How does one describe the indescribable?


By Rev. Glenn Martin
Advocate Columnist

"Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence." - Genesis 6:11 NIV

We look for words and illustrations to describe the love of God. Songs, poems and sermons are eloquent but inadequate. “The love of God, how rich and pure, how measureless and strong. It shall forever more endure the saints’ and angels’ song.” The Christ on the cross transcends all definition.

In describing God’s love, we need to be careful in using words that can be misleading. “Unconditional love” has become a popular way of defining divine love. Here are some things it does not mean:

• It does not mean that there is only one responsible party in the transaction.
• It does not mean that the intent of that love is accomplished without an essential response by the recipient.
• It does not mean permissiveness

Love is a gift and a relationship, as with parents who receive and love a child even preceding birth. Even a young child is responsive to being loved and can soon give back love. If a child grows without learning that love is reciprocal, their version of love may become “if you love me, you will do whatever I want ... get me a motorcycle so I can race and a credit card so I can spend your money ... let me stay out as late as I want.”

The genuine love of parents requires guidelines and limitations and expects love and respect in return. The father of the prodigal son loved him even with a broken heart, but the relationship could not be complete until the son repented and returned with a servant spirit.

The biblical emphasis of the love of God is focused on a reciprocal love and not on a permissive love. Surely God is love and has demonstrated His love for us long before our birth.

Jesus said, “This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” He said “... greater love hath no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus loved the two thieves crucified with him but only one received the promise. He believed, repented and asked for help. 

The scriptures are loaded with “ifs.” “If my people ... I Chronicles 7:14; If we confess ... I John 1:9; If we forgive men... Matthew 6:14; If you love me ... .John 14:15; If anyone opens the door ... Revelations 3:20; If you abide in me ... John 15:7; You are my friends if ... John 15:12. If it is accurate to call God’s love unconditional, then it must be accurate to say he expects unconditional love from us. The first commandment is to love God with all our capacities. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Therefore, unconditional love becomes a covenant of two parties. The goats on the left in Matthew 25:33 did not love and serve God even though they were loved by him.

Receive his pure and sacrificial love and give it in like manner to God and all others. His promises are very much related to our faith and actions. The terms of our covenant are givens. We accept or reject but never adjust to our liking.

Martin is a retired clergy member of the Mississippi Conference.