And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Isaiah 5:5-7)

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!. (Luke 12:49)

To be “liberal” (in the sense that is akin to libertarian) is to “follow views or policies that favor the freedom of individuals to act or express themselves in a manner of their own choosing.” Though under pressure, this liberal spirit still drives western society. Most of us agree that law ought not stipulate what we do or say or believe except as necessary to keep the peace and to foster the good in society. We believe in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the like. (We may not agree on the laws that are necessary to protect and foster the good, of course.)

Is God liberal in this sense? Surely he allows us much freedom. He created us with a will, and he does not override that will and force us to behave in a certain way. To do that would be to remove part of his image in us. And yet God is not tolerant in the sense that he’s OK with us no matter how we behave. He’s not liberal in that he has given us many laws and guidelines on how to behave and what to believe. He’s not “nice” in that he doesn’t do for us or allow us to do whatever we want.

God’s love is too strong for that. He will not stand aside and watch if we travel down he wrong road. He is a jealous God. He does everything in his power short of coercion to lead us in the way he would have us go, to keep us as his people. All that happens to us in life serves to teach and guide us. Joy, laughter, and love, and as well sickness, malice, disaster, all things work together for our good.

God’s love is so strong that it may lead him to seemingly cut us off entirely, for a time, to break down the hedge and allow us to be trampled, to allow us to be taken into exile.

God’s love is so strong that from some directions it looks like jealousy, like an unyielding wall, like an iron fist. But from the other direction it looks like mercy, gentleness, and careful tending.

Jesus “came to bring fire to the earth.” This fire consumes what is unlike it and causes it to become like it. Hard wood becomes glowing flame. This fire ravages the earth. This fire is the Spirit of Love.

What is Love? Who is Love? These questions drove Hadewijch of Antwerp. Love is not a tolerant, liberal spirit. Love demands the best and strives after it. Love is not just mercy. Love is not just justice.

What is Love? Who is Love? Love may be compared in part to jealousy, and that comparison may expand and improve our thinking about Love, but Love is not jealously.

Love is not a wushy feeling toward a significant other. Love is not any sort of feeling at all. It’s not an emotion. It’s not an abstract concept or a good deed. It’s not a state of mind or a state of the will.

Love is cruel, unyielding, and divisive. Love is gentle, kind, and solicitous. Love is a mystery, a deep darkness, an abyss into which you could lose yourself. And yet none of these things is Love.

What is Love? Who is Love? These are questions you could you could spend a lifetime exploring, questions you will not find a complete answer to in this life. But the more you learn, the more you become like Love yourself.

Lord, teach me to be intolerant like you: that is, teach me not to look the other way, but to see; not to walk on the other side of the road, but to help; not to tolerate, but to build up; not to be indifferent, but to love. Lord, teach me: What is Love? Who is Love?


Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.