Love me…or else.

Imagine a young woman who decided to go for a walk around her neighborhood. Imagine further that this woman encounters a young man, one who is interested in courting this young woman. The young woman is quite flattered when she notices that she has caught the eye of this fine imaginary suitor. She is prepared for him to say something quite charming, but is surprised to hear him say “I love you. Now you love me…or else.”

This imaginary encounter disturbs us. If a young man actually said those words (“Love me…or else.”), we would suspect that he was rather unloving and even more than a little evil. Now here’s the troubling thing: It seems like this is precisely the sort of encounter we have with the god of orthodoxy.

Before we move on, let me say that from this point on, this conversation is likely going to be very uncomfortable for any Christian readers. Let me assure you, my dear spiritual sibling, that the discomfort is felt in me also, for I too am a disciple of Christ. Let me urge you, however, not to spoil this discomfort with a hasty dismissal of what is being discussed here. In my experience, it is precisely the moments during which we feel most uncomfortable that we rightfully run into the arms of our Creator instead of trying to pretend we don’t desperately need the Divine. Theological discomfort is no different in this regard, and it is my hope that this unsettling exploration will effect us in the same way as all deep discomfort does.

Now then, let’s unpack the above analogy. We are human beings that are loved by God, yet God threatens terrible things if we do not love Him back. If we do not love God, we are tortured forever, so it seems that God might say to us in the moment just after He confesses His love towards us, “Love me or I will torture you forever.”

Of course, the orthodox man will say that I’ve completely misunderstood our encounter with God. He will say that we currently approach God not as young women but as whores who were supposed to be devoted to God and justly deserve God’s anger. Perhaps he is right in his accusation of my lack of understanding, but I can’t quite see how he could be right even if we change our imaginary character from a young woman to a whore.

Even if we are most properly considered spiritual whores, there was a young woman once who had an encounter with God similar to the one we’ve outlined above. This young woman, of course, was not a woman at all. She was Adam. Now, Adam, according to the orthodox interpretation of the story, choose to rebel against God in eating the forbidden fruit. His actions spoke the words “I do not love You.”

Typically, it is assumed that Adam later repented and will somehow be reconciled unto God by Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that atones for past, present, and future sins. We can easily imagine, however, that it was logically possible for Adam to remain unrepentant, and if he did, he would be in precisely the same situation as our imaginary young woman.¹ Adam could have said “no” to the suitor who declared His love for her, and she (Adam) could have continually sought after another man (i.e., he could have continued to sin). God would have responded with curses that were even worse than the ones that he dished out for the repentant(?) Adam.

Analogously, if a young man were to somehow find the young woman who spurned him, lock her in his basement and torture her for as long as he pleased, we would consider this young man to be nothing less than a spawn of Satan.

The orthodox man may, at this point, reject the love metaphor all together as simply another metaphor that “breaks down” when taken too seriously. (If the orthodox man “slides” his complaint from the first objection to the second, then we might suspect that he is indeed trying to cheat himself out of theological discomfort and thus deprive himself of genuine reliance on the Divine.) They might instead say that we should imagine our with God as Paul sometimes did, which we will discuss shortly. Although metaphors usually break down at some point, this rejection would seem inappropriate.

It seems inappropriate because the central idea communicated by the metaphor is precisely the love that God has for us. We cannot reject a metaphor as breaking down at the point at which it communicates its central idea for this reason: it ignores the author’s intent in constructing the metaphor. Suppose that when our young man first approached the young woman, he said to her “You are a rose.” Metaphorically, the young man likely meant that she was beautiful and delicate.

If the young woman, however, was not comfortable with the fact that this young man had taken her fancy, she might similarly argue that the young man did not actually mean that she was beautiful and delicate. Instead, she might argue, the metaphor breaks down and we should not take the metaphor so serious as to suppose that the young man was complimenting her on her beauty. The girl’s reasoning, in this example, appears quite problematic in that it ignores the young man’s intent in constructing the metaphor, and I suspect that something analogous is going on when the orthodox man rejects the love metaphor.

There is at least one other move that we might make in order to avoid the discomforting conclusion that we are considering. We might suppose that the love metaphor applies to us only after we have “received salvation.” Prior to this moment, we might say that we are most properly thought of as “enemies of God,” which was Paul’s suggestion. If this is the case, we could express this before and after dynamic with another metaphor.

Suppose that instead of our young woman innocently strolling the streets and encountering the young man, we imagine her as a rebellious woman who stole from a local convenience store. The owner of the shop rightly considers her as an enemy because of her actions. Now, she is faced with the same choice but with more specific consequences “Love me…or else I will not forgive you for stealing from me, and that means that I will torture you in my basement for 1000 years.” This metaphor also represents those who reply to this aforementioned problem with “Yes, God is loving, but God is also just.”

This response raises all sorts of questions, however. What sort of justice are we talking about when we say God is just? And more importantly, is this conception of justice even compatible with love? If love has anything to do with a wishing for the best for another person, then it is quite unclear how torturing them in a basement for 1000 years could be at all compatible with such wishes. If it turns out that love is incompatible with God’s justice, then we’re stuck with a God that has conflicting motivations, which is not a conceptual option that I wholly disqualify. For the orthodox man, however, this God is likely unavailable, for it paints a picture of God that is quite human, one that is plagued by an imperfection: God cannot seem to satisfy both of His conflicting desires.

It may be bold, at this point, to presume that the above remarks have had any truth to them. I may be even more bold in presuming that these remarks have been wholly persuasive², but this boldness is born out of precisely that desire which I mentioned from the outset of these musings: to bring the reader to place of aporia. For aporia is, in my mind, a fertile soil in which the Divine plants Its seeds.

I am probably wrong to be puzzled by such thoughts. Perhaps the reader will show me where I have erred. To escape puzzlement in this instance, however, is, for me, merely an invitation to seek another one.


1. I suppose that this is only true if we think that we have freewill. The fatalists will have quite a different picture of a suitor encountering a young woman. The compatiblists will have still another picture, a picture which might be the most accurate one.

2. In fact, I consider it likely that an astute reader will find many conceptual stones left unturned. I urge astute readers to turn those stones over charitably, that is, to turn them over in a way that still leaves the possibility open for there to be reason to be uncomfortable.

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2 Responses to Love me…or else.

  1. steve w says:

    I hate disagreeing with people who are smarter than me, but it seems like that might be my lot in life. I think your metaphor fails, in part because it vastly under represents the dynamism of the human-God relationship. Off the top of my head the Bible uses Parent/Child, Potter/Clay, Mother Hen/Chicks in addition to Lover/Beloved to describe this relationship, and of course none of those fully get the job done. To base an entire objection on one of those concepts seems short sighted.
    The bigger issue is that “love me, or else” shouldn’t disturb us. My wife and I said this to each other in the form of wedding vows (though they sounded nicer) and no one seemed to have a problem with it. Sadly most marriages end because one partner chose not to love the other and faced the “or else” of divorce. Now, the Aporial man might say “but you CHOSE to love each other and God DEMANDS love!” And he would be semi-right.
    God loves us (and yes, this includes desiring the best for us) and calls us to himself. Humans come pre-loaded with a desire for him and a sense of moral guilt and shame when we are disobeying his law. When we steadfastly ignore him there are consequences (the “or else”) but that is no different than putting your hand on a hot stove and getting burned. Separation from God is a natural consequence of disobedience, so in that sense God demands love, but he gives us the freedom to not love him. God calling us to himself IS him loving us because the best thing that could happen to us is reconciliation with him.
    You also like to use “lock in the basement and torture” as a metaphor for hell, and I’m not sure you’re doing the concept much justice. (Though it is very effective at arousing the thought that “God is a jerk, I should do whatever I want” I hope that’s what you’re aiming for). For starters, God is not actively torturing people with sticks or what have you; he’s simply saying “you won’t like it in the Kingdom, because I am the final authority and you have rejected my authority.” By design being separated from God is torture once we come to our senses. Secondly, if you need to have the torture metaphor to sleep at night – then it would be more like the woman going to the local torture emporium, buying some torture supplies, finding a torturer and then asking them to do their thing. The suitor is hanging out saying “hey, no torture at my place – you should stop by.”
    In your footnote you ask for stones to be turned over charitably, and I hope I have. There is a reason to be uncomfortable, but it has more do to with the picture you painted of God than who God actually is. In responding, I do want to remove discomfort. Not by imagining that this isn’t a difficult subject or by pretending it doesn’t exist but by pointing out that God is still good and worth trusting in spite of the fact that imaginary suitors might lock imaginary girls in imaginary basements. God should does cause us to be puzzled – but there are also instances where we should feel confident in our knowledge of Him. This instance is the latter because of what he has revealed about his character.

    • Kevin says:

      Ha! There’s little reason to think that I’m smarter than you, Steve. I am the confused one here, and I always have been. 😉 You are right to point out that there are other metaphors at work within our sacred texts, and I’m particularly interested in the potter/clay one. I think that this metaphor will shed the most insight on the puzzle I’m trying to pose, but before getting to that, let me again try to clarify what I’m trying to do doing here.

      I must say that I am not surprised that you would think that my intent in the use of any of my metaphors would be to bring the reader to a place where they might rebel against God. I think this is a point on which I have always been misunderstood. I must have failed miserably in stating my intentions throughout these musings, so I’ll state them again here in a slightly different way: I really am just trying to come to the end of myself (and invite the reader to do the same) by writing these things. We often speak of finding God when we hit that spiritually “rock bottom” place where we realize we can’t do it on our own. I’m simply attempting to hit a conceptual “rock bottom” here, so that I can turn with proper desperation towards the insight of the Divine. When I use these metaphors, then, I am just doing my best to present things how I see them in my little ol’ brain and using these apperances to pose a puzzle. Despite the impious language, this really is just an attempt to take the ideas that we find in our Christian tradition seriously, and I think that this is actually a pious thing to do.

      Hopefully, I have done a better job of explaining this here, for otherewise, we are destined to keep misunderstanding each other. Perhaps I am wrong in thinking that this is a proper way to go about seeking God, but I hope that you will see me from now on as a brother in need of correction, i.e., I hope you will see me as someone that is on your side. As of now, I feel as though I am being cast into the role of the heretic, a role which, by now, I am comfortable with, but nonetheless, is not condusive toward any genuine dialogue.

      Let me also say this: I never meant to deny God’s goodness here. I never meant to suggest that God is not worth trusting. If I was suggesting these things, then there would be no point in posing the puzzle and asking the reader to turn to God, for God would simply laugh at the reader’s cognitive inability. The presumption of this entire piece is precisely that God is waiting for us on the other side of the puzzle.

      To the potter/clay metaphor. I think this actually captures a lot of what you are saying about about us having a “pre-loaded” desire for the Divine, and there being “natural” consequences of our disobedience and rejection of God. I think, however, that this could potentially bring the problem to another level. This is actually the level on which the problem occurred for me. You know that hell has always been a problem for me, so this problem occurred to me when I thought about the fact that “hellish” consequences for the rejection of God are built into the structure of reality. I think the problem, then, is best expressed in this question: Who is the One who did the pre-loading? Who is the One who invented consequence and decided what consequences flow from what causes?

      We might think of a new metaphor for this: The young man is also a genius. He finds a way to create a human being in a lab. This human being is like us in all respects except one: she will not be happy until she loves our genius young man. Of course, this analogy breaks down too, and, in exploring this question and praying and writing about it, I think I’ve found precisely where it breaks down. Perhaps you will agree with the following. I think the metahpor adequately describes what’s going on when God created everything and us. (Which is why i said in my first note that the compatibilist’s might have the most accurate picture of what’s going on here.) The only difference here is that its God and not a young man. Somehow, I suspect that there’s a reason to judge the cases differently if we substitute God in for the young man. (I assume that if a young man did this, we would think that he was evil, but with God, maybe not.)

      The only question is this: Why? So, I’m lead from one puzzle to the next. This time, the puzzle could be described as a meta-ethical one, and I’m excited for it. Its another opportunity to see the face of the Divine. Its another opportunity to rely on the One who puts these curiousities inside of us. If I’ve been at all successful in solving this puzzle(which is a big if), then we might conclude that certain conceptions of libertarian free will that have snuck their way into Christian thought ought to be dismissed. We might conclude, moreover, that it is absolutely necessary to recognize some sort of ontological distinction between ourselves and God and that this distinction produces some meta-ethical consequences, a conclusion that is more common in Christian thought but makes my unorthodox self uncomfortable (which is a good thing).

      For me, these conclusions are progress, and even if they are all wrong, I’ve been wrapped up in seeking to understand the Divine, and I’m pretty sure that can’t be too bad.

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