How many ways does God love you? There are so many, is it possible for you to count them? In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem, “How do I Love Thee?.” she speaks of a deep and everlasting love. Much of her sonnet could be written by God to us or by us to God. Yet it only scratches the surface of God’s love for you.
How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43) By Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of being and ideal grace. I love thee to the level of every day’s Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. I love thee with the passion put to use In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.
My friend Dr. Frank Leeds III shares an enlightening explanation of the multitude of ways that God loves us as unveiled in the Old Testament. You may never have realized what he reveals but you will surely recognize it.
The Universal Elohim & the Particular Hashem
We have all heard the admonition to love. To love one another. To love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. We have all heard definitions of love. What I wish to share with you is what I have learned about God’s love from the Hebrew Scriptures in general and the Torah in particular. It is Rabbinic thinking at its best and most profound to my understanding of the Scriptures.
I wish to use two words that are common in philosophy and are not new to us. They are ‘Universals’ and ‘Particulars’. Please bear with me. When the Bible speaks of the Hebrew word ‘God’ it uses a variety of terms which have different conditions. For example, is uses the term ‘Elohim’ when it refers to the understanding of the Lord as universal. A universal is something that applies to everyone, and equally. An example might be that “The sun shines on the Just and the Unjust alike.” Another example would be Justice. Justice is a Universal. It needs to be applied equally to all people. Whatever your age, sex, nationally, race, etc. “Justice is justice”. Getting a good deal because you are friends with the judge is not justice. It is a perversion of justice.
Hebrew uses another word to refer to God – Hashem. This is God of the particular. It is God being selective. Here we will apply these two concepts, the universal and the particular, to God’s love for us.
Princess Diana Received Only One Kind of Love
Let me give you an example of Universal and Particular love. My wife and I recently watched the TV series entitled “The Crown.” It was about the Royal Family of Great Britain. A great show. I loved it. When it got to Princess Diana, the word ‘love’ can be split into two different kinds. One is universal, the other is particular. Wherever she went in the world, and she did travel extensively, she was universally loved. Everyone in the world seemed to love the princess and at her funeral service she was known as the ‘People’s Princess’.
But she was void of being loved in the ‘particular’ sense of the word. The father of her children did not love her. When she was home, besides her young children, no one cared how she felt. No one appreciated her. No one seemed to care. She was an object to be used, not a person to love. Do you see the difference in these two kinds of love?
Particular Love is Selective
Let me give you another example. Are you married or have ever been married? If you are, or were, you were either chosen or selected by someone to be the special person in their life. Or you were the one who chose or selected someone else to be the special person in your life. Marriage in not universal. One does not marry everyone [although I have some friends that seem to be trying that]. Marriage is particular. It is by design a limiting process. One narrows the choice down in order to love.
Look at the biblical story of Jacob, we see he had two wives. One he chose to marry but his first wife was forced on him by his father-in-law. He second wife, was the first wife’s younger sister. As per the father, it was important that the older sister marry first, therefore Jacob ended up with two wives. The older one Leah and the younger one Rachel. The story also makes it clear that he loved both of them…but…he loved Rachel more. He married Leah out of a ‘universal’ ethical standard. He married Rachel out of the ‘particular of love’.
People tell me the same about being on Facebook. A person has a 1,000 Facebook Friends, but may have no one that really cares one way or the other about them. It is one thing to have a thousand friends, it is another to be blessed with one good friend.
As Jacob’s story develops, he fathers a dozen sons but only one, Joseph, is Rachel’s child. Jacob loves his sons, but Joseph is his favorite. People are often quick to say, “one should not have a favorite child” but that is a distraction to the story. The fact remains, Joseph was his favorite son. He was the favorite for two reasons: He was the son of his old age and he was the son of the wife Rachel whom he loved the most.
Now, if we look at the Song of Solomon, you will notice that the lover notices everything about his loved one. He notices her hair, her eyes, her ears, her neck, etc. Because the lover loves, he notices all things about his loved one. He can recite a Rhapsody of Particulars about his her.
Many years ago, when I was managing a large hospital, one of my elderly board members after a meeting said it was time to go home and “to look his wife over”. That made absolutely no sense to me so I said to him “what does that mean, is she ill?” “Oh no” he said, “I thought I told you the story. When I was a young man about your age, one night a week I played poker with my friends. After one night of playing, poker and having a little too much to drink, I walked into our apartment and said to my wife, who was sitting in a chair, that I was tired and going straight to bed. Shortly thereafter, I received a woman’s scorn that I never want to go through again.
While I was out with the boys, she had fallen and broken her leg. After a visit to the hospital, an ambulance brought her home and she was sitting in a chair with a big cast on her leg, which I failed to notice. So, after that event, as soon as I get home, the first think I do is to check her out! I suggest you do likewise.” I tell you that story because particular love ‘checks her out.’
Our Relationship With God is Particular Love
Our relation to the Lord, and the Lord’s relation to us, is not universal, it is particular. The Lord is interested in “YOU” not merely mankind. How interested in you is the Lord? How checked out are you? The Bible tells us that even the ‘hairs on your head are numbered” which is a metaphor saying God knows all about you. What I am trying to explain in all this is that the love of God is not a floating fog, but a very focused laser that is focused on you.
Appreciating God’s Universal Love
Likewise, our love for the Lord needs to take notice of all that we see and to notice the Lord’s handiwork in all of life, the sunrise in the morning, the food that we eat, the medical experiences that enrich our lives, etc., etc., and etc., to the sunsets that kiss us goodnight.
Lives Full of God’s Universal and Particular Love
My wife and I have recently moved. It was a move just around the corner. In the first home we saw the sun sets, and now we see the sun rises. And in-between these two universals, we carry with us God’s Rhapsody of Particulars. I now carry my blessings like a bouquet of flowers, ever increasing in gratitude for the way my life has been blessed and that list gets longer and longer, wider and wider, deeper and deeper…and I hope your life is that way too. My hair may have turned gray. My ears do not hear as well. I just had eye surgery to help me see better. The body is falling apart. But the Rhapsody of my blessing is stronger every day.
I hope I have conveyed to you a little of the difference between God’s love as universal and God’s love as a particular. How does our Lord love you? Even the hairs of your head are numbered.
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But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matt 5:44-46)
The story of Jacob and his wives and children (Gen 29-30)