The First Love of God

BY BRUCE HILLMAN

Henri Nouwen, the Roman Catholic priest, professor and writer summed up his summary of the Gospel as, “You are the beloved of God!” For Nouwen, who struggled his whole life with feelings of inadequacy and who often felt unsure he was really loved, found peace in the message that you and I are the beloved of God.

Particularly Nouwen picked up on I John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” This was important because it meant that God’s love wasn’t responsive, God’s love acted first, God’s love wasn’t t reactionary but primary. In fact, all human love is reactionary to the gift of love from the God who is love.

What this did for Nouwen, and what it has the power to do for us, is to remind us that God’s love is not a response to who we are or what we’ve done, it’s not because God finds some qualities in us that attract him. This is difficult to understand because human love is usually reactionary. Even though it is not always explainable, human love responds to people. When we say we “fall in love” what we mean is that we cannot explain how or why but we find ourselves loving someone. But we love someone. We meet them, we get to know their personality, we find they complete us in some way. Love may surprise us, but it’s reactionary, a response to a particular kind of encounter. Even parental love for children, perhaps the most unconditional, is still conditioned by an encounter—the baby in the womb, the birth, the sound of the first cry and the sight of the baby—these are all encounters that, mysteriously, produce a love that is unconditional. But it is still occasioned by a meeting and sustained by a sort of choice.

I do not yet have children. I know that if I do I will love them greatly. But I do not yet love them. They are only potentials, possibilities. I have not yet encountered them and so I cannot love them. They are not-yet, yet.

But God’s love is different. We love because he first loved us. God’s love was the impetus for creation. God loved us before he created us. Only God can love us beyond and before an encounter. This makes God’s love secure, because it is not based on who we are but based on who he is.

The idea that God is stern, cruel, and petty, a malicious-capricious God who smites people, sends plagues and sentences people to hell is a common picture of God today. And in the Old and New Testaments, God can been seen doing or allowing things that seem to affirm these types of conclusions. But while it is impossible to understand how a loving God could permit certain things, we must take seriously the Bible’s contention that the clearest picture of what God is like is Jesus Christ. And what we see in Christ is God giving himself over to death, a God who’s “greater love” is to “give up his life for his friends.” The problem with seeing God as primarily cruel and stubborn is that it fails to account for the God of the cross.

God’s first love means that God’s love for us is established and secured in God’s own character. He does not love us as a response, but as a choice. God chooses to love us, that is to say, God chooses to love us because God chooses to love—not because we are worthy of love. God’s love is unconditional.

So perhaps the most famous verse in the bible, John 3:16, is often only half-understood. Most focus on the “…gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But what precedes it quite amazing too, for it shows us the motivation of God, “For God so loved the world, that he gave.” In other words, it was not the world itself that precipitated God’s movement towards us. It was not pity or our helplessness that moved God to act. It was God who moved God to act. God so loved the world that he gave. God’s love motivated him to be the God of love.

You and I are the beloved of God. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking God’s love is like the love we experience in human relationships. But human love is a derivative of God’s love. It is lesser. We love because he first loved us. Because human love is often conditional, we think that God’s love for us goes up or down depending on our behavior. But actually, God’s love is not based on who we are or what we do. God freely gives us his love because God is love. God’s love is not a response, it is the primary life-giving movement of God. It is both the choice of the Trine God and an expression of Himself. The Triune God chooses to love his creation, neither fated nor compelled to do so by any inner or outer force or power, and yet in complete simplicity befitting his nature.

So today, wherever you happen to find yourself be confident in this: Your sin can’t separate you from the love of God. Your brokenness and imperfection can’t separate you from the love of God. In fact, Paul himself says that, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God.” So let us draw near to the One who has come to us first. Let us rest in knowing that we are loved not for who we are, but because God has chosen to love us! You—are the beloved of God!

Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.

Twitter: @HillsideLBC