Knowing God’s Love

the earth seen from space - God's love reflected in creation

The God of Job

About a year ago, while working on a column about the Book of Job, I came across the passage below. Job has demanded that God be put on trial, that he answer his questions about fairness and justice, yet God answers nothing. Instead, God grills him. He asks Job:

Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
    or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
    or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy?
    Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Will it make an agreement with you
    for you to take it as your slave for life? [1]

Job 41:1-4

and

If you lay a hand on it,
    you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
Any hope of subduing it is false;
    the mere sight of it is overpowering.
No one is fierce enough to rouse it.

Job 41:8-10

No one, of course, but God. If God is more powerful than Leviathan, then surely we pitiful creatures, who cannot begin to stand against that beast, must hold God in even more awe.

The Awesomeness of God

I know there is no such thing as a leviathan. Maybe the animal was modeled on a whale or a crocodile, but these days, when our human weapons can destroy any beast, no matter how ferocious, its size and teeth mean little. God’s boasts seemed to be just that: boasts.

Yet when I read it again, something in me shifted. I entered into the world of the story, imagined myself as Job who was looking into the whirlwind that was God itself, and I felt mesmerized. It was one of those impossible-to-describe-in-words moments that leave us stranded in a new country where nothing makes sense, yet everything feels right. A rush of power seemed to envelop me, an essence of life and strength more vast than anything I could take in, as if all the gazillions of stars suddenly revealed themselves to me, lit the sky with the intensity of their presence, brightened the heavens beyond endurance, and I knew that God was, and I knew that God was more majestic than anything I’d seen before, and I felt afraid, yet not afraid.

Then the feeling stopped. The stars winked out. I was left with the memory of understanding that perhaps a force does exist beyond our comprehension and beyond all questioning, and that it is all okay.

Taming Leviathan

As I thought about it, it seemed that the awe and mystery I touched came less from the bible verse itself and more from the book about Job to which I’d been listening. Written by Harold S. Kushner, it described these magical and momentous creatures, Leviathan and Behemoth, as “aspects of the created world with which even God himself is challenged to contend.” [2]

That rolled around in my brain. “. . . even God is challenged to contend.” Could something exist that is so awesome a deity might lose control over it, might struggle to contend with it, might need all its powers of mindfulness and omniscience to see the details of things so it might understand the causes of all things, to make and measure a truth beyond any we can comprehend, and in this overwhelming presence, do that one right action that makes everything okay, that turns the world aright.

We humans do not even begin to see clearly the one thing we’re looking at, nonetheless comprehend the ten thousand things and their interactions, especially since they all move in time. Movement itself is beyond us.

Human Limitations

In his book, The River of Consciousness, Oliver Sacks describes how we see as in a glass darkly. Take motion, for instance. We don’t feel our planet speeding through the cosmos at 67,000 miles per hour, nor do we notice it spinning, yet it does both these things. The motion of the other planets and the expanding rush of stars across the sky are invisible to us, as well. We know they hurtle through space because our instruments measure their redshift, yet our human eyes can’t see their movement.

Here on earth, optical illusions interfere with our perceptions all the time: the pencil in a glass of water seems to bend, the Rubin vase disappears as our eyes notice the faces surrounding it, the mirage of water appears on the desert sands, and motion, also, is illusory. A woman running down the sidewalk, a lion pouncing, a car clattering toward us appear to our brain like a series of still lifes, frames in a film, each snapshot lasting long enough to superimpose itself on the next, so it seems as if we see a seamless catapulting of objects through space and time, yet we don’t. We fill in the blanks with our minds. [3]

As if that weren’t enough, we misinterpret what we see, turn it into something it’s not, because a cloud of personal experience gets in the way, feeding us thoughts, interpretations, and judgments that have nothing to do with what’s in front of us. [4] Thus, we never know what’s real and what’s not.

the earth seen from space - God's love reflected in creation

The God Who Tamed Chaos

This tale of Job is just a story or metaphor, of course, yet even if this man called Job truly lived, and even if he spoke with God, how much was true and how much illusion? The words we write about our holiest beliefs, about our spiritual knowing, are but a faint and imperfect representation of a reality we can never fully comprehend. Still, stories and metaphors point toward truth, so if we open ourselves up to them, we might experience that rush of mystical insight that flashes before our eyes, then disappears.

So let’s look at this god Kushner describes, this deity whose power is so amazing that nothing, not even chaos, can withstand it. Hurricanes would stop in their track if this god willed it, and time would cease. Such a god not only reflects a power beyond power, but it sees, not as we do, our sight obscured through tinted glass, but it sees clearly. This god knows what is, what was, what will be forevermore.

Both Leviathan and Behemoth, that creature described in Job 40 as having a tail like a cedar tree, bones like bronze, and iron-like limbs, are among the animals God first mad. They serve as metaphors for that chaos God tamed. Kushner calls them the “primal life force,” at once furiously embodied with the energy of creation, sexual and ebullient and rampantly destructive. In them, God unleashed a terrifying force. He might have these creatures under harness, yet we humans continue to cower at earthquakes and floods and the open jaws of the crocodile. It’s a trade-off God is willing to make, however, for if wild fecundity and voracious destruction did not exist, there would be no love. [5]

A Fierce Love

This love is not sweet and obedient. It is like the tidal wave, the crashing comet, the firestorm, the skeletal hand of death. In Passion and Purity, Elizabeth Elliot wrote, “we can hardly imagine a love that does not show itself in protection from suffering,” [6] yet that is not God’s way. God’s love doesn’t destroy for the sake of destroying, but death is part of it. On the other hand, when the world crumbles, God’s love holds us fast. It does not flinch “in the very teeth of suffering,” as Elliot put it. [7]

So here is this deity, stronger than Leviathan, wise enough to give flight to the hawk (Job 39:26) and count the clouds (Job 39:37), powerful enough to “shut up the sea behind doors,” (Job 39:8), maternal enough to give “birth to the frost” (Job 39:29) and “satisfy the hunger of lions” (Job 39:39). Job cannot create a world, set the stars in their place, nor tame the wildest of beasts. What does he know of God?

In a way, this God is like nature, an irrepressible force that can dash our fantasies of superiority within seconds. This force also nurtures us, tends to our needs, and makes life possible.

In the normal course of things, we feel powerful. We imagine we are in control. However, we cannot create a universe. Something sparked the flowing of fire, the coalescing of elements into planets and stars, the shepherding of wildness that allow the evolution of life on Earth. Call it Time, call it God, or say it’s the desire of matter to move, to experience, to make more of itself so it might have something to talk to. Whatever name we give it, this force of creation could also be called love.

God’s Love

What confuses us, perhaps, is that this love contains within it all things, including disease and death and heartbreak. More than just the unfortunate consequences of freedom, these terrible experiences are needed if we are to have creativity and love. In the depths of despair and the agony of desperation, we discover the love that comes from the divine.

The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures have a lot to say about what and who God is, but they agree that God is loving. “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Nehemiah 9:17 NIV), and “Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace removed” (Isaiah 54:10), and “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1), and “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).

The Sufi, Rumi, writes, “Lose yourself in God’s love. I swear there is no other way.” In Hinduism, Brahman is love. The Baha’i believe that God’s love, the Holy Spirit, gave form to human beings. The one who made us also loves us.

But what does that love look like? If God is love, then was it love that cowed Job, that tasked him, that wounded him and took everything from him?

We Are Love

On that long ago Sunday when we, at the recovery church, talked about Job, one of our members pointed out that the god Job believed in is not the god that really exists. In the end, Job figures this out, but he could not understand that before he let go of his preconceptions. He had to see God as God was. This seeing is a kind of love itself. When we listen, notice, truly look at the other, we express love. Since God sees more clearly than we do, then God knows us better than we know ourselves. This may be the highest form of love.

But perhaps, as another member suggested, God’s purpose for us is that we learn to love. We think we know what love is, and God sees that we know nothing. So God takes everything from us and says, “Try again.” Eventually, we’re bound to figure it out, aren’t we?

Yet maybe, as a third member suggested, “God’s purpose for us is to learn that we are love.”

Is that what Job needed to discover, that love is not separate from us? We are love, just as God is love? I suppose that means that we and God are one. The being who “laid the earth’s foundation” and gave “orders to the morning” is us. We love ourselves; God loves itself.

But if we are something, does that also mean we can do this thing that we are? If we are love, do we automatically act out that love?

I doubt it. I don’t think that being love is the same as loving. So perhaps we need to learn that we are love, then learn how to reflect and express love. When we can do that, we might begin to understand God’s love.

Job 42:6

In the Book of Job, there’s a confusing line at the end in which Job repents. Some suggest it means that Job repented of his challenge to God and humbled himself in dust and ashes. Yet other commentators, such as Norman Habel, translate the sentence in Job 42:6 as, “Therefore I retract and repent of dust and ashes.” [8]

He’s not the only one to interpret the Hebrew this way, but there are other possibilities. Ellen van Wolde lists some of them. The author might be trying to say, “Wherefore I retract and repent on dust and ashes, or maybe “Wherefore I reject it, and I am consoled for dust and ashes,” or even, “Wherefore I reject and forswear dust and ashes.” The Hebrew is vague, so we will probably see within it a reflection of our own values. [9]

Yet van Wolde is not content with that unknowing. She reminds us that, because he has seen God, Job is transformed. Not only is his old worldview shattered, but his behavior has changed.

To help understand this, van Wolde looks at other instances of these terms in the Hebrew Scriptures. Only four times did they have to do with people, but each of those occurred after a period of mourning, when the mourner was beginning to comfort herself, to come back to the world of the living. This, she concludes, is what Job is doing. Sitting in dust and ashes can be a way to acknowledge our humility. For Job, it showed how deeply he grieved.

Now he understands that God is God, and nothing else matters. He has been born anew. Van Wolde writes, “Job turns away from what is past and turns round towards the future.” [10]

A Future that Is Love

What has this to do with God’s love? I would like to think it was God’s love that showed Job that, not only was he insignificant in the scheme of things, but also that he mattered so much, that God loved him so completely, that even in the face of his devastation, God would show up. God would be present in his suffering.

Of course, God was the cause of Job’s misery. Oh, yes, Satan did the work, but God orchestrated the test of Job’s devotion. It was part of God’s plan. And if God was so loving, why did he never worry about the ones who died, or about Job’s wife, who also suffered? Did God not also love them? Did God not show up for them? Is God’s love reserved for a special few, the ones who love Him first?

If so, then perhaps the message is not that we must be good to earn God’s love so much as we cannot know God’s love if we do not take it in. If we are to take in the love that surrounds us, we have to open ourselves up to it. On the other hand, if the point is to learn that God loves us, or that we are love, then perhaps the cracking open, the destructiveness of Leviathan, is necessary. God loves for us is so powerful that when we experience it, we disintegrate. Like Job, we are born anew. Our past is gone, and we are ready for a future that is true love.

Everything Is Love

Perhaps that is why Job got another family. Not because he passed the test, but because he learned how to love. He lost his first family because he treated them as possessions. Not that it makes it fair that they died. They were not pawns to teach him a lesson. I can’t believe that’s how it works. Yet, Job did think of his family as belonging to him rather than to themselves, so when he lost them, he thought only of his own sadness.

Once he knew God, he could no longer see another creature as an object. He had learned, a little better, how to love as God loves.

Yet we are not so different from the rest of the universe. Certainly we are like the chimpanzees and panda bears, but we are also made of the same stuff as the protozoa and the comets. All started as a singularity, as a word spoken by the Creator. Out of that flowed everything that is and will be, every motion and thought and desire. Sometimes life crushes us; sometimes it cradles us. As Job discovered, in the end, it is the same, for it all comes from that essence which we call God.

If God is love, and love is God, and God’s desire is that we learn to love as creatures who are love, then all that exists, all that moves and breathes, is love, even the flames and the tsunami. That’s what God’s love is. Everything. And it is so much grander and more frightening and more delightful than we can imagine.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. All Bible verses are from the NIV translation.
  2. Kushner, Harold S., The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, New York: Random House Audio, 2012, Chapter 9.
  3. Sacks, Oliver, The River of Consciousness, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017, pages 221-224, ebook.
  4. Ibid 226-227.
  5. Kushner Chapter 9.
  6. Elliot, Elizabeth,Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Life Under Christ’s Control, Grand Rapids: Michigan, 2013.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Anderson, A. K., “Divinely abused: a philosophical perspective on Job and his kin by N. Verbin,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion,” Vol. 70, No. 2 (October 2011), pp. 155-159, 158, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41474808.
  9. Van Wolde, Ellen, “Job 42, 1-6: The Reversal of Job,” The Book of Job, Beuken, W. A. M., ed., Leuven: University Press, 1994, 223-250, 247 https://www.academia.edu/3545048/Job_42_1-6_The_Reversal_of_Job, accessed November 29, 2021.
  10. Ibid 250.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.

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