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Love Means “I Want You to Be.”


1st John 4:8      John 3:16      Galatians 2:20


There are few thinkers more profound than Augustine. Born in the year 354 and living until 430, he was philosopher, theologian, political theorist, cultural commentator, and all of these at once; and not only all of these at once, but all of these superbly. His words are always weighty and need to be heard again and again. He wrote much about love, approaching the topic of love the way an appreciative jeweller approaches a gem, glowing over the different lustres it radiates as light shines on it first from one angle and then from another. One word from Augustine that we are going to linger over tonight is as brief as it is brilliant: “Love means ‘I want you to be.’”

I: — Let’s think first about the creation. On the one hand God doesn’t need the creation; i.e., doesn’t need the creation to be God. God is without deficit or defect. Therefore he doesn’t create in order to find in the creation what he somehow lacks in himself. On the other hand we know that God is life and God is love. God is the one and only “living” God in that God alone has life in himself. Because God is life God alone can impart life. Because God is love he appears to delight in creating and vivifying creatures who aren’t God themselves but who are made to live in love with the God who lives and loves by nature.

To say that God conceived us in love and fashioned us in love and constantly visits us with his love means, says Augustine, that God is forever saying to us, “I want you to be.” Be what? When God creates mountains and monkeys he says, “I want you to be that thing.” When he creates humankind, however, he wants us to be what monkeys and mountains can never be: creatures whose purpose, delight and fruitfulness are found in a living relationship with him, which relationship is love.

The apostle John has said most pithily, “God is love.” Less pithily but equally profoundly Augustine would say, “God is the one who longs to have us be; God longs to have us love him; God longs to have us reflect back to him the love with which he first loved us and continues to love us. This is what it is to be.

The problem is, as everyone knows, that the creation didn’t remain “good” without qualification. Instead the creation was undone (in some respects) by the fall. We who were created to find our purpose, delight and fruitfulness in a living relationship of throbbing love for God now look everywhere else. We who are to reflect back to God the love with which he first loved us and continues to love us now do everything but that. For this reason God can no longer say, “I want you to be.” Now he must say in his judgement, “I want you not to be.” Insofar as God wants us not to be he plainly isn’t the creator; he’s now the destroyer. Anyone who reads scripture attentively knows that as soon as the creator is presumed upon or traded on; as soon as the attempt is made to exploit God or test him, as surely as God is disdained or merely disregarded, the creator becomes the destroyer. Scripture speaks like this on every page.

We’d like to think that if God were displeased with us, justly displeased with us, it’d be enough for him to ignore us. But destroy? Destruction sounds like “zero tolerance.” It’s odd, isn’t it, that we fault God for “zero tolerance” when we insist our legislators implement it everywhere in our society. We insist on legislation that guarantees zero tolerance for wife-beating, drug-trafficking, sexual exploitation of children; zero tolerance for income tax evasion and impaired driving. We insist on social policies of zero tolerance because we know in our hearts that tolerance isn’t a sign of generosity or magnanimity or large-hearted liberality. Tolerance is ultimately a sign of confusion, blindness, and spinelessness – none of which can be predicated of God. His tolerance, in the wake of our primal defiance and disobedience, would be only the shabbiest character defect in him.

Israel always knew this. To the prophet Amos God said, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” (Amos 9:7) A plumb line is used in house construction to expose deviations from the upright. The house of Israel was found deviant. And the result? When the plumb line is spoken of in 2 Kings 21 the conclusion is stark: “Says the Lord, ‘I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” It’s over! “I want you not to be.”

II: — Yet to another prophet, Hosea this time, God spoke as anguish-riddled a word as we shall ever overhear in scripture: “How can I give you up? How can I hand you over?…My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender, for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy.” (Hosea 11:8-9) Not even the destroyer will come to destroy. Then what will he come to do, given his recoiling heart and tender compassion? He will come to save. “For God so loved the world”, is how the apostle John speaks of this truth. “World”, in John’s vocabulary, doesn’t mean what it means in the Oxford English Dictionary; “world” for John is the sum total of men and women who blindly yet culpably disdain their vocation of reflecting back to God the love in which he created us. The “world” is the sum total of men and women who slander God’s goodness and slight his patience and scorn his blessing and ridicule his truth and laugh at his judgements even as they lecture him, “Don’t tell us what to be; we’ll decide for ourselves what we’re going to be. We forge our own identity, and our identity has nothing to do with you.” And then with a love that will forever remain incomprehensible God so loves such ungrateful rebels that he will submit himself to the humiliation of a stable and the horror of a cross. Plainly he’s saying, once more, “I want you to be.”

But there’s a difference this time. On the day of our creation God loved into existence the glorious creature that he had conceived in his own image and likeness. So glorious were we as we emerged from God’s own hand that we mirrored his glory. It was grand, then, when he said to us, “I want you to be.” In the wake of our rebellion and subsequent disfigurement, however, when his image is defaced in us and shame attends us and we are as loathsome as we formerly were resplendent, his loving us now isn’t akin to Adam’s loving Eve on the day of their primal splendour; God’s loving us now is akin to Hosea’s loving his wife when Hosea found her, now a prostitute with three illegitimate children, shamed and disgraced and valued commercially at 15 shekels, half the price of a slave. It is for broken down creatures like this that God now breaks his own heart. “How can I give you up? How can I give you up when I want you to be?”

The love with which God created us appears to have cost him nothing; but the love with which God so loved the world manifestly cost him everything. Christmas clearly cost God everything, for the sole purpose of Christmas is the Christmas gift crucified. John Calvin was fond of saying that the shadow of the cross fell upon the entire earthly life of Jesus. And so it did. The shadow of the cross fell even upon his birth. His birth? Even upon his conception, for on the day that Mary learned she was pregnant she was told, “a sword will pierce through your heart too.” (Luke 2:35) It appears not to have cost God anything to have us come forth in primal splendour. But to have us be born anew, to have us made afresh, to have us be, at last, what we were always supposed to be; this entailed that child, born for us, who from the moment of conception gathered into himself the eventuality of the cross. Christmas, therefore, costs God everything.

III: — “God is love.”(1st John 4:8) It means, “I want you to be, be those made in my image whose love for me reflects my love for them.”

“God so loved the world.”(John 3:16) It means, “I still want you to be, even though you are a disgrace to me and disfigured in yourselves; I still want you to be those whose love for me reflects my love for them, regardless of what anguish I must suffer in the person of the cruciform child of Christmas.”

“He loved me, and gave himself – for me! (Gal. 2:20) Listen to the apostle Paul exult. “He loved me!” If love means “I want you to be”, then “He loved me!” can only mean, “I am. At last I truly am. I’m finally alive.” Is this the same as mere existence? If love means “I want you to be”, could we ever substitute, “I want you to exist“? Never! “He loved me!” will never mean, “I exist.” It will always mean, “I am! I truly am! I’m profoundly alive!”

“He loved me!” But didn’t God so love the world? Of course he did, and Paul knows he did. Then why the exclamation, “He loved me!”? It’s because the purpose of the Christmas gift has been fulfilled; fulfilled in this one man at least. The purpose of God’s so loving the world is to have this individual and that individual and yet another come to be: come to abandon herself to the one whose love incarnate for her has brought her to spend the rest of her days in love for him. Yes, God did so love the world; but only the individual can respond. “He loved me!” is precisely the cry of someone who has responded. And in such an individual the Christmas gift has proved fruitful.

We can’t help noticing that when the cry, “He loved me!”, was torn out of the apostle, it wasn’t merely that one matter was settled (he thereafter knew himself loved); ever so much more was settled. In fact, everything was settled. Thereafter he never groped and guessed as to what life means. He never hemmed and hawed, wondering what he was supposed to do with his life. He never drowned in doubt over the significance of his toil and his suffering. He knew what life means, knew what he was to do, knew the significance of his toil and suffering even if those for whom he toiled and suffered didn’t know. And his future? “Life means Christ”, Paul told the Christians in Philippi, “and my dying can only mean more of him.”

Let’s come back to one question Paul never asked. In the wake of “He loved me!” he never asked, “What’s the meaning of life?” He didn’t have to ask it. He wasn’t puzzled. The Christmas gift ends bewilderment here. The Christmas gift embraced restores us to that immediacy and intimacy we crave in our hearts. The Christmas gift cherished finds us no longer asking about the meaning of life, but not because we now have a 10,000 -word answer complete with footnotes. The Christmas gift, rather, has brought us to live in a love to God that reflects the love he has always had for us. Living in such love, in the immediacy and intimacy and contentment of such love, we need neither arguments nor explanations nor demonstrations. When the writer of Proverbs records, “He who finds me finds life!” (Prov. 18:35) we shout, “’Tis true!” When the prophet Amos records, “Seek me and live!” (Amos 5:4), we exult, “Yes!” When the prophet Ezekiel records, “Turn [repent] and live!” (Ez. 18:3), those who have turned to face God simply know it’s true. No longer are we expecting only the detachment of an abstract idea; now we glory in the immediacy of a concrete encounter. “What does life mean?” Those who have embraced the Christmas gift and henceforth resonate the Son’s love for the Father aren’t left asking the question. Those, on the other hand, who are impelled to ask the question are also unable to recognise the answer.

Forever unable? Of course not. Phillips Brooks, author of O Little Town of Bethlehem, writes, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” The gift is wondrous; that is, it transcends human comprehension. It is given “silently”; that is, the manner of its impartation is a mystery. Because the gift transcends human comprehension, and because the manner of its impartation is a mystery, you and I are ultimately speechless before the secret work of the Holy Spirit that prepares anyone’s heart for the blessings of heaven. We can’t describe or explain the secret work of the Holy Spirit that moves the person who is incapable of recognising the answer to no longer needing to ask the question. But that there is such a work of God’s Spirit, and that such a work we can’t measure or control or describe or explain; this we never doubt. And therefore we give up on no one; we dismiss no one. Instead we pray, and continue to pray, then pray some more, knowing that in the mystery of God’s secret work “where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.” And where Christ enters in someone has come to be. Where Christ enters in the purpose of the incarnation is fulfilled. And the love wherewith that person was created and redeemed is now reflected in her love for our great God and Saviour, who is rightly said himself to be, to be eternally, even as he guarantees as much for all who hold – and hold on to – the infant born in Bethlehem.

Victor Shepherd            

Christmas Eve 2002