Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Not a God of Unconditional Apathy

It has been said that the opposite of love is not hate, as is commonly supposed, but rather apathy. While I've heard this for a long while, I was nonetheless surprised by something said in a sermon I was listening to recently (but which was recorded a couple of years ago) that gave it a twist I'd never heard before.

The sermon was about God's love, and the fact that God loves us enough not to leave us the way we already are. That is, that God calls us to be better people. The preacher was, on some level, attempting to reconcile the idea of a God of unconditional love with some of the statements of John the Baptist (when John calls people a "brood of vipers," for example). One way the preacher conveys this is by talking about grandparents. Grandparents, he says, love you like nobody else. Yet if you're mistreating your sibling, they won't be afraid to put a stop to it (in the example, the preacher's loving grandmother threatens to "skin (him) alive!").

While I'm not sure how comfortable I am with this illustration (and the harsh imagery used by the grandmother) as an explanation for some of God's less attractive moments, I certainly find myself in agreement with the basic premise. God loves us too much to let us remain as the kinds of people we are, but seeks to make us better. To fulfill the potential that God created us to have.

The preacher then talks about God's "unconditional love," and proclaims that if "unconditional love" means that God just lets us do whatever we please (no matter how evil or wrong), then he doesn't want it! He doesn't want that kind of "unconditional love" because just letting us do horrible things without doing anything about it, it turns out, isn't really love at all, but apathy. The preacher did not explicitly mention the idea that apathy is the true opposite of love, but it seems obvious that it was in his mind.

Oddly, this is the first time I've heard loose interpretations of God's love described in that way. I've heard people complain that God isn't a "fluffy" God, or even that he loves us too much to let us just get away with stuff, but this was the first time I've heard such incorrect notions of "love" described as "apathy." Yet, having heard it, I find myself wondering how this can be, as the preacher is almost certainly right.

Obviously, such an interpretation leaves one's self open to criticism that, because God does allow so much evil to continue in the world, apparently unchallenged, maybe God (if God exists at all, which many of the critics I'm thinking of would be quick to doubt) is such an apathetic god. I have no easy answer for that. But I don't feel that this is a message intended for that audience, anyway. Such people deserve their questions answered, to be sure, but this message is for Christians who too readily take the idea of God's "unconditional love" and try to use it as an excuse for very un-Christian actions. It's way too easy to cite examples, and I think for those of us who do proclaim that we follow Christ, this reminder of the difference between love and apathy is a helpful corrective.

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