by John Armstrong
All religion, which involves us in the outward signs of faith that are expressed in different forms— celebrations, statements, codes of behavior, and visible expressions. But faith and religion are not the same. A person can be deeply religious and not have true faith. And he or she can practice religion and not believe that God is love. Religious beliefs vary, but all seek to express what faith means through particular social practices.
Perhaps the world contains so many religions because people have so many ways of expressing how they understand their experience. According to the biblical tradition there are many “gods,” but there is only one true God (Exo. 18:11; 20:3; 23:24, etc.). This distinction, which is called monotheism, made the Hebrew faith unique in the ancient Middle East. God revealed himself by the unspoken name of YHWH. (Hebrew has no vowels, so this name is sometimes written “Jehovah” in English.) God is presented as the Lord who reigns over all. Moses asks, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:11). Moses, and even God for that matter, never denies that there are other gods. But he affirms that YHWH is the Lord, the one who is “majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders.” This is the God that Jews and Christians believe “has the whole world in his hands.”
Religion has its rightful place (see James 1:27), but only through divine revelation can we truly know God’s character. How can I know that love guides the universe? Abundant evidence suggests otherwise. And if God is love, how then should I respond to him? What constitutes an authentic expression of faith in a healthy religious context? Is faith simply a private “hope,” or does it make a difference in how I treat others? Given what many people see done in the name of religion, some popular atheists now suggest that all religion is inherently evil.
It is important that we realize a comprehensive discussion of what God has revealed would require many volumes. For our purposes, in Costly Love I will address only a few critical matters regarding divine love before I consider why our love must be costly.
I am concerned first and foremost with the meaning and practice of love. Is love only a dimension of God’s identity, or is love God’s actual response to the world? In light of immense and complicated tragedies and evil what does it mean to say that “God is love”? Explanations have offered only limited help. In the end, the Christian response proclaims that God created the world out of infinite love and allowed it to fall into a state of sin and death. But the story does not end here.
At least for Christians, any discussion of what God has revealed has to begin with what he has made known in and through Jesus Christ. This is true for several reasons, but the central one may surprise you: What Jesus said about God, and how the earliest Christians understood what he said, is the only solid basis for a Christian answer. The right response to sin and death is found in the redemptive life and suffering of Jesus. Because the God who “is love” expressed himself and suffered in the person of Jesus, he truly suffers with all people in a uniquely human way. While we rightly work to alleviate suffering, we remain mindful that our suffering ultimately has meaning precisely because God is love.
Perhaps Jesus’ most remarkable claims are these: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), and “[No one] has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). Jesus is saying, “If you want to know what God is really like, look at me!” Time and time again he claimed to share an eternally intimate relationship with the Father: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10).
Divine revelation implies that there is a God who loves us enough to take the initiative to explain himself openly. But he did far more than that. He became one with our humanity in the incarnation of Jesus. The Sacred Mystery became what Leslie Newbigin called the “open secret.” And now God has given the Holy Spirit to those who follow him so they can know what is necessary for true life and godliness: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).
The Christian religion clearly reveals that faith is a gift of God. We can experience God only when we have been initiated into divine love through God’s grace. True religion is not us working our way to God but rather God giving us the gift of his love. True religion is thus rooted not in our keen intellect or special religious status, but in this gift.
John Armstrong is a friend of A2J. You can read more of his writings and follow him here