In many languages there’s two different concepts that, in English, we give the words love and like. To like something is to enjoy it, take pleasure from it, and feel affection towards it. Love is a stronger affection that is usually (if not always) tied to strong bonds, e.g. family, or to sexual desire.
In French those two concepts are conflated in the verb aimer. J’aime means both I love and I like, and some people hate that conflation, while others really aiment it.
A few weeks ago my pastor preached on how God is love, and how God loves, and how sometimes we don’t understand that God loves us. My pastor was preaching in French, but French is my third language so I still end up processing most information in English or Portuguese, even though I don’t actually translate it in my head. I was understanding everything about l’amour de Dieu in terms of love, specifically the Christian love that can also be expressed with the word charity, which is the Greek ἀγάπη. It means a selfless disposition to do good to whatever you love, selfless in the sense that it really has no relation to any interest you might have for yourself: it is completely focused on the other. But then I stopped and realized that I was using my theology and language concepts to interpret what my pastor was saying, not really taking him on by his own words. I decided to throw all of that out, and just think about the sentence “Dieu m’aime“. God loves/likes me. Forget Greek, forget Portuguese, just take in that raw concept from the French language… It was pretty mindblowing.
What does it mean for God to love us? For God to like us? What does that say about us, and about Him?
Sure God loves us, but… well, look at the world and all the stuff that happens in it. Look at how our lives often don’t go the way we’d like them to go. Surely God’s love isn’t matching whatever we’d expect from an omnipotent being who loves us and wants us to know it… I mean, think about taking God as a role model for loving children. Parenting could be really messed up if parents decided to not show themselves to their children, only give them a book (or many) they wrote in an ancient language (or many), which different babysitters would interpret differently. Children wouldn’t quite be sure which book is really the parent’s, or if all are, or none, and which babysitter is right or wrong, or if any of them understood the parents at all. They’d have to devote years studying all sorts of things in order to understand even one of those books. Then really bad things would happen at home where the parents should be watching, like the books say, so that makes the children confused. But then some good things happen too, because the parents would make sure not to be way too evident otherwise they might break the children’s free will to believe they exist or not.
Yeah, kind of absurd.
But maybe what I described above isn’t like God at all. Maybe it’s the way we’ve come to interpret what He’s doing but, really, we’re getting it all wrong. Maybe he does talk to us everyday, not just on coded messages in ancient books. Maybe He doesn’t care about making himself evident or not because whether we call Him God or we don’t, He simply is our Ultimate Reality. Maybe we all do have a relationship with him, it’s just that some of us have a bad one.
Or maybe our concept of love is all messed up and we should learn more from what we get from God. What if our ideas of love being possessive, intrusive, even violent, are twisted? God doesn’t seem to be very possessive since most of us live lives relatively away from him, he’s not very intrusive, and He actually does good things in silence without having to play trumpets in the streets (or post it on Facebook) to get credit, like making a logical universe that we can understand with science and cure diseases. We associate love and liking with obsession, but even though God loves humans, it really doesn’t look like we’re the center of everything God does.
The more I think about this, the more I come to the end of language, and turn to Apophatic Theology:
God is Love. God is not Love.
God is not not Love.