What is love? is a question asked by theologians, philosophers and ethicists; by romantic poets and adolescents; by betrayed spouses and abandoned children; by the hope ful and the hopeless; by the dreamy-eyed and the cynical. Answers to the question are many. And, sadly enough, many of the answers betray a hard-edged cynicism. The familiar folk song "Lemon Tree" has a father giving his son this advice: "Don't put your faith in love, my boy. . . . I fear you'll find that love is like the lovely lemon tree . . . very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat." In short, dream about love, sing about it, write about it—but avoid it, for it does not bring hope and joy, only hopelessness and bitterness.
The author of 1 John has a different view of the matter. Simply and boldly he writes, God is love. Inadvertently this often gets turned around to read "love is God." If love is God, then it is what we live for, what we serve, the ultimate standard of all. Augustine wrote that, prior to his conversion, "I loved not yet, yet I loved to love. . . . I sought what I might love, in love with loving" (Confessions 3.1). Love itself was what was sought, cherished, hoped for. Love is, as one pop song of the sixties had it, "all you need."
But John does not write "love is God," that love is the final and supreme good. He writes, God is love. If we want to know what love is, then we must let God define it. As Frederick Buechner comments, "To say that love is God is romantic idealism. To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth" (1973:54). For John, it is indeed the ultimate truth. God is not hate, anger, bitterness or deceit, but love. Love does not de scribe the fullness of God, but God defines the fullness of love. In this section of the epistle (4:13—5:5), we are shown that God is the standard of love (4:13-16); the one who encourages us in love (4:17-18); the source of love (4:19-20); and the one who commands us to love (4:21—5:5).
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