We tend, perhaps, to think of divine love as something akin to, albeit much greater than, human love. We tend, in other words, to assume that God's sentiments towards us are much bigger and stronger than, but fundamentally similar to, the sentiments we feel towards our most cherished friends and family members. And, in part, we are right. Theologians typically identify love as one of God's "communicable" attributes; the communicable attributes of God are, by definition, those which, by virtue of our creation in God's image, we recognize in ourselves in diminished and inferior form (e.g., power, knowledge, presence, goodness, justice, mercy, etc.).
Nevertheless we must remember, even when speaking of God's communicable attributes, that we predicate 'love' and other traits of God and man in common analogically. In other words, divine love and human love might be like one another, but they are not identical in kind (regardless of their difference in quantity). God's love is not only greater than, but also fundamentally different than, human love in significant regards. Exploring specific points of difference between divine and human love can serve to increase our appreciation of divine love (and thus of the divine Lover), perhaps even more so that mentally multiplying human love by a million whenever we hear God's love referenced.
Luther helps us in this regard, by highlighting at least one fundamental point of difference between God's love and human love in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. "The love of God," he writes, "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."
Luther deems the second half of that thesis rather obvious, and spends little time defending it. Human love, he observes, is responsive. It answers to something attractive or desirable in the object it apprehends, whether that object be another person, an animal, or some inanimate entity. To put it another way, we love that which is, at least to our perception, lovable. Even parental affection conforms to this principle.
By way of contrast, God's love (extra se) does not necessarily answer to something attractive or desirable in the object it apprehends. Rather, it creates something attractive or desirable in (or about) the object it apprehends. "God... loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive." God does not love that which is lovable; God loves, and in loving, renders the object(s) of his affection lovable.
It's doubtful that any good analogy to the way in which God's love creates, rather than responds to, that which is ultimately pleasing to God can be discovered in human experience (any more than good analogies for the Trinity can be discovered in human experience). That, in fact, is rather the point of Luther's thesis -- that God's love is un-like our love in this regard.
Nevertheless, I couldn't help thinking, as I re-read Luther's Heidelberg Disputation earlier this week, that my two-year old daughter Geneva's affection for one particular object (named "Puppy") in her ever-growing menagerie of toys and stuffed animals sustains at least some affinity to God's love as described by Luther. Geneva set her affections on Puppy, a gift from a friend of the family, at a very young age, and she has never looked back. Puppy accompanies her everywhere she goes, and he bears on his body the marks of her constant regard. He was never particularly attractive at any stage in his career, but after two years of receiving almost obsessive adoration, he is literally hanging together by a thread.
Were thieves to enter our house tonight, I'm fairly sure Puppy would be the last thing they'd want to steal. I'm also fairly certain that, barring the persons and (real) dog living under our roof, Puppy is the item my wife and I would be most keen to protect in our home. On more than one occasion my wife and I have feared that Puppy was lost. He always turns up (often in places no stuffed animal should frequent), but we have spent a few frantic evenings thinking he was lost for good and searching for a Puppy replacement online, wondering whether or not we'd be able to trick Geneva into believing something (or someone) other than Puppy was in fact her beloved. On such evenings, my admittedly absurd strategies for replacing Puppy and tricking Geneva into accepting the replacement have typically involved plans to lay replacement Puppy on the road in front of our house and repeatedly drive over him, in the hopes that what might miraculously emerge from such abuse would be something similar to the tattered brown and white dog currently touted here, there, and everywhere by her.
Geneva's affections for Puppy were initially triggered by some inherent virtue that she, at least, perceived in him. In that regard, her responsive affections for Puppy are not like God's creative love for us. But we can, I think, gain some insight into the value which God's love for us confers upon us from considering the value which Puppy has come to own in our home by virtue of Geneva's affections for him. The fact that I would much sooner turn over my wallet, my computer, or the keys to my car to someone than Geneva's Puppy in no way reflects Puppy's monetary worth vis-à-vis those other objects; it reflects, rather, the worth he has accrued by virtue, quite simply, of being loved.
So, too, our value rests not, in the final analysis, upon our intrinsic worth (even as creatures made in God's image), but in the fact that God loves us, and is at work creating in us those qualities he deems most desirable. Recognizing that God's love creates, rather than responds to, something God deems desirable in us is a rather freeing and exhilarating truth. However much we must labor to make ourselves lovable, and so sustain the love towards us of even those who are closest to us, we need not work to sustain God's love towards us or the value which God's love imputes to us -- no more than Puppy need work (as if he could) to sustain the affections of my daughter or the value which her affections imputes to Puppy in our home.
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.