I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me to consider an analysis of the claim that God is love (1 John 4:8,16) with the definition of love given by Paul (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) and the various behaviors attributed to God. This is surprising since once the connection was suggested to me (see blog post God vs Love) it was an obvious avenue of investigation into the Biblical claims regarding God.
So, let’s start by first considering what the attributes ascribed to love:
- No envy
- No boasting
- Not arrogant
- Not rude
- Not insisting on its own way
- Not irritable
- Not resentful
- Not rejoicing at wrongdoing
- Rejoicing with the truth
- Bearing all things
- Believes all things
- Hopes all things
- Endures all things
On the first count, patience, there does not seem to be much grounds for complaint. God does seem to operate on a long time scale, although some events do seem to confound are ability to claim patience for God, such as Uzzah and the ark, but the Christian can simply claim that God had been patient with the errors of Israel and Uzzah was just their representative, or else attribute some unknown wrongdoing to him. The non-Christian might respond that if it was punishment against Israel that it was rather too specific in its exactment, and that the second argument is worse than an argument from silence, it is an assumption of guilt without proof.
The next measure of love is kindness. I do have a lot of difficulties with this one. God does display kindness, but it is a rather selective kindness, in that God is kind to those he favors, but this often entails a great deal of unkindness, even brutality, towards those not favored by God. The Old Testament is replete with examples of both, but I suppose the epitome of this behavior is the concepts of heaven and hell, where God grants every good thing to those he favors, while cursing the rest with unimaginable horrors. What does this mean though? From my perspective, the sort of theoretical lifting needed to redeem God’s Old Testament actions and hell so that they too are acts of love is just too heavy a task. I think a simpler answer is that God simply does not love those people. So on this count, God is love, but only if you are under his favor. It is a conditional, and thus limited, sort of love.
The third attribute of love is not envying. God is probably safe from this one if for no other reason that envy is the illicit desire for what someone else has, whereas jealousy is resentment against another for having what you think belongs to you. Thus you might envy your co-worker his beautiful wife, but if he was promoted over you, you would feel jealous if you thought you deserved it more. Given the difference between envy and jealousy, I can’t imagine a situation in which God would be envious, since there would be no circumstance that God wanted something and did not consider himself to be the most worthy being for receiving it. This is probably the greatest fault with the earlier blog post, in that it conflated jealousy with envy. It is another question altogether how loving jealousy is, but that is not within the scope of consideration for investigating the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13.
Regarding the prohibition against boasting, I find God to be at fault here as well. One only need read the second half of Job to get a sense that God has no qualms with declaring his own greatness at length and in great detail. A Christian might object that this isn’t boasting, but simply speaking the truth about himself. However, this fails to address the accusation of boasting since one can boast about what is true, for instance a good score on a test, or how much money one has.
Not arrogant is the fifth characteristic of love. This one, like envy, is difficult to attribute to God if one accepts the assertion that God is in fact superior to his creation. Likewise with not being rude. I do not know how one would assess whether God is being polite, or even what good manners would be prescribed for deity-mortal interaction. I suppose the difficulty here is in trying to conceive of rules that would somehow bind what is and is not appropriate for God to do or say to mortals.
The next attribute of love is that it does not insist on its own way. I cannot imagine how this could be applied to God. The entire Bible is essentially God insisting on his own way, with promises of dire consequences for those who refuse. There are simply too many instances of God telling people what to do, and then killing them (or those around them) when they fail to follow through with it.
The eighth characteristic is that love is not irritable. I struggle with evaluating this one. One the one hand, God claims to be slow to anger, and claims to patience would seem to reinforce this. But on the other hand, one can’t help but feel that a good portion of the Old Testament records God being angry. Regarding resentment, this too seems to often mark God’s actions and words. The jealousy God displays, the anger at slights to his prestige, and any unmindfulness of the honor due God is consistently met with wrath and indignation on the part of God. God is a jealous God, and you can’t be jealous without resenting what has wronged you.
The next two, rejoicing at what is true and not with wrongdoing, this is a matter of definition. If, as with the Christian, it is axiomatic that God is true and that all he speaks is truth then it is inconceivable that God would not take pleasure with himself and his precepts. Wrongdoing is a little more complicated, since it is possible to find God violating his laws, and so one would think that God does approve of wrongdoing, but it is difficult to assess whether God’s laws are applicable to God himself, or if it is only for the guidance of mortals. Given the above difficulties with arrogance, I think a good argument could be made that at least God does not consider himself so constrained.
I do not know how one would assess believing and hoping all things with respect to God. As for bearing and enduring all things, these two seem very similar and seem qualified to be answered together. God does not bear all things. God does not endure all things. This seems indisputable and the fact that there is a hell for people who have displeased God ought to make such an assertion uncontroversial. Did God endure the offense. He did not endure it with Uzzah, and he does not do it with any who reject Jesus as their lord and savior. Perhaps it can be argued that God’s patient endurance is a temporary thing, that it is finite in its duration. How this can be squared with the universal qualification of “all things” is not readily apparent to me, but I suppose if one excludes “persistence” from the list, then one might be able to fit God’s actions into this aspect of love. The only other answer is, as mentioned previously with kindness, that God simply doesn’t love these people.
In conclusion, it seems to me that God unquestioningly passes Paul’s description of love on the counts of envy, arrogance, rejoicing with the truth, and not being rude. God seems to qualify for being patient, kind, and not rejoicing at wrongdoing, but there are qualifications and some difficult instances to square with the account. I do not know where to place not irritable, since this seems as though it could go either way. Believing all things and hoping all things are likewise difficult to assign since these qualities seem odd when attributed to God. As for bearing and enduring all things, these two are likewise conditional, but seem to fall more against God than for God. And finally, it appears that God does seem to run afoul with the attributes of boasting, and not insisting on his own way, and resentment in ways that cannot be easily argued away.
The difficulty here is that from appearances, none of these qualities are optional for love. Each of them is individually necessary in order to make the claim to be loving. Which leads me to believe that the claim that God is love fails on the grounds of God’s own description of love (if one believes Paul to be inspired) and his own record of his behavior. Christians of course can and do make various arguments in order to rescue God from this dilemma, but this is motivated more by their theological commitments to Biblical holistic consistency than by the plausibility of the arguments that can be made on God’s behalf.