Before discussing what God’s love looks like—and I’m looking specifically at how God loves us with as our father—I want to briefly consider a few reasons why “love” might lack clarity or even be unhelpful today.
What is Love?
“Love” can lose its meaning because we use it so often and so broadly today. We love everything from ice-cream to friends to God, but that “love” means different things (I hope) in each way we use it. The word “love” has almost lost depth because it can mean anything from a momentary taste (ice-cream) to an affection for the divine.
“While we still probably understand the meaning behind the way we’re using it in any given situation, all the repetition is having a formative effect on us—the word love doesn’t always hit us the way that it should and in the way that the Bible often intends it to hit us when it’s speaking of the way to love God and others….Because of the way that our culture tends to think of love—almost off-hand or flippantly—when it comes to being told God loves you, it can fail to land on us with the beauty and significance that it should.” Jen Wilkin
“Love” can be used in a fluffy, over-sentimentalized way that has little specificity or depth to it. Love today might be more of a feeling, or love is reduced to only what others feel like is loving to them. Our culture has a hard time understanding how love can include wanting the person’s good—which can include setting up boundaries or speaking a loving word that might be hard to hear—and only thinks in terms of making a person feel good about themselves. Because of that, much of the world’s talk about God’s love and even a lot of talk about God’s love within Christianity (used very loosely) doesn’t look and sound like love in the Bible. People today struggle to see how a loving God can allow us to experience pain (though any good parent knows that part of your child’s growth will include allowing us to scrape our knees so we can learn important lessons).
In his chapter “Distorting the Love of God?” in The Love of God, D. A. Carson writes, “The love of God in our culture has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable. The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized.”
Christians can hear about “God’s love” and still think in terms of something God must do—act lovingly toward us—but not believe God loves us in the sense of liking us. Someone might hear the word and think it means that God is sort of like a dad who knows he has to provide for his kids and try not to blow it, but he doesn’t truly enjoy and delight in them. We can think God loves us because he has to do so, as if because we believed in Christ now God’s sort of stuck with us. He doesn’t really like us, but he has to love us—meaning he has to do us good. But the Bible doesn’t use “love” in that way. Love does convey God’s faithful, steadfast, covenantal commitment to us, but it also includes the warm overtones of his kindness, delight, care, and desire for friendship.
God’s love is no shallow, insignificant, cold, or vague idea thing. For just an appetizer of what the Bible tells us about God’s love, we’re told God’s love is better than life (Ps. 63:3). Only by tasting God’s love can we then pass on his love to others (1 John 4:16). It’s described as precious or priceless, a strong refuge we can hide in (Ps. 36:7). God’s love is enduring (Ps. 136; 1 Chron. 16:34), unfailing (Ps. 107:8-9; 109:26; Is. 54:10), everlasting (Jer. 31:3), undeserved and unmerited (Rom. 5:8), generous and gracious (John 1:12; 3:16), lavished on us (Rom. 5:5), sacrificial and selfless (John 15:13), compassionate (Ps. 86:15), covenantal and faithful (Deut. 7:9), caring (1 Peter 5:7), patient (Ps. 86:15), and forgiving (Neh. 9:17). As we think about God’s love, let’s let the Bible inform our understanding of this rich and life-giving reality that belongs to us as God’s children.
Seven Features or Aspects of God’s Love
Though more examples of God’s love will be unearthed in upcoming posts, part of the goal here is to take a somewhat vague word today that could have as many connotations as readers and to shape it and fill in the details with how the Bible describes God’s love.
God is love.
God doesn’t simply choose to be loving some of the time, but God is love all the time and that love is part of everything he is, says, does, and plans. There is no hidden corner of God that’s not fully saturated with the kind and joyful love of God. God has always been loving—and as the Triune God has always been in a relationship of love and delight—and will never not be loving. When Jesus wants us to think about God’s love for us as our Father, he tells the story of the prodigal son and how the Father runs out with joy over his lost son returning (Luke 15). It is a gracious, celebratory, and affectionate love.
- “God is love.” (1 John, 4:8, 16)
- “The God of love and peace will be with you.” (2 Cor. 13:11)
- “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Cor. 13:14)
We might think of God’s love not just as one attribute of God, but as the fountain of all other attributes. In other words, all other attributes flow from and are full of God’s robust and wonderful love. John Owen writes, “Yea, and as this love is peculiarly to be eyed in him, so it is to be looked on as the fountain of all following gracious dispensations… Now, this ought to be so far away, that his love ought to be looked on as the fountain from whence all other sweetnesses flow.”
God’s love is gracious.
God’s love is unmerited, undeserved, and unprovoked, meaning God does not love us because of anything good, lovely, or desirable in us. God chooses to love us despite how far from him we are as finite creatures, despite our sinfulness, weakness and frailty, and the many ugly things he sees in us each day. God’s gracious love is a free and undeserved gift. Paul writes, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
God does not love us as a response to our love to him. God loves us first. He initiates, pursues, and draws near to us when we are far from him. His love to us is the foundation of our relationship toward him. And all this is true while God has full knowledge of who you are. God is aware of who you are. Nothing is hidden from him. He sees the real you. And yet he loves you. Just like good earthly parents continue to love their own children at their messiest or their worst.
“We didn’t ruin God’s plan; we are his plan, his eternal plan to love the undeserving, for the display of his glory alone… Those places of deepest shame are where the Lord Jesus loves us the most tenderly.” Ray Ortlund, The Gospel
Just as I loved my two kids before they ever loved me or did anything to merit my love, God loves us before we ever love him. In fact, we would not love God if he had not first loved us. “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; see also Eph. 1:4-5). Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Love to God, wherever it really exists, has been created in the bosom by a belief of God’s love to us. No man loves God till he knows that God loves him; and every believer loves God for this reason first and chiefly, that God loves him.”
God’s love is steadfast.
God’s love is a committed, covenantal, unbreakable, and unchanging love. God’s love is steady. It does not wane or waver over time, depending on how we act, or changing from one day to the next. This is one of the most common descriptions of God’s love in the Bible (see Ps. 136; 63:3; Ezra 3:11-12; Lam. 3:22-23; Is. 54:10). God does not change his mind, his commitment, or his affections to the children in his family. We never have to worry about God losing his patience with us and abandoning us, throwing in the towel, or ignoring us.
God is faithful. His love will never run dry, slow down, or fade away. It’s not like a river that dries up or is powerful in Spring but dried up by late summer. It’s more like the Colorado or Mississippi, a river so big and deep that it will never dry up. “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Ps. 100:5). He doesn’t love you until there’s someone or something else that catches his eye. His love is steadfast, eternal, and unending. It’s even more consistent and faithful than the rising and the setting of the sun.
God’s love is joyful, generous, warm, and kind.
We sometimes think of God mainly in somber and transcendent terms, like a rigid king or an overly serious grandfather. It’s as if we forget God is by nature a God of joy, delight, goodness, generosity, kindness, and warmth. His love includes his covenant commitment to us and his purposed plans for our good, but it also a joyful and kind love.
“I find the term ‘kindness’ really helpful when I’m thinking about God the Father. ‘Love’ is such a big word and it can embrace a rather formal caring. We could, for example, use it to describe a father who worked hard to provide for his family, but never showed any interest or delight in his children. Maybe this is how you think of God the Father. He’s good and he does the right thing. He loves you in the sense of providing for you. But you think of him as distant or detached. If so, think of his kindness. Let the word play on your imagination. God is kind. He shows us kindness.” Tim Chester, Enjoying God
Think of God’s love in the best, deepest, purest, and highest vision you have of that word, which would certainly be a heartfelt, passionate, joyful, warm, and kind love. Charles Spurgeon writes, “And the sonship that God has given us is not a mere name; there is all our Father’s great heart given to us in the moment when be claims us as his sons.”
If you’re a parent, think of how you feel toward your children—when you’re at your best—and then let that be a small window into understanding God’s love. “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Ps. 16:3). He delights in, rejoices in, and even sings over us. “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph. 3:17). We now live under the privilege of his smile, with the Father’s words about Jesus echoing down to us: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). As Tim Chester writes in Enjoying God, “If you’re in Christ, you always bring pleasure to the Father. He sees you and smiles with delight.”
God’s love has our good in mind.
I hope this is self-evident in the other things we’ve seen about God’s love—or even in the nature of “love” itself—but because our cultural understanding of “love” as “in love” can often not be wholly selfless, I wanted to state it. God’s love is wanting what’s best for us and pursuing it. God’s plans and works then for us are always good. At the heart of what it means to be a father or mother is you seek what’s best for your children. Though as earthly parents we often lack the wisdom of what will be best and lack the ability to always bring it about, God’s perfect love for us is paired with his wisdom of what will be for our good in the long run and the might to bring it about. God describes his purposes for his people as being “to do you good in the end” (Deut. 8:16). See also Jer. 29:11; Rom. 8:28-29; 1 Cor. 2:9.
God’s love is giving and generous.
God’s love overflows out of a wellspring of abundance. It is limitless and does not need rationed. It is a sharing love that blesses, provides, and gives to others. This is basic to fatherhood, as all that you have that is good you are eager to share with your children—and they are happy to receive it. I don’t need my arm twisted to provide for my kids—not just for their needs but for good gifts I know they’ll enjoy—but I love to do it. I find myself eager to show them with gifts. If that’s true for me as an earthly father, how much more does God love to provide for us and generously bless us with good gifts (Matt. 7:11).
God’s love is powerful and transformative.
God’s love spilled out into the act of creation. It’s the source of our redemption, the power behind our sanctification (maturity), and will ultimately culminate in our glorification. As we experience his love, it changes us. We become like him and reflect him by tasting his love. As we experience the love of the Father, we are changed personally and we love to others (1 John 4:7–12).
We can only love well when we know we are loved well. God’s love changes us and provides the stability, security, and rest that helps free us from insecurity, lack of assurance, guilt and shame, and many other spiritual temptations. God’s love is not just a benefit or blessing of the Christian life (though it is that), but it’s actually a means by which we are changed from the inside-out.
“The love of Christ, being the love of God, is effective and fruitful in producing all the good things which He wills for His beloved. He loves life, grace and holiness into us; He loves us into covenant, loves us into heaven.” John Owen