I have lost count of the number of times here when, writing about love, I have been reminded of the wrath of God, and that we must not compromise the truth of the faith by an overemphasis on love. Let me try to explain why this seems to me not only wrong, but wrong-headed.
My first point is to ask where, in Scripture, we are told that God’s love is to be counterbalanced by anything? Jesus tells us that love of God and our neighbour encompasses the whole of the law and the prophets, and in case we didn’t quite get such a radical saying, Paul drives it home in 1 Corinthians 13. If we pause for a moment, we can take on board how radical this is. Paul is not saying love needs to be balanced by wrath or judgment – or indeed anything. He is saying that it does not matter how good our preaching is, how insightful our faith, or how great our faith, or even how much we feed the poor and help the homeless; without love, these things are worthless in God’s eyes. We can even go to the extreme sacrifice of becoming a martyr for the faith, but if we do not have love, it is worthless. That is what I would call radical love. Paul asks only one thing – if we do these things, are we doing them in the love of God, that love which sees infinite worth in each of his children, that love which led Jesus to Calvary. We can build the greatest cathedrals, hold the doctrines of the faith with absolute purity, but these things are as nothing if they are not done in the spirit of God’s love.
It was the overflowing love of the Trinity which led to all creation, and we are the product of that. If we do not respond to love with love, then we risk becoming like the Pharisees. They had plenty of religious rules, and they knew them and they kept them, but Jesus saw that this had in it nothing of the love of God (John 5:42), and said of them:
you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.
Jesus did not think that their strict obedience to the Law balanced their lack of love. If love is the supreme commandment, then how can it even need to be balanced? We have to begin knowing we are loved by God, and that in turn we are to love his creation. We can believe in every word of the Creed and we can observe all that our church commands, but if we do not do these things in love, and if we do not love one another, then it is unimportant – we might as well be a pagan.
God’s wrath is directed against sin, and if we sin, then one of its effects is we fail to perceive it is love. If we want to dwell in the dark, we fear the light and we shun it – but it is the light and the dark is the dark. So, if we have the love of God in us, we can see how what the world perceives as folly, the crucifixion, is the supreme example of God’s self-sacrificing love for us, his creation.
We have done untold harm by placing other considerations alongside this overarching commandment. To burn others and call it an act of love is an act of sacrilege against the image of God in each of us. In the name of holiness we have shown a lack of charity to other sinners, and in the name of doctrinal correctness, we have put that ahead of the command to love one another. We have erred and strayed from the way of love like lost sheep. How often have we loved those who hate us? How often have we spoken of those fellow Christians who do not agree with us with a lack of love? What, then, is the point of being doctrinally correct if we have not love?