if we put together the idea of God, of a creator, with the universe that we can see, and our knowledge of the powerful will to survive that exists in all living things; then we can begin to form a picture that makes a certain amount of sense. And even if it can’t be proven, it certainly makes more sense than the alternative.
Let’s suppose that God did create the universe, one way or another; why did he do it? The answer to that question is surely more complex than what I or anyone else could imagine, just as the universe itself is far more complex than anyone in Copernican times could have imagined. But there is one thing we can understand, to a degree, because we experience it ourselves: the love God has for us and the love we have for him. Perhaps we are here because of this love, but what does it really mean?
What is Love?
Some people have no difficulty understanding what love is, how God loves us, how we love him, and how we love each other; but most are not that fortunate. If God loves us, why does he cause us to suffer; or if he’s not causing us to suffer, allowing us to suffer when he could prevent it; or is he powerless to prevent it? Or, if God doesn’t exist at all, then we’re back to the question why do we have this powerful will to survive when we exist only for ourselves, something that defies logic?
One thing is certain, there is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world, we don’t have to look very far to see it. It’s on our local and national news every night, not to mention what we see in our own neighborhoods, and even in our own families. Some people used the example of September 11, 2001 to ask the question, why didn’t God prevent those attacks?
Maybe these questions can’t be answered directly, but we can ponder what the world might be like if God did everything we wanted him to do. First of all, exactly what do we want him to do? I suspect you’d find quite a variety of answers to that question, and they wouldn’t all be the same. For example, I’m sure the Germans would have wanted God to help them win World War II, just as the Americans did. Secondly, who are we to tell God, who created the universe, how he should run it? What if we made a mistake in our direction? Would it then be up to him to fix it again, or would we have to figure out the solution, just as we caused the problem?
So what is love? It’s important to remember there’s an ingredient necessary in order for love to flourish, and while that ingredient has little use all by itself, without it love would be meaningless. Fire is a good analogy. Oxygen itself cannot burn, and yet without it nothing else can burn. What I’m talking about is freedom. Freedom, or free will, all by itself, has little use; and yet without it nothing meaningful can happen, including love. Love needs freedom, just as fire needs oxygen.
If God were going to control everything that happened in the world, the first thing he would have to do would be to revoke the authority which he had given to us. We would no longer be free, obviously, we would be controlled, just as the world around us was controlled. Who would be exempt? No one.
Now believe it or not, it might seem like this could be a good thing. There’d be no more wars, no corrupt governments, no crime, no suffering. Everyone would behave themselves, so to speak. Is that the kind of world you would want?
The next question would be how would you want God to control it? Or, would it even matter what you wanted, since he would be in control?
You see this type of world which would be free of suffering would come at a terrible price. Who would be willing to pay that price?
A good example we can see here on earth is the love that a mother and father have for their children, provided that they are good and loving parents. A parent knows he has to accomplish two things that seem to conflict: he has to provide for his children and protect them, and he has to teach them how to provide for and protect themselves. We all know children who have grown up in families where Mom and Dad gave them everything they wanted. They didn’t turn out very well, did they. But the other extreme is just as bad, so there has to be a balance that’s a mixture of love and of reality.
If we want God to provide and give us everything we need, and fix up all our problems, then we’ll have an imbalance, similar to those children who were given everything they wanted. With all its pitfalls and all the suffering that goes with it, we need freedom. Without it love is meaningless, without it life has no purpose, God or no God.
I think if you were to ask a diverse group of parents who had raised their children, and the children now had lives of their own and families of their own, why they did it, and was it worth it; you’d probably get quite a variety of answers. But, if you were lucky, you’d find those parents who would use their grandchildren as an example. Now I realize that not all families have children and grandchildren, but those who do and who grow to have a life of their own and families of their own, who love their parents and share their lives, are a true blessing. Anything less than that can be sad, a child who grows and doesn’t love his parents, or acts like he loves them only because of his dependence on them, this is unfortunate.
Perhaps it’s much the same way with God and us. No, he doesn’t hand out to us everything we want, and he doesn’t shield us from all harm; but he does love us and he’s given us freedom.
Love requires freedom, and freedom carries with it much suffering; but the love is greater than the suffering. Perhaps the prophet Isaiah’s verse, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee,” wasn’t so much about suffering as it was about peace, a peace that can only come through love.
Why Did He Do It?
Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question, but the reason must have something to do with love.
I once heard a trick question, “Could God create a rock so heavy that he himself couldn’t lift it?” If the answer is yes then there’s something God can’t do, and if the answer is no then there’s something God can’t do. You’re then supposed to concede that God is not what you thought he was. But I’ll tell you, there is something God can’t do and it has nothing to do with rocks. Oh I suppose he probably could do it, but it would lose all meaning if he did.
He can’t force us to love him. That truly would be meaningless. If I had a wind-up toy with a recording in it that said, “I love you,” would that be love? Hardly. God didn’t make us as wind-up toys with recordings in us either, because it would have had no purpose.
The freedom God gave us enables us to love him of our own free will, but not everyone will be able to do this. Too many will come into the world and eventually die without ever knowing, and others will think that maybe God loves them, but they have no love for him. Some however will know.
Could that possibly be the reason? Could that possibly be why he did it?
Again, we might not answer all these questions; but I believe it’s at least possible to know, and necessary to know, even if not fully comprehend the love of God.
Finally it’s important to remember that much of the suffering we endure comes not from God, but from things we ourselves have done and failed to do, and from what people do to people. Much also comes from Nature, and I don’t have an explanation; but I know some of the most inspiring and beautiful places here on earth were born from disaster, and destruction has always made way for rebirth and renewal.
When Jesus was here he gave us many things, but he never promised life would be a bed of roses, joy without sorrow, or light without darkness. Instead he said, “Be ye not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Only then might our suffering diminish; not by the loss of our freedom, but because of the freedom he’s given us and our willingness to use it; and through it all to never be forgotten, and always to have and know the love of God.
O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising,
thou understandest my thought afar off.
Thou compassest my path and my lying down,
and art acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord,
thou knowest it altogether.
Thou hast beset me behind and before,
and laid thine hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there;
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me;
even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee;
but the night shineth as the day:
for the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
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