Love, Understanding, and Participation in the Life of God

Just thinking out loud here, and trying to reverse engineer the bigger project I’ve been working on. So, you are generous to audit my raw notions.

The author of 1 John insists that the deal is not that we love God, but that God loves us. I take that to mean that there is a qualitative difference–a saving difference–between the way God loves and the way we love. After all, the same author claims that God does more than love, but rather that God is love. God’s entire life is love, expressed immediately within the life of God as Trinity, and toward us as God’s creation. Not only does this raise questions about the quality of human love, which we know is mixed in its objects and motivations, but it also makes God’s love prior to ours. We experience it, not through our efforts to love, but as a gift beyond our capacities.

Paul says similar things about God’s love. We know God’s love, not as an analogy to how we love, but as an expression of enemy love, hostile to God’s intentions, weak, sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us. You can imagine that for a righteous person someone might actually give her life, but that’s human love, not divine love which wastes itself for the enemy. More, Paul says that God’s love has now been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:1-11).

A recent favorite passage of mine is in Phil 1, where Paul prays that their “love might overflow with knowledge and full insight.” Here love produces understanding, not the other way around, which I think is how we would put it, ie our knowledge might overflow in love. To use modern categories that Paul would not understand, understanding is ontological, not epistemological. In other words, we understand God as much by how we live as by how we think. It’s not that the mind is not important, but as Paul puts it Rom 12, we are called to offer our lives as living sacrifices, which is our spiritual worship, which leads to the renewing of our minds. (Rom 12:1-2).

Which brings me to the genesis of this whole brainstorm. Paul suggests that faith lives in the reality, not of our knowing God, but in God knowing us. The most dramatic place where Paul makes this distinction is in Galatians 4:9. He reminds the Galatians that their life is different “now that you have come to know God, or rather that you are known by God…” Something of what Paul means in distinguishing between our knowledge of God and God’s knowledge of us seems evident at the end of 1 Cor 13:12: “For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Again, there seems to be something of a qualitative difference between our knowing, which is only in part, in a glass darkly (KJV), and God’s knowing us. And again, it places the emphasis on God’s knowing to be prior to ours.

I would also suggest that “knowledge” here is not epistemological, but ontological. Knowing is not simply the ideas in our head, but more importantly comes through our participation in a way of life. (Love overflows with knowledge and insight). Knowledge, in other words, is a relational concept, not just an individual one. It cannot come only within us, but only in the network of relationships that precede our understanding. Here’s my claim, for Paul understanding is something we exist in. What we know in Christ is conditioned by God’s prior knowing of us. We live, move, and have our being in the reality of God’s knowledge of us. Both love and understanding then are realities in which we participate.

This sense of participation God’s love and understanding moves in sync with the apocalyptic mood of the NT. Paul certainly is a noted apocalyptic thinker, suggesting both that we live in the already-but-not-yet of the coming of the new age, but also privileges the initiative of God apart from which the realities of the new age are not possible. Because the reign of God cannot come through the will or desires of the flesh (human agency), the realities of God’s reign are only open to us as a participation in the realities of the life of God. God’s love and understanding, which comes before and transcends our love and understanding, is ours only by the Spirit of God, the agent of God’s future.

All of this is important to me as I think about mission. My dissertation demonstrated that Paul’s views of salvation correspond to certain instincts present in philosophical hermeneutics, while much of contemporary notions of mission are still wed to Enlightenment epistemologies. What I’ve written here would expand those insights, especially as it relates to the work of Martin Heidegger and Jean Luc-Marion. I know, I know. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it. And I won’t bother you with it here. Instead, I’ll end with some reflections by Luke Timothy Johnson from his book, Faith’s Freedom.

Johnson writes, “Why does Paul emphasize being known by God over knowing God? Perhaps for this simple reason:knowing God is compatible with the project of idolatry; being known by God can only come by way of gift, can never be brought under human control.” Johnson continues, “When we look closely at the primordial fear that generates the compulsions of idolatry, we perceive that it has a great deal to do with the sense that we are not known and loved… Paradoxically, however–and this is our enslavement–what we most desire at one love (being known and loved), we work the hardest to prevent at another. To be known as we really are is too threatening, so we struggle to construct a self that appears more real and substantial” (69). The liberating path to overcoming the compulsion to idolatry is faith, notably receiving as gift the reality that God loves and knows us.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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5 Responses to Love, Understanding, and Participation in the Life of God

  1. Bradley Zeller says:

    Seems like there could be a strong tie in between your thoughts here and the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve didn’t want to be seen or known after they had sinned. They sought the knowledge of good and evil, but lost God knowing them as intimately as before eating the fruit. See it a lot in church also, people seeking knowledge of God instead of allowing God fully into their hearts to know them.

    • Mark Love says:

      Bradley, thanks for reading. I think your comment about Adam and Eve is in line with what Johnson is saying. The story certainly is an example of what Johnson calls the “compulsion of idolatry.

  2. Val Dcore says:

    So here’s the Grammie Score version of this… my 2 year old grandson will tell me completely unprompted “ I love you”. He’s not processing this intellectually based on what he’s heard others say about me or because he thinks he should … he is responding to the love I’ve shown him first- all the ways that assure him that he is seen by me, that I KNOW him (and know his favorite color of sucker 😉) that I delight in him, that he can count on me to be there for him…yes he loves me because I first loved him.

  3. Jordan Kelley says:

    The idea around the project of idolatry and knowing God rather than being known by God reminds me of Willie Jennings and how he talks about the dangers of supersessionism and the church forgetting that we are outsiders and have been grafted in. That seems to be a similar posture change. Thanks for the post, Mark, enjoyed it.

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