I remember many years ago listening to an interview of a young boy who had just won a national poetry competition. The interviewer asked him how he had felt on hearing the announcement of his victory, and he replied, “I was literally over the moon.” Of course, he wasn’t. To be so would either have been the end of him, or an astronomically expensive celebration.
The definition of ‘literally’ should be something akin to “without exaggeration or inaccuracy”, quasi-synonymous with “actually” or “in a strict sense,” but this is no longer so. It seems that for the better part of the last two centuries, ‘literally’ has found regular employment as an intensifier (“I literally died of embarrassment”, “All hell literally broke loose”) and, as such, the dictionary now includes this sense of meaning so that ‘literally’ has come to mean both ‘literally’ and it’s opposite; it has come to mean ‘without exaggeration’ &, synchronously, to be used as an exaggerator.
Glossophiliac pedantry would literally explode at this betrayal of etymology, but it serves to make a wider point. Namely that words are only really labels for things and ideas, and that they only really have meaning insofar as we agree on them. ‘Literally’ means what it means now, because that’s how we all use it.
“Green” only means anything if we all agree that it’s the colour of grass, leaves, limes & Kermit. If I thought ‘green’ meant the colour of the sky, then we could have a long conversation about how you wanted me to decorate your house, and both be satisfied that we were in agreement, only for you to end up with a very disappointing living room. But at least you could repaint. This gets serious, though, when the conversation moves to weightier things.
I think most of the world believes in God. When I say ‘God’, I mean a uniquely holy, triune, supernatural, eternal, inescapable, personable benevolence that created everything and is at work redeeming everything. I mean a transcendent Father, Son and Spirit that is Love. Many others, however, mean many other things. Talking about God might involve some repainting.
And what of ‘love’? To say that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 4:16b) could mean many things. What is love? How do I receive it? How do I give it? How, given the claim of the aforementioned verses, can someone ‘be’ it?
If I’m using Biblical language, Biblical quotes and a Biblical God, I want to let the Bible define things for me, and in the case of love, the Bible defines it as more than a feeling; it is always mounted in a frame of doing and choosing. Not ‘love feels like…’ but rather ‘love is…’, not how it affects our emotions, but how it informs our behaviour. And it turns out to be patient, forgiving, kind and generous to the point of death. The Bible tells us what ‘love’ means when it tells us that God so loved the world that He gave…& that greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
To say that ‘God is love’ is to say that He is giving and self-sacrificing, and not just that these are things that God does, but rather these are things that He is, inextricably.
Someone might tell you about a God of love, but if the doctrines they describe don’t sound like self-sacrificial giving, then we’ve disconnected from the love of the Bible. As we unpick theological complexities and divine mysteries, let us never compromise on the words the Bible defines for us. When we learn to talk about the God of the Bible, let us make sure we use the language of the Bible to label the concepts of the Bible and dare to dream that if we can, we might paint a lot more rooms the right colour.
Read more from Stephen Pal-George at https://medium.com/owl-theology
Written by Stephen Pal-George