With brevity and simplicity, John writes one of the most profound philosophical sentences ever to be conceived: "God is love" (1 John 4:8). Not only does this statement tell us something about the nature of God's identity and personality, it remains an indispensable part of God's attributive qualities. And yet, exciting as the philosophical consequences of such a statement are, philosophy is not what John hopes to communicate to his spiritual family. While a statement like "God is love," is an endlessly rich mine in which to harrow insights into God's being (and should be the object of study and meditation), it is not what John wants his readers to take away from his letter. No, instead, John wants you, me, and his little congregation to see something else: that God's love is a gift that works in us, like a spring that rises up from sun-baked sands and transforms into an oasis where trees offer shade, birds build nests, and weary travelers find rest and refreshment.
"Whoever loves has been born of God and knows God," John says (1 John 4:7) . He does not mean romantic love or affection, even if these kinds of love are never totally separate from the agape love he has in mind. Agape love is the love of God for his beloved; it is the love of the cross, in Greek, a love that is likened to a fountain that cascades water in complete abandon, without thought or consequence to efficiency, sustainability, or need. Agape love is indulgent love, love that never ceases but fills up and overflows with a gushing, silvery bloom. It is eternal and enriching, gentle but resistant to closure. To say, "whoever loves has been born of God" is to say that there is an absolute and necessary connection between faith and love, that faith comes with love, or it is not faith. Just as the sun cannot be the sun without giving off light (and yet the light and the sun are distinct), so too, John is telling us that faith and love come as partners. That is fitting since love must always attach itself to something, just as being called a "husband" means you are connected to a "wife."
To say that whoever loves has been born of God is also to say that those who are born of God are recipients of love. They do not have God because they love but because they are loved. The whole passage is an exhortation of the receipt of love and what love does for our neighbors and us. Because God is love, he loves us and pours his love into us through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. And that love works in us a generosity (we become like that fountain), and we too gush and gurgle with the love of God. John tells us that this overabundance working in and through us should receive others so they might share in the springs of life and abundant grace. John wants his readers to know that God's love works in them by transforming their deserts into jungles. But how does this love do this?
When we look out into the world today, we see people looking for love. It's every song on the radio, every argument in politics, whether for policy changes or identity recognition; our culture is starved for love. The self-esteem movement, depression, anxiety, drug use, sex, consumerism, body dysmorphism, eating disorders, injustice—all of these familiar aspects of modern life betray an insecurity both with the self and each other. These vices and struggles become surrogate lovers that seek to cushion and suppress the existential needs and inner dissatisfaction we experience. St. Paul, when writing to the Romans, knew this well, "I do not understand my own actions (Rom. 7:15)" that is, he does not understand himself. That is an astonishing observation. There exists within him a self-alienation. Paul goes on to say that he is not able to master full control of his actions, but the more frightful observation is when he recognizes the impassibility of his own self. He sees that he is unwholesome, not so much separated from his full self but unable to know it, and therefore alienated in some sense. Nothing is more intimate than the inner spaces of our own minds and hearts, so deep and shuttered from others than even our own lovers cannot grasp them. They do not know our secrets, our regrets, our most passionate hopes, and our most haunting fears. Only God knows—and this is the problem, the great and terrible problem.
We are observant enough to know that to the extent that we can see some aspect of our inner selves—some good intentions are there. But we also surprise ourselves with the nasty things we are able to think and do. "Where did that come from?" "Why did I say/think/do that?" And across our mind and heart's horizon, there exists an inner darkness, an impenetrable cloak that we cannot see past but that we know is also us. This is what we cannot understand about ourselves. We look at that inner darkness, and we cannot measure its limits. And the evil that comes out of it terrifies us because we know that evil is produced and a part of us; it is undeniably us!
If the nausea produced by this realization were not bad enough, we know that God sees that inner darkness without hindrance. He sees. God knows how bad I really am and that I am much worse than I can imagine. What does that even mean? How can I live with that? And how disappointed God must be in me. If the darkness he sees into is so much worse than the small darkness I can see, then I am not just alienated from my own self and from my neighbors who cannot see this darkness but also from God. How could he not recoil at the sight of me? How could he not be shocked into disgust?
This line of thinking not only leads to the collapse of self-esteem but also to fear of God (and John will speak in the following verses how love and fear are opposites). What begins to emerge is that our self-knowledge turns to self-revulsion or pride. We lose a healthy ability to love ourselves properly, we turn to fantasy, unhealthy self-soothing compulsions, reckless living, catastrophizing or apathy, and our spiritual lives begin to dry up. We become thirsty for God, but he seems far off. We can contribute this distancing to our sin, to the inner darkness but what tends to follow is a warped series of beliefs. Often they tell us that to be loved by God, we must hate the inner darkness with a profound hate to show God we mean to be on his side. So, we hate ourselves as an offering to some sadistic god—because that is what God has become to us even if we do not understand this change. God will love me if I demonstrate my intense hatred for this darkness. "See, God, I hate it too!" But really, it is just self-hate and fear masquerading as love and piety. In time, God seems to be far away, and we descend into self-hate as a form of self-love.
John is calling on you to embrace God's love for you, not to find any security in your love for God.
But friends, St. John has some good news for you. God is love. He is not sadistic. Furthermore, John adds this: "In this is love: Not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). What is love really like? It is not based on righteousness. God does not love because we love him. He does not love us because we hate the inner darkness. He does not love because we are worthy; he does not love because we are obedient. God does not love you because you hate sin, and he does not love you because you repented with your whole heart. He does not love you because you try to bring your best or because when you are at your worse, you feel truly sorry.
God is love. "We have not loved God," John says. We have not created and do not create any conditions that cause, coerce, convince, contrive, call, or woo God to our side. We have not loved God. But God himself is love. He loves us first. He loves us when we are in total darkness. He sees us at our worse and elects us. This is where the language of predestination is happily graceful. God "elects"/chooses us in Christ while we are sinners. If he chose us when we were sinners, he will not cast us out if we fail to be what we could never be anyway. Fear—as John will go on to say—is what hinders love. When we fear that the God of love is a sadistic God of hate who extracts from us more than we could ever hope to give, our only recourse is to work to convince him that we really are not as bad as we seem. But we are worse than we can know: I do not understand my own actions. Yet our God is a self-donating God. The God who gave his Son for us. In Christ, we find new life, life in the Spirit that abides in us, life that is gifted not groused.
John is calling on you to embrace God's love for you, not to find any security in your love for God. When you embrace the truth of your belovedness, you will be an oasis for others. As we rest secure in Christ, the life-giving agape that we draw from daily should become an offering to our neighbors. God loves us because God has chosen to love us in Christ and not because we have conquered our inner darkness, made a more successful repentance, or hated our sin as an attempt to earn God's respect. We are loved because God is love. And in that love, the Son is given, the Spirit abides, and the Church (you and me) are offered up as sanctuaries to a world in search of love. So, we do love God, but only because he first loved us. And his first love is unconditional, unsullied, and demonstrated in the cross of Christ.