God the Giver


The Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2006 Lent book is his fellow Anglican Miroslav Volf‘s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. I thought of the recent discussion of adoption here, since Professor Volf has written very movingly about his own experiences with adoption. In the introduction to Free of Charge, Volf writes about the birth mother of his eldest son, Nathanael:

She loved him for his own sake, and therefore she would rather have suffered his absence if he flourished than to have enjoyed his presence if he languished; her sorrow over his avoidable languishing would overshadow her delight in his presence. For a lover, it is more blessed to give than to receive, even when giving pierces the lover’s heart. My image of birth mothers has changed: “She who does not care quite enough” has become “she who selflessly gives.” When we parted, a smile had replaced the tears on the face of our son’s birth mother. Now it was my turn to cry. Back at home, with him in one arm and an open album she made for him in the other, I shed tears over the beauty and the tragedy of her love.

The first chapter of the book is a reflection on “God the Giver.” We do not earn God’s love (What can we give God that is not already his?). But we must assume a posture of receptivity, holding our hands open before God. Luther’s last words, Volf tells us, were, “We are beggars – that is true.” We must be thankful for God’s gifts. And we really must be willing to find ourselves transformed by God’s love so that we ourselves become givers, echoing God’s own giving, for Christ will dwell within us (Gal 2:19-20). Volf quotes Luther once more, “Surely we are named after Christ, not because he is absent from us, but because he dwells in us; that is, because we believe in him and are Christs to one another and do to our neighbors as Christ does to us.”

In the following excerpt, Professor Volf meditates on God’s love, once more drawing on Luther. We can be reminded of parts of Pope Benedict’s encyclical. Our thinking about God’s love, the Pope said, must begin with its “most radical form”: the Cross. We must understand that this “turning of God against himself” to save us, prefigured by the forgiveness in God’s love for an undeserving Israel, makes clear that “God’s love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity.”

Here is Professor Volf:

One of the more profound statements ever made by a Christian theologian is the final thesis of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, written in 1518, barely six months after he had nailed his epoch-making Ninety-five Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. The Ninety-five Theses were a call to arms against church abuses. The final thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation summed up the “ideology” that generated the call. Luther formulated it as a contrast between two kinds of love, human and divine: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.”

Consider, first, what Luther calls human love, but which is better described as distorted love. It’s elicited by the object of love; it’s basically passive in the sense that it depends on the object of love. Its only activity, says Luther, consists in “receiving something” (57). A person sees beauty – or goodness or truth – and wants to have it. As a consequence, people who love in this way seek their “own good” in those they love; they don’t bestow any good on them. A man may shower a woman with gifts, but he may be doing it so that he can ingratiate himself to her, enjoy her, keep her, or even worse, so that he can display her as a trophy. When we love in this way, we are receivers, not givers.

Contrast this kind of possessive love with divine love. First, divine love never had to come into being at all; it wasn’t elicited by its object. It simply is. It doesn’t depend on the truth, beauty, or goodness of the beloved. Second, as Luther stated, because God’s love isn’t caused by its object, it can love those who are not lovable, “sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong.” Luther concluded, “rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good.” Such divine love is supremely manifested on the cross on which Jesus Christ took the sin of the world upon himself. “This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person” (57). Unlike merely human love, divine love gives and doesn’t receive.

Some theologians claim that all God’s desires culminate in a single desire: to assert and to maintain God’s own glory. On its own, the idea of a glory-seeking God seems to say that God, far from being only a giver, is the ultimate receiver. As the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth disapprovingly put it, such a God would be “in holy self-seeking … preoccupied with Himself.” In creating and redeeming, such a God would give, but only in order to get glory; the whole creation would be a means to this end. In Luther’s terms, here we would have a God demonstrating human rather than divine love.

But we don’t have to give up on the idea that God seeks God’s own glory. We just need to say that God’s glory, which is God’s very being, is God’s love, the creative love that wants to confer good upon the beloved. Now the problem of a self-seeking God has disappeared, and the divinity of God’s love is vindicated. In seeking God’s own glory, God merely insists on being toward human beings the God who gives. This is exactly how Luther thought about God. So should we.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to God the Giver

  1. I TOO still would rightfully rather see pastor first live a sermon instead of too often now merely preach it to others and I really do think it is so farcical how some sinfully, proud evangelical pastors are ready to condemn others, to gossip about, to now preach about the other person’s sins but someone how they can’t seem to deal with their own false abuse of others, their own sins, and their own false pride.. http://postedat.wordpress.com/2009/08/31/get-real-now/

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