“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:7–10).
We’re used to thinking about the Trinity as an intellectual problem, theologian Michael Reeves suggests in his insightful book Delighting in the Trinity. You know what he’s referring to—approaches to the triunity of God that focus on the concept of three-in-one as an intellectual mathematical puzzle, one either explained with confusing, poor analogies or avoided by dismissively referring to the Trinity as a mystery we can’t understand (and by implication, shouldn’t try to).
But that’s a problem, because if we avoid talking about our God as the triune God, we’re left with an abstract God whose qualities we fill in the blanks with ourselves, not the God revealed throughout Scripture and ultimately in Christ. Not a God we can know and love. Reeves even suggests the Western preference to refer to God in the abstract, and only to the Trinity as an afterthought and intellectual “problem,” might parallel the rise and popularity of New Atheism: “Is it too much of a coincidence that the advance of atheism parallels the retreat of the church on the Trinity?” In an interview, Christopher Hitchens once revealingly described why he believes the existence of a God would be a bad thing: “If there was a permanent, total, round-the-clock divine supervision and invigilation of everything you did, you would never have a waking or sleeping moment when you weren’t being watched and controlled and supervised by some celestial entity from the moment of your conception to the moment of your death. . . . It would be like living in North Korea.”
In this description, what is being critiqued is not so much the existence of God, but a God of a particular character, God as an abstract “Stalin-in-the-sky” for whom creation exists to supervise, control, and punish.
And we in the church have often have not done a particularly great job of avoiding that picture of God as an abstract ideal of pure power and control. We often use metaphors like God as a ruler who demands obedience, God as a ruler who cannot tolerate sin, God as a ruler who longs for glory. Each of these descriptions, separated from a foundation of God as triune—of joyful, loving relationship who created and saves out of that joyful and overflowing love—can leave the distinct impression of a God who is not fundamentally driven by love but by a desire for power and control.
If that’s our default assumption for who God is, then salvation becomes about behavior modification and self-improvement, one in which our sin is the reason for the ongoing relationship, not love.
But everything changes if we begin with a God who in his very being is constituted by genuine loving and giving relationship between genuine persons. This means that there was never a time when God did not love, never a time when the core expression of who God is was not one of joyful, life-giving relationship. And, as Reeves explains, “Grace, then, is not merely his kindness to those who have sinned; the very creation is a work of grace, flowing form God’s love. Love is not a mere reaction with this God. In fact, it is not a reaction at all. God’s love is creative. Love comes first.”
Love comes first. If we can remember this, if we can stop talking about God as an abstract force and instead find ourselves drawn through the Spirit into the joy of the Triune life—then we can surrender all our false assumptions about God and get to know the one revealed in the cross—who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Monica La Rose