What Is God’s Love?
At our Mother’s Day service, one of our members asked, “What’s the difference between God’s love and a mother’s love?” Now that it’s Father’s Day, we could ask the same thing about the love of a father.
Yet how do we answer that question if we don’t know what God’s love is?
The God described in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is a complex one. We’ll call this God “he,” since we’re talking about fathers. This God is full of both mercy and wrath. He forgives the sinner, then goes and wipes out entire cities of sinners, their cultures, and even most of the human race. By keeping one family alive during that devastating flood, God apparently hoped to repopulate the earth with virtuous people. The plan failed. It wasn’t long before Noah got drunk and his son, Ham, sinned against him by seeing his nakedness (Gen. 9:20-17).
We don’t know for sure what that means, but we know it was bad, because when Noah found out what Ham had done, he cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, for perpetuity. From what we know of scripture, if Noah hadn’t spoken the curse, God might have. In some ways, God is stern, unforgiving, and not so loving.
Father’s Love Versus Mother’s Love
But I may be speaking more like a mother than a father. Perhaps I don’t understand father love. Though my mother could get angry, she was not as exacting as my father was. She accepted her children, and she was sweet and kind. I’m glad to say my father never smote me nor cursed me as God does his children, but my own father could be stern enough, and his temper sometimes flared. I knew when he was displeased.
That doesn’t mean my paternal parent couldn’t be tender. Like the God who dressed Adam and Eve before sending them into the cold world (Gen. 4:21) and who gently shut the door of the ark after everyone had climbed in to make sure they would be safe during the storm (Gen. 7:16), my father could be protective and sentimental.  I imagine most fathers can be, even if rarely.
Yet fathers can also tough. Mine, for instance, didn’t rescue me from hardship. Either does God. This can feel like abandonment, yet it can be a kind of respect. Father love lets us fly with our own wings, at times to falter, to right ourselves, to fall, to pick ourselves up again. Is that what father love is, a love that trusts us to learn from our mistakes, a love that cares, but doesn’t cosset?
The Angry God
So the love of God is sweet and kind, gentle and protective, while also being respectful. Additionally, the biblical God is jealous, prone to anger, and violent. He can be resentful, too. How else to explain this idea that God damns souls to hell for all eternity? I can’t believe he does it because he thinks it’s good for us, nor for anyone else.
Yet most of the time, this biblical father-god doesn’t hold onto his anger. He may erupt with rage and wipe us out, but soon he calms down and realizes what he’s done. Then he feels regret.
I’m glad God’s able to get over his mad so fast, but I don’t want a father, nor a God, who is prone to anger and then thinks he can make it better by apologizing. That’s abuse. Sure, God gets angry only when we do something bad, or so the Scriptures tell us, but abuse is abuse, even if we justify it by saying our child deserved it.
I’d rather see a God who sits us down and teaches us to communicate, to make amends, to forgive, and to restore. Wouldn’t it be great if God’s court were run on a model of restorative justice? Back when the Bible was written, the term “restorative justice” hadn’t been coined. If you committed a crime, or if someone thought you had, you were punished. Those in authority had the right to judge and condemn you, and you had little power to change the outcome. In such a world, it makes sense to believe in a violent God who uses his wrath to protect the vulnerable and conquer evil.
The Forgiving God
Yet Scripture shows us other images of God, as well. Some passages reveal a God who forgives everything, who welcomes the worst sinner home. Again, this God doesn’t keep us from experiencing pain and misery. The prodigal son, for instance, had to suffer in a pig pen before waking up and realizing he deserved better than that. Every child of God, and there is no one who isn’t God’s child, deserves better than that. God knows this. That’s why God welcomed the prodigal son home.
In the Bible, God’s love is inconsistent. At times it’s offered freely; at other times, it’s conditional. God can be patient and God can get fed up. He can be tender or fierce, merciful or just, with a terrible and fearful justice. This biblical God seems like a poor model for love, which is not surprising, since the Bible was written by humans, and we can only imagine a god who acts as we would act. Such a god will be limited by our worldview, and the love he expresses will be all too human.
Can we, then, conceive of a more perfect love than the Bible shows? That depends on the love we experienced and the love we learned to show to others. As a chaplain, I have noticed that how a person is treated by her parents has a lot to do with the kind of God she believes in.
A Process God
Today, in a world where some prisons and school systems practice restorative justice, where we study the difference between authoritative and authoritarian parenting and find the latter wanting, we can begin to believe that God never stops loving us no matter what we do, that he weeps when we harm one another, and that he has no desire to restrain or punish us. He longs for us to love one another. While this God is reflected in some parts of the Bible, it is the totality of the God in process theology.
Process theology was developed by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. It’s called “process” because a basic tenet of the philosophy is that as the universe evolves and changes, so does God. Since we are talking about fathers, I will continue to call God by the male pronoun.
According to process theology, God has no choice but to leave us to our own devices. That’s because, unlike the biblical God, a process God can’t coerce us. He can’t force us into anything. Wiping us out is out of the question, because it’s not something God has the ability to do. A process God is not all powerful, nor would he want to be.
Letting Go of Control
That’s because God loves us. Love does not want to control. Indeed, true love can’t control, because taking away a person’s agency and independence is the opposite of love.
When my children were young, I sometimes picked them up to get them away from danger. That means, I used forced against them. I took away their freedom and independence. Acting out of concern for them, out of a love that could not bear separation, I nonetheless was reacting from my fear or frustration. That action, the picking up, though it kept my sons safe, was itself not loving. It was coercive.
A process God never coerces. Maybe the laws of physics, or whatever other laws God is bound to obey, don’t give him the power to pick us up and deposit us someplace safe. Or maybe they do and God loves us so deeply and so eternally he cannot perform an unloving act, even if the result is our death. Of course, such a god knows that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us. Death is part of life. Is preventing death or disease or crime or hardship worth the fracturing that occurs when we use force against others, even if we think we are doing it out of love? Or is this an excuse to do nothing?
God and Anger
Not all process theologians think a sweet and gentle God is all that great. Carol P. Christ, for instance, wonders if such a divine love might remind us of “the moralistic and repressed, colorless, asexual, always sweet and clean, never angry or dirty, self-sacrificing model of Christian womanhood.”  Maybe there’s something to be said for that stern and angry image of God we see in the Bible. As Christ asks, “Is expressing anger compatible with love?”  When we are oppressed or abused, the strength of anger to allow us to say “no” is vital.
Those who have never felt powerless may be able to refuse God the wrath of the father who has watched his beloved be beaten, raped, or humiliated. At times anger causes the very harm we hate. It can be terrible. Yet it also cleanses and heals. A process God, then, would invite our sacred anger. The trick is to know the difference between self-righteous rage and holy wrath.
As Segal writes, “The biblical God has a human dilemma: Justice and mercy are, as often as not, actually exclusive.”  Love demands both, and sometimes we get don’t get the balance right. Not even God gets it right all the time.
If God isn’t perfect in that way, and since perfection never changes, a process God can’t be perfect, then we can’t expect a father to express his love perfectly. Some fathers are too merciful; some too angry. Yet all of them, at least those who accept their role as father, develop a personal connection with their offspring. As a general rule, whatever fathers feel toward their children, they feel it more intensely than they do toward the children of others.
An Impersonal God
That’s what we concluded last month. In both the biblical and the process model of God, the love of God is impersonal. By this I don’t mean, distant or uncaring. I mean that God feels the same love for everyone and everything.
God can do this because God is one with us. As Samuel Powell puts it, in his article about process theology, God is “intimately related to every creature – human and nonhuman.”  God feels what we feel. God’s essential nature is us and our experiences. God is “the fellow sufferer who understands,” Whitehead tells us.  Therefore, God feels such a pure empathy for us that he cannot help but love us.
Thus this God finds it easier to let us make choices, even bad ones, than do our parents. Of course a process God longs for us to behave or to stay safe or to care for one another. Indeed, a process God tries to persuade us to do just that. But God doesn’t love us less if we refuse to listen. No matter what, we’re lovable in God’s eyes. That will never change. But we aren’t loved more than anyone else.
Parents, on the other hand, feel their children are special. Can you love a child in some distant city as much as you love your own child? Yes, we are all one. We all matter. Yet, we also take care of our own. Who we define as our own varies, and for some the circle is wider than for others, but we all have our limits. There is nothing that is not part of God. God feels my emotions as much as he feels yours. He has no favorites. Human parents do.
That’s part of what makes our parents so important to us. If we are fortunate, they love us with an intensity that assures us we are divine, special, unique, and blessed. Hopefully, they also teach us that we have responsibilities to care for others, to be humble and respectful. They encourage us to serve the powers of justice, freedom, peace, and love. To do so is itself loving.
Not everyone, though, is comfortable with love. Rumi writes, “Our friends warned us to be afraid of love.”  Many of us have been abused, manipulated, betrayed, and scorned because of what seemed like love. With a longing to be safe and powerful, people ridicule the very idea of love. Fathers are supposed to be strong, not compassionate.
Our Human Fathers
What kind of father did you have?
Our fathers still live within us, even if they were absent. If they hurt us, and the best fathers cause some hurt, for that is the way of human fathers, a little child inside us feels wounded to this day. If our fathers rejected or trampled or shamed us, we may have trouble believing in a God who treats us much better. Yet if we can embrace such an image, if we can imagine God as a passionate and loving force who sees us for what we are and loves us because of and in spite of ourselves, we can begin to heal. We might even learn to love ourselves.
In the best of worlds, our fathers taught us that we are worthy of love and capable of loving those around us. If they didn’t, we can learn to express that tender and supportive part of ourselves that reflects the love of God.
For deep healing, we might choose to cradle our wounded child, rock it, soothe it, love it. How do we do this?
Healing with God’s Love
It helps if we can take in the greater love of a deity, a god, a force that holds us. Counselors can do this for us, as can school teachers or ministers or piano teachers or nannies or our friend’s parents. Yet Rumi tells us, “Lose your soul in God’s love. I swear there is no other way.”  It’s amazing what a holy love can do for us.
Yet to give up our souls is scary. We don’t want to lose ourselves. A father’s love can give us the courage to take risks, to ignore the foolish warnings of our friends. If we weren’t fortunate enough to experience such a strong and gentle love, God’s love will do, as well.
In faith and fondness,
- See Segal, Lore, “Our Dream of the Good God,” Christina Bachmann and Celina Spiegel, eds., Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, New York: Ballantine, 1994,310-330, 318.
- Christ, Carol P., She Who Changes: Re-imagining the Divine in the World, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, 218.
- Ibid 219.
- Segal 328.
- Powell, Samuel, “The Promise of Process Theology,” https://www.thefoundrypublishing.com/media/media_import/content/2405/2405568.pdf, accessed 6/10/19.
- Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 351, quoted by Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Process_theology, accessed 6/15/19.
- Rumi, “You Sang of Love, So We Came,” Akhtarkhavari, Nesreen and Anthony E. Lee, trans. and eds. Love Is My Savior: The Arabic Poems of Rumi, East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2016, 44.
- Rumi, source unknown.
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