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The Passion of God


1st John 4:8

    Ezekiel 36:26    Habakkuk 3:2     Isaiah 62:5     Luke 15:7, 10


“We passed you on the street, Victor, and you didn’t even see us. You must have been living in your head — again.”         Many people have said this (or something like it) to me many times. I can only conclude that I often appear to live in my head.  Of course I live in my head: I’m not devoid of the capacity to think. But I don’t live in my head exclusively.

I live in my body as well. I relish vigorous physical activity. The hottest day of the summer still finds me on my bicycle, imagining that I’m Lance Armstrong, winning the Tour de France yet again as thousands of Parisians cheer me on. I revel in physicality.

Plainly, then, I live in both my head and my body.  Above all, however, I live in my heart.  I live in my passions. I have never been ashamed of being an impassioned person.  For this reason my favourite hymn-line is “Love with every passion blending”. This line states that love (it is speaking of our human love) is foundational; all other passions must be subordinated to and blended with the grand passion of love.

But we human beings aren’t the only persons who love.  God loves too. God is impassioned.


The church hasn’t always admitted this.  In fact, for centuries the mediaeval church upheld the doctrine of the impassibility of God. The doctrine of God’s impassibility stated that God is utterly without passion. On the one hand I know why the mediaeval church thought it had to uphold this doctrine.  On the other hand I know what was lost when God was said to be without passion.

Why did the church think it had to say that God is without passion? Because the church thought that to say God is impassioned meant two things: one, that God is emotionally unstable, emotionally erratic; two, that God can be manipulated emotionally. All of us know how difficult it is to live with someone who is emotionally unstable or erratic. And all of us know how inappropriate it is to be manipulated emotionally.  It was felt that since God is neither unstable nor capable of being manipulated, God had to be pronounced impassible, wholly without passion.

But what was lost when the church made this pronouncement?  The living person of God was lost; which is to say, God himself was lost. You see, when our mediaeval Christian foreparents maintained that God is without passion they inevitably had to say that God doesn’t suffer; God cannot suffer. But of what help to suffering people like you and me is a God who knows nothing of suffering himself? Inevitably our mediaeval Christian foreparents rendered God an icicle, inert.  What could a God devoid of anguish say to us, do for us, when we are anguish-ridden every day? Inevitably, in denying that God is impassioned, our foreparents rendered God a non-person. Then what relationship could there be between people who are persons and a God who is a non-person? No relationship at all.

Our foreparents were correct in maintaining that God is not unstable and cannot be manipulated.  But they were wrong in maintaining that God is devoid of passion.  Scripture speaks everywhere of the passion of God, just because scripture speaks everywhere of the person of God.

There isn’t enough time today to say all that can be said about the passion of God. In the time we have this morning we shall deal briefly with four aspects only: God’s love, God’s jealousy, God’s anger and God’s joy.


I: — Let’s begin with God’s love, since love is God’s essence, God’s nature, God’s innermost character. God’s jealousy, on the other hand, God’s anger, God’s grief are all reactions in God; reactions in God to something about us (specifically, to our sin). But God’s love isn’t a reaction in God at all; God’s love is what he is eternally. God’s love is what he would be eternally even if the creation had never appeared.  The apostle John writes, “God is love”. To be sure, God hates, God rages, God grieves. But nowhere are we told that God is hatred, or God is rage, or God is grief. Hatred, rage, grief are reactions within the heart of that God whose eternal nature is constant, consistent, persistent, undeflectable love.

When prophets and apostles tell us that God is love, however, they are quick to tell us as well what love is not.         Love is not indulgence. God indulges no one and nothing. In the same way God tolerates nothing.  (We must always be sure to understand that God never tolerates sin; God forgives sin.)  Neither is love sentimental froth.  God is oceans deeper than this.

God’s way with Israel , and God’s way at the cross, make plain that God’s love is God’s self-giving without qualification. To speak of self-giving without qualification is to say that God holds nothing of himself back; nothing is held back for self-preservation, nothing is held back for self-protection.  God’s entire self is poured out — without reserve — upon you and me.

Let me repeat. When prophet and apostle speak of God’s love they know that God has cast away all self-protection, all self-concern with dignity, decorum, respectability. When you and I love a little bit we give a little bit of ourselves to someone else and risk a little bit of rejection.  As we love more we give more of ourselves and risk greater rejection. To love still more is to give still more and risk still more.  But do you and I ever love anyone so much as to abandon all self-protection, throw away all the subtle defences we have spent years perfecting, and risk uttermost rejection? Prophet and apostle insist that God has done this not once only in giving up his Son; God does this without letup, since love is his nature.

There is even more to God’s love than that self-giving whose vulnerability leaves him defenceless.  There is also a humiliation which leaves him with no face to save. Let us never forget that Rome crucified its victims naked. All Christian art depicts Jesus clad in his loincloth on Good Friday.  The Roman soldiers may have snatched away his cloak, we are told, but at least they had the decency to leave him his underpants.  No. One of the cruellest aspects of punishment was public humiliation, especially where Jews were concerned. On the one hand, the Israelite people were body-affirming, completely non-neurotic about body-parts and body-functions; they were earthy.  At the same time, they were always modest.  In fact they were earthy and modest in equal measure, a distinguishing feature of Israelite consciousness.  Forced immodesty was much harder for Jews to endure than for Greeks. Jesus was stripped of minimal modesty for the sake of maximal humiliation.

The humiliation which the Father knew in the humiliation of the Son the Father had already known for centuries on account of the infidelity, the waywardness, of his people.  Centuries before Good Friday the prophet Hosea learned about that humiliation which God’s love brings God.  Hosea learned this through the humiliation his love for his wife brought him. Hosea’s wife, Gomer, traipsed off to the marketplace and sold herself.  Pregnancy, of course, is an occupational hazard of prostitution, and Gomer bore three children who weren’t Hosea’s.  When Gomer was sufficiently used up that her market-value was all but eroded and she thought she might as well return home (at least she would be fed there) Hosea went down to the marketplace, endured the taunts and crude jokes of the ruffians and vulgar louts who lounged around there, and paid fifteen shekels to get his wife out of their clutches. Fifteen shekels was half the price of a slave. Why did Hosea endure such humiliation? Because he loved his wife, loved her regardless of the cost to himself, loved her regardless of the face which couldn’t be saved.  Thereafter Hosea preached about a divine love which loves to the point of public humiliation.

I glory in God’s love for me.  I know that God loves me not in the sense that he feels somewhat warm towards me and thinks about me now and then.  God loves me inasmuch as he has poured out himself upon me without qualification; he has risked himself in a vulnerability so drastic as to leave him defenceless; he has undergone a public humiliation without concern to save face or preserve dignity — and all of this in order that my defiant, ungrateful, rebellious heart might be overwhelmed and I renounce my stupid, stand-off posturing and throw myself into his arms. This is what it means to say God loves us, and to say God loves us on the grounds that God is love, eternally.


II: — “Love with every passion blending”, says the hymnwriter.  He is speaking of our love, but his line is true of God’s love too, and true of God’s love first: “love with every passion blending”. What about the passion of jealousy?

Jealousy in men and women is frequently a sign of insecurity.  A fellow sees his wife talking at a wedding reception with a guest he has never met before. Immediately he thinks ill of it and imagines his wife and this guest in all manner of luridness. A woman groundlessly suspects her husband at the office and mobilises surveillance in order to expose the “bounder” who in fact has never turned his head from the computer screen.  The more insecure we are, the more ridiculous our jealousy becomes.

But God isn’t insecure at all.  Then whatever we mean by God’s jealousy we can’t be speaking of ridiculous suspicion born of pathetic insecurity.  To speak of God’s jealousy is not to speak of a character-defect in God. God’s jealousy is simply God’s insistence that he alone be acknowledged and honoured and trusted as God.  God’s jealousy is reflected in the first of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me”.  God forbids us to worship, adore, love, or finally entrust with our heart anyone or anything except him.  But he insists on this not because he is a self-important tyrant who has to be flattered. He insists on it for our sake.  He insists that we acknowledge him to be God alone for our blessing. God knows that if you and I don’t honour, love, obey and trust him, we only bring dissolution upon ourselves.  To say that God is jealous is to say that God wants passionately that we honour him, and wants this passionately so that we may always live within the sphere of his blessing.         Through the prophet Ezekiel God cries, “I will … have mercy upon the whole house of Israel , and I will be jealous for my holy name”.  As long as Israel honours God in God’s claim upon Israel ’s loyalty, Israel will live within the sphere of God’s mercy.  To live anywhere else is to bring down dissolution.   Because God is “for us”, in the words of the psalmist, God’s jealousy for his own name can only mean that God wants passionately to prosper us.

Let’s go back to the first commandment.  “You shall have no other gods before me” isn’t the petulant scolding of the self-important. It’s a promise. (Our 17th Century friends, the Puritans, insisted that all God’s commands are but “covered promises.” Therefore when we hear the command we should look for the promise.)  The promise is: “In the future you won’t have to have other gods. In the future I shall prove myself God-enough for you. In the future you will find me, the Holy One of Israel, sufficient for your needs; you won’t have to run after any other deities or ‘isms’ or institutions.   In the future I shall be your satisfaction.  If my love has delivered you from slavery in Egypt already, isn’t my love going to keep you too?   There is no need to look to any other deity and therein forfeit your blessing at my hand”. God’s promise is the meaning of the first commandment.

To say that God is jealous is to say that he insists on being acknowledged uniquely, exclusively, as God. And since God is “for us”, God insists on this acknowledgement for our own good. Let’s rephrase it. To say that God is jealous is to say that fathomless love always warns foolish people against giving their heart away to what isn’t fathomless love.


III: — And yet because we are foolish people we do exactly what we are warned not to do. All of us do, without exception. God reacts to our foolishness. His reaction is his anger or wrath. When God’s loving warning goes unheeded, his anger heats up.

While his anger is real (not merely seeming anger), his anger nevertheless is an expression of his love.  It has to be, since God is love. God is love, with every other passion blended into this love.  God’s anger is never a childish loss of temper; his anger is never mean-spirited vindictiveness; his anger is never frustrated love now turned nasty. God’s anger is simply his love burning hot. God’s anger is his love jarring us awake, his love shaking us up until we admit that something about us is dreadfully out of order.

A minute ago I said that fathomless love aches to see foolish people disdain such love, because the God who is love knows that when humankind disdains him it brings dissolution upon itself.  And Jesus? For the same reason on countless occasions Jesus is so angry he’s livid.  You see, if he weren’t livid, he wouldn’t be loving.  Elie Wiesel, the most articulate Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, repeats in virtually all his books that the contradiction of love is not hatred; the contradiction of love is indifference.  If our Lord were indifferent he couldn’t love.  The fact that he is angry proves that he cares.  And to say that he cares is to say that he loves.

From time to time people tell me they are upset as they read through the written gospels, for on many occasions Jesus doesn’t seem nice. Correct.  He isn’t nice. On many occasions Jesus uses language that would take varnish off a door, like the time he spoke of Herod as “that fox”.  “Go and tell that fox”. When we modern folk read “fox” we think of sly, cunning, devious.  But “fox” as a metaphor for sly or cunning comes out of the eighteenth century English sport of foxhunting.  Jesus was never an eighteenth century English sportsman.  In first century Palestine “fox” was the worst thing you could call anyone.  “Fox” bespoke anger and loathing rolled into one.  What would we say today? –“that snake, that skunk, that weasel” (not to mention what we might say if we used less polite expressions). Yes, our Lord said it and he meant it. His vocabulary on other occasions, we might as well admit, was no different.  BUT — and a huge “but” it is — the people who ignite our Lord’s anger he will die for. For them he will die that incomprehensible death of God-forsakenness precisely in order to spare them it. And he will do all of this inasmuch as he and the Father are one; which is to say, love is Christ’s essence, his pure nature, as well.

The prophet Habakkuk cries to God, “In wrath, remember mercy”. To remember, in Hebrew, doesn’t mean what it means in English; it doesn’t mean to recollect the idea of. To remember something, in Hebrew, means to render that thing the operative reality of this or that situation. To remember mercy is to render mercy the operative reality of — of what situation? — of the cross, and of our predicament before God in light of the cross.  Habakkuk’s cry to God — “in wrath, remember mercy” — is answered in the cross. God has made his mercy the operative reality of that situation (the cross) when the cross is his definitive judgement on humankind.  For wrath is love burning hot as it reacts to our sin, while mercy is love bringing blessing as it forgives our sin.


IV: — All of which brings us to the last aspect of God’s passion which we are going to probe today, God’s joy. Joy floods God himself when God’s love for us achieves its purpose and we lose ourselves in love for God. Nasty people attack Jesus on the grounds that he welcomes irreligious people and even eats with them. He in turn tells his accusers why he welcomes irreligious people and eats with them. The parable of the lost sheep concludes with the declaration that there is joy in heaven over one sinner (even just one!) who repents.  Next parable, the lost coin; it concludes with the declaration that there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.  Of course joy floods God at this; for in the repentance of one sinner his fathomless love has achieved its purpose and has quickened an answering love for him.

I should never deny that repentance entails — must entail — what the apostle Paul calls “godly grief.” (2 Cor. 7:10) I should never pretend that repentance is possible without sober, sometimes tearful, recognition that a wrong road has been pursued and pursued for a long time. I should never deny that the heart which is newly acquainted with its iniquity and treachery can be other than horrified at itself.  Nonetheless, repentance doesn’t remain fixed in godly grief. Ultimately repentance is self-abandonment. Repentance is abandoning ourselves to a love so vast that we are left unable to do anything else. Repentance is giving ourselves up to a love so far-reaching that we forget our hurts, our wounded pride, our petty grudges, our self-serving ambition, our childish vendettas. We forget it all inasmuch as we are taken up into the very love which has taken us over.

You must have noticed that the tantrum-prone two year-old, clutching in his fist whatever a two year-old thinks supremely important, won’t give it up. The more you ask him to give it up the more his childish defiance hardens and the more tightly he grasps it. If you try to pry it out of his hand he will explode and then sulk and then make everyone around him miserable.  When will he give it up? — when he is offered something more attractive. Before God we adults have the spiritual maturity of the two year-old.  We hold fast our hurts, our grudges, our self-promoting schemes.         When the preacher rails against us and tells us we should let them go we only hold them more tightly, even become irritable.  We shall abandon them not when we are chided but when we are overwhelmed by a love so vast as to quicken a love in us that gladly leaves behind all such childish encumbrances.

The prophet Isaiah knows of God’s joy at the repentant homecoming of his people. “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:5)


When next you ponder who God is, what God is, repeat one simple line: “Love with every passion blending”. Repeat it until it goes so deep in you that the love of which we have spoken today — God’s — quickens in you an identical response to him: namely, your “love with every passion blending”


Victor Shepherd     

July 2006