To seek God is to seek love

Why I’d probably still be an atheist if I hadn’t understood that God is love

This post was originally published on March 11, 2008.

iStock 000004277938XSmall To seek God is to seek loveGrowing up in the Bible Belt, I was frequently exposed to the expression “God is Love.” I saw it on t-shirts, bumper stickers and the occasional Precious Moments figurine, and figured that I pretty much knew what it meant: it was a shorthand way of describing one of God’s characteristics, i.e. “God (that Guy we believe in who’s kind of like a dad, only nicer) is love (meaning he’s really, really, really loving).” Right?

It is only recently that I realized that I had it wrong. One of the biggest lessons I learned in the conversion process, maybe the biggest lesson I learned in my life, was that the phrase “God is Love” is meant to be taken literally: God is love. God = Love. It’s not just some characteristic, but his essence. To paraphrase the Cynical Christian’s recent post on a similar subject, when we say “God is love,” we’re not describing what God is, we’re describing what love is — love is God.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, how this understanding of God and love played such a key role in my conversion. It brings light to three issues in particular that would sometimes perplex me as I walked the long path from atheism to belief:

1. It explains the importance of humility.

When I first began to explore the possibility of God’s existence, I approached the endeavor the way one might approach proving that something in the material world exists: I put God under the microscope, so to speak, waiting with arms folded across my chest until proof of his existence was presented to me. Occasionally I would read something about the importance of humility, which I took to mean that one should be open to new data. So I’d make a mental note to make sure that I wasn’t closing my mind to any sort of proof God might offer me, and promptly return to sitting and waiting with my arms folded across my chest.

This approach made sense since I thought I was seeking an abstract theoretical concept called “God,” and saw myself as involved in a process that should require nothing on my part other than observation of data. Yet I couldn’t seem to escape this concept of humility — and the more I read, the more I realized that all these great Christian thinkers were talking about something much more than just admitting that you don’t have all the answers. They were talking about embracing radical, self-abandoning humility. I didn’t get it. Did these people have hang-ups or something? Why were they so determined to believe that you had to be humble yourself before you could seek God?

Now that I realize that I was seeking not an impersonal theoretical concept but love, Love itself, it makes sense. I won’t get in over my head by trying to fully explain the Christian virtue of humility and get into all the reasons it’s important; suffice it to say that I came to see a close connection between love and humility. Even in human relationships, I realized, one does not find love by starting with an overly skeptical, “prove it!” sort of attitude. Love is not something that can be dissected under a microscope; to find it requires emotional involvement on the part of the seeker, a willingness to investigate with the heart in addition to the coldly rational part of the mind. It requires a questioning mind, and a humble heart.

Which brings me to the next thing I realized…

2. It explains why it took me so long to “feel” God’s presence.

As anyone who’s glanced through the archives to this blog knows, I never used to “feel” God’s presence. I eventually came to believe in his existence on an intellectual level, but was disappointed that I didn’t feel much on an emotional level. It always seemed like I was talking to myself in prayer, and I often felt a bit jealous that other people seemed to “know” God in a way that I did not.

Part of that might have been due to the normal spiritual dryness that most people experience at some point or another, and part is surely because I’m not a very “touchy feely” type of person. But there was another factor as well, possibly the biggest factor: I didn’t understand that God is Love. Once I realized that you could replace the word “God” with the word “Love” in almost any instance, the problem behind a lot of my spiritual struggles became clear. For example:

“I’m seeking God” = “I’m seeking Love

“I want to experience God” = “I want to experience Love

“I want to know God” = “I want to know Love

When I considered the statements on the left side of the equations, each sounded like a nebulous, intellectually difficult endeavor that would require lots of passive contemplation from an armchair; but when I considered the statements on the right side, each sounded like an exciting, intriguing endeavor that would require the active participation of my mind, heart and soul. I might not have felt like I knew much about experiencing God, but I did know a thing or two about experiencing love: I knew that you don’t fall in love by reading about it in books. You don’t increase the amount of love in your life by sitting back and waiting for others to make the first move.

It was when I stopped asking “How does one experience God?” and started asking “How does one experience Love?” that I began to really feel God working in my life.

3. It explains why I now believe in God with all my heart.

In his conversion story, former atheist John C. Wright likened coming to know God to falling in love. He writes: “It was like falling in love. If you have not been in love, I cannot explain it. If you have, you will raise a glass with me in toast.” I can’t think of a better summary of what I’ve experienced.

Back when I wrote my original conversion story I talked a lot about how much more sense the world made to me after seeing it through the lens of Christian teaching. The profound changes I saw based on that understanding alone were enough to convince me that Christianity spoke the truth about God and the world. But in the year and a half since I typed that up, something else has happened as well: my life has been infiltrated by Love. A real, external, palpable force of love has entered my life, a distinct presence that wasn’t there before. I don’t mean that I just feel happy more often or that I try to be more loving towards others or that I think nice thoughts more than I used to (though all that is true), but that the very Source of those things is now involved, and it’s not coming from within me.

I used to think I’d always have doubts about God’s existence. I’d been too atheistic in my beliefs for too long, so it would be too much of a change to think in terms of the supernatural. What I didn’t anticipate when I made that prediction, however, is that I would find Love. This Love that has ever so slowly become the center of my life is more powerful than anything I’ve ever known, and to doubt its existence would be to doubt reality.

I could have probably come to deep, unhesitating belief in God much sooner if I’d understood from the beginning that by seeking God, I was ultimately seeking Love.

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Enter the Conversation...

24 Responses to “To seek God is to seek love”
  1. Roxane B. Salonen says:

    This is one of my favorites, Jennifer. Glad to see it again. I shared pieces of this with an agnostic friend. Thanks for all that you've shared to infuse us all with renewed hope and LOVE. :)

  2. John Branum says:

    Interesting indeed.

  3. jonathan elliot says:

    Thanks for the discussion of experience, often the hardest thing to deal with once the intellect is satisfied.

    (I talk about some of my spiritual and christian experience here)

    I like your mention of humility too, something I've struggled with for a lot of my life.

  4. DJ says:

    When you were an atheist I assume you had difficulty understanding how a loving God could do all those horrible things he did in the old testament. Does God=Love take care of that, or do those actions just get lumped in the category of things we can't understand because they're part of God's master plan?

  5. Johanna Lamb =) says:

    Wow! This is one of the most beautiful posts I've read EVER!
    What a great reminder.

    Thank you for making clear that it is Love with a capital "L"

    Our culture tends to say love is god and they mean whatever we feel like we love in that moment. You make clear that the Love of God and the Love that God calls us to is soo much deeper and requires 100% commitment on our part.

    If we can learn to fully Love those around us: spouse, children, family, coworkers, those in need, we will recognize the Source of Love when we come face to face with him in the next life.

  6. Anne says:

    Wonderful post! As a lifelong Catholic you'd think I would have understood this all along, but you have made the concept of God is Love so much more clear to me. I am seeking Love.

    Do you remember the old song by Foreigner "I want to know what love is"? Lou Gramm, the lead singer, left the group and became a Christian artist. He released a song in answer to that question-"This is what Love is" and of course, it was about Jesus.

    Fascinating topic written very eloquently, and I thank you for it!

  7. Sarah says:

    Beautiful post, thank you. So much to think upon.

    Growing up in church from around the age of 4 I always wanted to 'be a Christian'. I was confirmed (Anglican) at 11 and made a 'profession of faith' at around 12ish. But I didn't feel any different. At the age of 19, while I was inter-railing in Italy, I stood in a small chapel pondering a crucifix when I suddenly knew that Jesus loved me – not just the head knowledge of His love. Somehow the spiritual penny had dropped. Perhaps that is what is meant by the circumcision of the heart. I don't know. But for weeks after I felt like I was walking on golden light (for want of an apt description). I can truly say that my Christian walk began then in earnest.

    One of our Pastors has a similar story. He was an atheist who would argue against the existence of God. Then one day he suddenly knew in his heart that God loved him. He said the discussion about the existence of God was then moot. God loved him that was all that mattered.

  8. Little M says:

    I'm so glad to have found your blog. You are a very moving/inspirational writer. Thank-you!

  9. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly says:

    Ditto on what Roxane said. One of my favorite and it was just as helpful to read the second go-around.

    Happy New Year!

  10. NancyinAbq says:

    Thank you again, Jennifer. This is a powerfully simple mystery. I especially relate to your second point about feeling Love is to feel God and to feel God is to feel Love. It's been a tough issue for me in my growth as a Christian. Happy new year to you and your family.

  11. deb says:

    This was a beautifully written post.
    I don't comment often, but truly enjoy your heart.
    Happy New Year to you and your family.

  12. Carl says:

    You have a way of expressing things that so many of us feel but are unable to put into words. Thanks.

  13. Maggie Dee says:

    Beautiful post! This is what I pray for my children, "That they will never go where the love of God will not find them."

  14. Babs says:

    Great post. As a life-long Catholic Christiam, #2 will be a big help in my spiritual stumblings. The less I'm full of myself, the more room for Love.

  15. Lisa V. says:

    I'd never thought about my relationship with God as a "love story" before. But that is exactly what it is. Thanks for giving me that viewpoint. It's exciting.

  16. Jamie says:

    Isn't thatthe truth, Jen? Thanks for the lovely post and re-post.

  17. rollercoasterdoubter says:

    I wish I could wrap my head around this concept with you more, but I have issues that continue to mess with my head.

    http://rollercoasterdoubter.blogspot.com/2010/01/introduction.html

    Come on by if you think you can answer my questions.

  18. Paolo says:

    Jennifer, thank you for your post: I'm a convert from atheism like you – I come form a educated and secularized family (I'm Italian, forgive my possibly bad English) – so I can share some of your insights and difficulties.
    In my experience, the equation you offer between God and Love – which is of course at the heart of the Gospels – has always been illuminating; you underline one direction of the equation, how the insight that God is Love opens a (or better, the) path for our living partecipation in His mystery.
    The other direction is vital, as well: love is really what the life in God is, and we must let ourselves be drawn toward this wider measure and reality.
    This may seem abstract at first, and difficult too: here is where our understanding of love often conflicts with the commandments of God as teached by the Church. Christ's cross is *the* scandal for human love, and the same holds for so many saints whose lives and acts were perceived as a disturbing, even absurd, excess.
    In every authentic Christian experience is present the realization that
    1) something different
    2) happened.
    The fact that we can
    1) encounter
    2) somehow understand and
    3) try to follow
    the concrete Christ and His saints, their acts and choices – and the hidden living spiritual reality – removes the abstraction and open us to the different, astonishing thing that God's Love really is.
    I invite you to read again and again John's incredible first letter.

    God bless you, pray for me and my family,
    Paolo

  19. 110001110 says:

    I’m not so sure about referring to love as God, if the idea is backwards compatible, sounds like New Age movement way of thinking. Love is a concept, God is an identity, good thought nevertheless.

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  21. Frank Bunne says:

    Dear Mrs. Fulwiler,

    Your view on the proposition “God is love” is different from that of Matthew Warner, the webmaster of fallibleblogma.com, a blog I recommend. He says “God is love” is analogous to “starfish are echinoderms,” as in, God is a subset of love, as starfish are a subset of echinoderms. Marriage, he writes in the comment section, is another subset of love, as sea urchins are another subset of echinoderms.

    You said that “God is love” and “love is God,” and if both are true they constitute an identity relation, and not that God is a subset of love. You also wrote “God = love,” which leaves little if any ambiguity if you’re speaking literally. Your view seems more analogous to the proposition “a starfish is a sea star.”

    I would be grateful to read your thoughts on this disagreement. You can read Mr. Warner’s take at http://fallibleblogma.com/index.php/god-is-love/

    Kindly,
    Frank

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