"God is love." I heard the phrase countless times when I was growing up. Even as an atheist, I couldn't avoid the concept: I'd see it on youth group pamphlets, bumper stickers, and the occasional Precious Moments figurine. It certainly didn't have any impact on me as a nonbeliever, and even when I began to research religion I didn't think much about it. The way I interpreted the phrase, it seemed to be a nice, throwaway statement that believers used to describe their deity: God (that Guy we believe in who's kind of like a dad, only nicer) is love (meaning he's really, really, really loving).
It was only late in the conversion process that I came to see that I entirely misunderstood the significance of the idea that God is love. I was thunderstruck when I realized that these Christians weren't using an awkward phrasing to convey the opinion that God is a super-dooper nice guy; they were saying that God is, literally, the source and essence of all that we call love. To paraphrase a point that the Cynical Christian made in this excellent post, when we say that "God is love" we're not describing what God is, we're describing what love is -- Love is God.
It was a mind-blowing revelation, one that fundamentally changed the way I approached God and the search for truth. And the more I talk with fellow converts and potential converts, the more I've come to believe that this is the most important concept for a seeker to understand. Here are a few reasons why:
1. It explains the importance of humility
The saints constantly speak about the importance of humility in the spiritual life. G.K. Chesterton once said, "If I had only one sermon to preach it would be a sermon against pride." If there is one thing that pretty much all good spiritual directors would agree on, it's that you'll never know God if you don't first know humility (true humility -- not to be confused with low self esteem).
When I first encountered this idea, I didn't get it. I'd bee approaching the search for God the way one might approach proving that something in the material world exists: I put God under the microscope, so to speak, waiting with arms folded across my chest until proof of his existence was presented to me. Occasionally I would read something about the importance of humility, which I took to mean that one should be open to new data. So I'd make a mental note to make sure that I wasn't closing my mind to any sort of proof God might offer me, and promptly return to sitting and waiting with my arms folded across my chest.
Needless to say, this approach didn't get me very far. And I didn't understand what I was doing wrong until I understood that when I was seeking God, I was seeking Love.
Even in human relationships, one does not find love by starting with an overly skeptical, "prove it!" sort of attitude. Love is not something that can be examined under a microscope or proved in a laboratory. You can look for evidence as to whether it exists in a relationship, but you will never fall in love based on examination of evidence alone. To find love -- and Love -- requires emotional involvement on the part of the seeker, a willingness to investigate with the heart in addition to the coldly rational part of the mind. It requires a questioning mind, and a humble, open heart.
2. It explains a common block to feeling God's presence
It's a normal and even healthy part of the spiritual life that sometimes we go through spiritual dry spells, when we have few emotional experiences with God. There are certainly plenty of believers who have a vibrant interior lives that almost never include consolation. That said, I have talked to a lot of converts who had great difficulty connecting with God on a personal level, and ultimately realized that the problem came down to a lack of understand of who -- and what -- God is.
Once you realized that you could replace the word "God" with the word "Love" in almost any instance, the problem behind common struggles that seekers experience becomes clear. For example:
"I'm seeking God" = "I'm seeking Love"
"I want to experience God" = "I want to experience Love"
"I want to know God" = "I want to know Love"
In my own conversion process, when I considered the statements on the left side of the equations, each sounded like a nebulous, intellectually difficult endeavor that would require lots of passive contemplation from an armchair. When I considered the statements on the right side, however, each sounded like an exciting endeavor that would require the active participation of my mind, heart, and soul. I might not have felt like I knew much about experiencing God, but I did know a thing or two about experiencing love: I knew that you don't fall in love by reading about it in books alone. You don't increase the amount of love in your life by sitting back and waiting for others to make the first move.
It was when I stopped asking "How does one experience God?" and started asking "How does one experience Love?" that I first encountered God on a personal as well as an intellectual level.
3. It forces us to re-think suffering
A natural objection to the statement that "God is love" is to point to all the horrific things that happen in the world and ask: "How could God even be loving, let alone the source of Love itself, if he allows these terrible things to happen?" It's a good question, and there are no short answers. But if we start from the premise that God is love, it helps us gain a deeper understanding of the true meaning of love, and of suffering.
I've often thought that the best answer to the question of suffering does not involves words at all; the best answer is simply the image of the crucified Christ. This image also offers us the best possible definition of love.
When we rail against God for human pain, too often we're picturing a distant God who sits aloof in his throne upon the clouds. But to see the crucifix is to see the God who allows suffering, but does not exempt himself from it. To ponder the crucifix is to ponder the fact that that man, naked in bleeding on the cross, is the incarnate form of the One who created all the galaxies. To gaze at a crucifix is to learn the story of the creatures who introduced misery into their world through their own disobedience, which they chose through their free will, and then to hear the tale of their Creator who did not abandon them to wallow in the mess they had made for themselves, but jumped down into it with them. It is to behold a God who used his own pain to transform suffering into a love-generating act, and to open the door for his children to be reunited with him in an eternity of peace.
Our society thinks of loving someone as being synonymous with encouraging him to do whatever makes him happy in the moment; it thinks of a loving relationship as one in which both parties experience comfort and surface-level happiness at all times. It's no wonder that this worldview considers the idea of a loving God who permits suffering to be a revolting logical impossibility. But when we come to see the Cross -- the image of the Creator crucified -- as the definition of true love, it changes everything. The issue of suffering is still complex, and one that humanity will always wrestle with. But when we come to understand the self-sacrificial love of the crucifix, it helps us see that allowing a world in which there is free will, and therefore suffering, and humbling himself to come down here and suffer with us, is exactly something a loving Creator would do.
4. It explains what it's like to have faith
In his amazing conversion story, former atheist John C. Wright likened coming to believe in God to falling in love. He said: "It was like falling in love. If you have not been in love, I cannot explain it. If you have, you will raise a glass with me in toast." I can't think of a better summary to explain what it's like to know God.
When I first believed, it was an intellectual decision. I found the Catholic Christian worldview to be more reasonable than any others, and decided that it spoke truth. I thought that would be the end of it, and so I was hardly prepared for the changes that swept through every level of my life once I began receiving the sacraments and attempted to get to know this God I'd read so much about.
The only way I can describe it is to say that my life was infiltrated by Love. A real, external, palpable force of love entered my soul, a distinct presence that wasn't there before. By that I don't meant to say that I felt happier or that I tried to be loving towards others more often. All that is true, but it doesn't capture what I've experienced. It's as if I am now connected to the very Source of all of those those things, and it's not coming from within me. Most of the time I do a terrible job of conveying this Love in my actions towards others, yet since my conversion, I have never once doubted that it is there.
When I talk to other converts, especially those who came from nonbelief, they often report these same experiences. Though each person's story is different and everyone has a unique path he must follow in the search for God, one thing that seems to be universally true about the process of conversion is that it becomes a whole lot easier once you understand that God is Love.