Love in the rWorld (1 John 4)

The promise of the iWorld was personal fulfillment, but instead it only brought self-interest and absorption.  An addiction, in a way, to love—or at least to some selfish version of it.  Though he was speaking of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville famously said his greatest fear was that “amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time baser.”[1]  Is this not precisely what’s become of love?  The danger of the iWorld is not that we love too much; the problem is that we love too little.  And what we often call “love” is indeed “baser,” a cruel imposter of what God originally intended.  The human heart cannot find satisfaction within itself, or within a culture constantly insisting we “look within.”  It is the “rWorld,” the world of relationship, that our hearts will find their truest home.


John was one of Jesus’ earliest and closest followers.  For John, Jesus was a teacher, a mentor, a friend.  But most of all, Jesus was God in the flesh—a theme that would become a repeated emphasis in John’s writings.  Because Jesus was fully God yet fully man, he alone could demonstrate what love truly was.  So when John’s culture became saturated by various rival forms of spirituality, he would lift up the person of Jesus as the model by which we measure all religious claims.

With love it was no different.  Love takes a prominent role in John’s letter to the ancient Church.  Most significantly, John understood that human love could not be understood outside the context of God’s love.

Beloved,  let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)

If Simon May points us toward understanding love as “rootedness,” then nowhere else can the human soul find root than in its source, in the very character of its Creator.  In his commentary on John’s letters, C.H. Dodd writes that everything God does is sourced in love.  “If he creates, he creates in love; if he rules, he rules in love; if he judges, he judges in love.” [2]  Therefore, to know God—through the work of Jesus—is to become transformed by love.


We shouldn’t ignore the fact that John embeds such rich theology in his passage on love.  In verse 10 John specifies that Jesus’ role was “to be the propitiation for our sins.”  Propitiation, at its simplest, means to satisfy God’s anger toward human selfishness and sin.  Through the cross, Jesus died the death that we deserve so that we can receive the approval we don’t deserve.  That’s love, John says.  The cross, the horrific symbol of suffering and death—that’s the way that God shows his love to the world.

The “rWorld” begins and ends in the character of God.  Have you never wondered why God ever chose to create human beings in the first place?  The answer, says C.S. Lewis, is love. 

“The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation.  It is essential….God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing…the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up….Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.”[3]

Can you see why this might be objectionable to an “iWorld?”  In a world ruled by self, I don’t want “propitiation.”  Such a word implies that I’m somehow unworthy “just the way I am.”  No; I don’t want mercy—I want affirmation.  I don’t want sacrifice—I want my significance to be recognized.

By now we’ve surely examined all the ways such self-interest leaves us empty and cold.  The iWorld was consumed with the discovered self.  The rWorld concerns itself with the transformed self.  The stark ugliness of the cross must therefore represent the crucifixion of the ego (cf. Galatians 2:20), as well as the promise that life does not consist of self-absorption.  While reflecting on this truth, a German writer once wrote that the cross “sets him free from his inhuman hubris to restore his true nature.  It makes the Homo incurvatus in se [man turned inward upon himself open to God and his neighbor, and gives Narcissus the power to love someone else.”[4]

We can’t help, then, to see that love is something of a paradox.  It anchors us, yet sets us free.  It makes the soul lighter yet more substantial.  It turns our focus outward toward others, yet multiplies our affections rather than spread them thin.


By now you’ve surely understood that our discussion of “love” has been somewhat introductory to the topics that follow.  Gender, sexuality, marriage, family—love is foundational to them all.  Though marriage and family is a gift given to all creation—and not just Christians—we believe with all sincerity of heart that without the love of God, we have no hope of truly understanding how human relationship could possibly work.  “We need God’s love, not just man’s,” writes Peter Kreeft, a Christian philosopher.

“Half our marriages are lies and betrayals…sacred vows sacrificed on the altar of the god of ‘I gotta be me.’  Family bonds break.  Nevertheless, even ‘when my mother and my father forsake me then the Lord will take care of me’ (Ps 27:10)…God cannot be pushed around.  God has no passions.  God is infinite activity.  His love is like the sun, like a billion burning suns.”[5]

Our aim is to turn the heat from these “burning suns” and magnify all that remains good and beautiful and true about human love.  For in the end we believe there to be an enduring design for all human relationships.  In their song “Awake my Soul,” the folk band Mumford and Sons tell us something true: “In these bodies we live; in these bodies we die.  Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”[6]  We believe that by investing our love in the way that God designed, our lives can be invested in something greater than our world’s every empty promise.


[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. 

[2] Dodd, 110.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 126-7

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 72-3

[5] Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1992. p. 77-8.

[6] Mumford and Sons, “Awake my Soul,” from Sigh No More, 2010.


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