We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.1 John 3:16–24
As they say, love is a many-splendored thing.
The first time I tasted Turkish coffee was akin to a sensory and aesthetic assault. The first time I experienced the paradoxical interplay of deep bitterness and intense sweetness confounding my tongue, the first time I wrestled with indecision whether to reject the muddy grit of the grounds or to expand my palate to include crunch as an acceptable component of the experience of drinking coffee: this first time I knew, in a place deeper than knowledge, in my soul, that what I felt in that moment was love, pure and simple and all-encompassing. A shudder passed through my body, thrilling me to my core.
This experience was not simply physical: illusory at best, and gluttonous at worst. Instead, what so captivated me was the immediate and profound sense that my perception of what was possible—not just with taste, but with the experience of being alive—had increased to such a degree that the boundaries hemming in my sense of the “possible” had been shattered. I had fallen in love, though not with a mere drink; I was overwhelmed with the beauty of being alive, and felt the rush of love for the astonishing gift of life itself.
I was absolutely certain that I would cherish that moment for the rest of my life.
A core truth of the English language is that it is frustratingly inconsistent in its imprecision. It’s cliché at this point to note “love” can mean just about anything in English. In light of 1 John 3:16, where love is defined as no less than sacrificing one’s life, this imprecision might even become a moral issue: using the same word to describe both the ultimate act of sacrifice as well as the experience of drinking coffee—admittedly amazing coffee, to be fair—must surely diminish them both, somehow.
I think that such etymological gate-keeping is far more akin to moral grandstanding than to moral guardianship, as dismissing any sense of “love” that is not exclusively self-sacrificial not only misses the gritty and often prosaic daily experience of love, it also misses 1 John’s expansive and all-encompassing view of love: where love not only emerges from God, but God so encompasses love that the Divine is itself love, binding all that is into interdependent relationship, abiding within love, and thus abiding within God.
In 1 John, love is cosmic: all things at once, all of which are bound together through the Divine (4:7). Love is the underlying reality of creation, as the Divine is the foundation of being. Love is the force of creation, flowing continuously from the Divine to creation, giving it life (4:12). Love is the binding web of creation, linking every element and being in mutual, interdependent relationship (4:13). As we each “abide” in each other through the Divine Love, the inherent corollary is that humans are created to be in loving relationship with all of creation (4:15–16).
While an astonishingly beautiful vision, it also bears the marks of an unflinching awareness of the depths of human sinfulness, gained through the lens of Jesus on the Cross. For 1 John, the love undergirding human relationality only makes sense in light of absolute empathy for the other: a care for the other so profound that whenever they are in need, we are willing to give everything we have—yes, even including our lives—simply because that is what one does when God’s love abides in them (3:16–17). Thus, this potentially abstract, cosmic love is actually rooted deep in the lived experience of humans, where one does not simply speak of love, but enacts love in embodied actions (3:18).
In this way, the cosmic reality of relationship with God is demonstrated through the earthy expression of loving acts towards others. Humans are sinful, yes, but God’s love allows humans to live in relationship with the Divine life by giving humans a way to express that Divine love in the very human form of acts of love for each other (3:19–22). By following Jesus’s example in their lives, humans demonstrate their belief in the Divine. The Divine/human relationship is thus interdependent: humans reach out to God through their enacted love for others, while the Divine lives within humanity in the form of the Spirit, which gives humans the feeling of love itself (3:23–24).
It is generally accepted that the Gospel of John and the author of 1 John were connected by the same narrative tradition, if not the same community of believers who developed a unique “Johannine” theology, which emphasizes: the deep inter-relatedness of Jesus, the Divine, and humanity through the “abiding” of the Divine; the overpowering love of God for the creation; and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as the most complete expression of that love.
In this way, it can be said that the Parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10:11–18) is the parabolic expression of the teaching stated plainly in 1 John 3:16–24 as an accepted truth of the Christian life. As the Good Shepherd embodies his complete love for the sheep through his willingness to go so far as to even lay down his life for them, Jesus willingly does likewise for humanity, and thus becomes a living embodiment of the love of the Divine for humanity. Thus, as God is love, Jesus is also love, and enacting love in this way is how John teaches us to follow Jesus.
Yet, what does this actually mean?
It is an accepted truism in my own community—the Religious Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers—that the Gospel of John is “the Quaker Gospel”, in that much of the foundation of Quaker theology and practice is based upon a Johannine vision of God, of the relationship between humanity and the Divine, and the necessity of embodying the Divine love in real, human actions. Quaker theology has long held that—akin to the abiding presence of God in all who love others as God does—the Divine Presence resides within all of humanity, with a cascading ripple of consequences. As all have the ability to connect with “that of God within,” hierarchies between humans cease to carry any value: that is, no human is inherently “better” than any other, no matter their earthy station. Nor, as the inherent corollary, is any human inherently “worse” than any other.
For the first Quakers, this was often expressed in a rejection of the “divinely ordained” differences between nobility and commoners. Following that line of logic to its conclusion, all divisions between humans must inherently fall away. War is impossible when divisions of “enemies” and “allies” cease to exist. Gender hierarchies cease to have any meaning when all humans are equally capable of testifying to the love of God. Anything in any way resembling a Calvinist “elect” is obviously swept away as “elect” and “damned” are meaningless terms. The list could go on. The Quaker was expected to demonstrate the same respect and love towards every single person. This emphasis on enacting theology through embodiment created a specifically Quaker tradition of testimony, or the act of “doing theology:” in this way, their life would be “testimony” to the world of their commitment to living this life of enacted Divine Love.
Yet, as with all ideals, Quakers have often fallen far short of where we might hope to be, where our ideals and theology and ethics all call us to be. Despite our well-burnished reputation as leaders in the movement to abolish slavery, many, many Quakers participated in that original sin whose roots run deep in the foundations of our modern world and still bear the strange fruit of white supremacy and state-sponsored violence. Yes, Quakers were early in the rejection of the system of chattel slavery, but we remain marked by the fact that it took almost two centuries to move all Quaker communities to finally enact this rejection.
It is in the manner that this change occurred that I find hope for us all as we face the evils of white supremacy head on. See, Quakers were not blind to the cruel irony of being a people who simultaneously claimed that the Divine Presence lay within all while also either holding slaves themselves, or supporting the system through their purchases and investments. In this way, history folds back on itself: they were as enmeshed in the chattel slave system as we are enmeshed in the fossil fuel system. Again, in an eerie echo to our current time, the challenge that 17th and 18th century Quakers faced was that it seemed impossible to extricate themselves from what seemed to be a system upon which their entire world depended. Quakers were a “peculiar people,” but even peculiar people need to buy cotton.
What eventually shifted their perspective was a reminder of this teaching at the heart of the Quaker testimony: that God’s love encircled all of creation, and this love demanded human action. Noted abolition figures such as Benjamin Lay and John Woolman are often credited with spurring Quakers to live by their ideals, by pursuing a complex web of enacted testimony: actions which spoke to an underlying belief. These actions emerged as a Divine call from deep within that then compelled them to concrete action.
Woolman, for example, refused to wear cotton, use any product dyed with indigo, or to consume any product made with sugarcane. As a lawyer, he imperiled his own practice by refusing to prepare any wills which would pass on humans as property. More importantly, Woolman did these acts publicly, as both a writer and as a traveling minister. He embodied this testimony in his actions, refusing to allow Quakers to ignore the compulsion of Divine Love.
In one notable example, Woolman expressed the Divine call to meet with local Native American tribes in Wyalusing, PA (likely members of the Susquehannock Tribe) in this way: “Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in.” God’s love moved within him, calling him to a specific act towards specific people, in an effort to demonstrate God’s love towards them.
The testimony of the Divine Presence in all eventually made support of the chattel slavery system untenable, and Quakers moved to align their everyday actions with their testimony.
This phrase—“Love was the first motion”—has come to embody the Quaker understanding of the Incarnation, both the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, and the Divine presence within each and every human person. It speaks to a mystical experience of the Divine Love within, yes. However, it also demands that we respond to this Love through actions of love. As 1 John 3:17 states so clearly, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” How can we stand by and see a brother lying in the street being choked, women killed simply because someone else—a Christian, mind you—blamed them for his own sexual discomfort, or a young father killed because of a minor administrative offence . . . and refuse help? Refuse justice? Refuse to enact the love of God?
The simple truth is that we can’t. Love is the first motion of our lives, and we are defined by how we respond to that motion. We focus so much attention on the grand gestures and acts of love, and forget that it is often in the daily, unremarkable expressions of love—whether they be amazing cups of coffee, or the way that we fight white supremacy in the innumerable, seemingly invisible ways that it manifests in our daily lives—that we show our true colors, the habits that testify to who we really are.