Our children had a wonderful nanny, a member of one of the first congregations I served. Over the years she became a beloved mother and grandmother to every member of our family. In the kitchen above the window over the sink where Nanny washed her dishes hung a framed piece of needlepoint that read: “For God so loved the world that he gave.” She saw me looking at it one day when we were first getting to know eeach other. “I know what you’re thinking, Pastor,” she said with a smile. “The verse isn’t finished — and there’s a story behind that.”
“When I was a girl, my grandmother made me do needlepoint and I hated it. I was twelve years old when granny insisted that I do one final piece. It had to be of a verse taken from the bible and I was expected to work on it one half hour every day until it was done. Well, I chose John 3:16 for the verse and early on I realized that if I used big lettering on the cloth that granny had given me, I could go so far in the verse, end it, and be done with it! I love that verse,” she confessed, “but I’ve always felt a little guilty that I never got to the end of it.”
“I don’t think that any of us will ever see our way through to the end of that verse, Nanny,” I told her, “but I think you got the essentials down, for sure.” Nanny’s favorite bible verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” is probably the most beloved passage in all of scripture. And it’s one of the best places I know to find surprising and sustaining answers to some big-picture questions about life, questions like: How should we think of this world? What’s our place in it? And where does God fit in to this world?
Notice who it is whom God insists on loving, according to this text. The verse doesn’t say anything like: ‘God so loved some lovable people and some good things in this world.’ And it certainly doesn’t assert that God loves only those who love God so much. John 3:16’s focus is on the “world;” it centers on the universal scope of God’s love for all people, for all of creation. No, God so loves “the world” — the κόσμος (cosmos) in biblical Greek, the ‘earth and all its inhabitants.’ But that word for world, κόσμος, carries an extraordinary meaning in the Gospel of John, (as well as in St. Paul, and indeed, throughout the New Testament). For John “. . . the whole world, (κόσμος ὄλος), lies in the power of evil. (1 John 5:19) The world, ’κόσμος’, stands for all that is opposed to God, a place where evil dwells and reigns. So a more explicit and accurate translation of this most beloved verse would be something like this: ‘For God so loved the God-despising world’!
Some people would rather not believe in the existence and power of evil. For some, that notion is viewed as a quaint, illiberal, even reactionary conviction. The biblical witness is clearly that evil is real and it reigns in the κόσμος — in this world. If you’ve ever attended a funeral for a child shot in broad daylight while walking to school, if you’ve ever had to answer an anguished parent’s question, “Why did God allow my daughter to kill herself?”, if you’ve ever listened to the story of a victim whose torture was ordered by his own government, if you’ve ever tried to comfort a person who’s been abused by a family member, if you’ve ever read a newspaper or watched the daily news, if you’ve ever gotten down on your knees and looked honestly into your own heart and have had to confess that you have ‘sinned against God in thought, word and deed and have not loved your neighbor as yourself,’ then you know that evil is real.
Explaining how evil can exist in a world created by a good and loving God has always been a challenge for people of faith. But even more problematic for the Christian faith, I believe, is the denial of evil. Because if evil is not real, then Christianity makes no sense. If evil is not really in the world, then there is no real reason for a savior to save the world — there is nothing to be saved from! No, seeing the world with the eyes of faith, indeed, with the eyes of Jesus himself, is recognizing the κόσμος as under the dominion of “the ruler of this world,” (John 12:31). Evil is real and alive and powerful in this world.
But here an important distinction should be made: to understand that evil reigns in the world is not at all to say that the world itself is evil. After all, the cosmos, the ‘heavens and the earth and all that is in them’ was created by God who declared the creation to be good. This is important because, from the beginning of Christianity, some believers have gotten this tragically wrong: they have looked at the world and have declared the κόσμος, not good, (as the Creator did), but as inherently evil, as evil itself. Certainly, as Christians we must not become naively blind to the presence of evil in the world. But also, as followers of Jesus Christ, we must never write off the world as unredeemably evil in itself.
What we discover in that beloved verse, John 3:16, is in reality the unfolding of a scandalous paradox: God has chosen to love a κόσμος that is full of opposition to all that God stands for. Indeed, God’s giving love plays out as a double scandal: it’s not only scandalous that the world created by God should be so replete with evil; it’s even more of a ‘blessed scandal’ that a world so full of evil should be so deeply loved by God! Our beloved Nanny’s needlepoint indeed had the essentials for understanding the most important thing for our life in this world: “God so loved the world that God gave . . .”
For us who see the world through the eyes of faith, everything follows from that: we know Jesus’ love for us and for this world, and paradoxically, we know how so much in this world remains steadfastly opposed to God. And so, to repurpose a phrase from the poet Robert Frost’s reflection on death and the darkness of the age, we must cultivate a lifelong “lover’s quarrel with this world,” (“The Lesson for Today,” from Selected Poems of Robert Frost, NY, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963), to oppose whatever in the κόσμος is opposed to God by passionately loving the world with that same giving love with which we’ve been loved by God in Jesus Christ. Our response to evil in the world must be nothing more and nothing less than to undermine the world with our love. In this κόσμος that we inhabit, every loving act is subversive, every caring deed is disruptive, every compassionate commitment is a breaking down of the power of evil and a breaking through to that life that, in the end, will never end. This I find surprisingly comforting: to have a clear-eyed view of evil and also to have a sure and certain way of responding to it, after the example of Jesus.
So the answers to those big-picture questions we raised at the start shine through this beloved verse: How should we think of this world? As κόσμος, a world created good, but still suffering from the power of evil. How does God relate to this God-opposing world? As the world’s supreme Lover who gave the κόσμος the most precious gift possible, God’s very Self in Christ who came into the world to transform evil into goodness through love. And what is our place in this paradoxical world? To pursue a lover’s quarrel with the world by loving it with a self-giving love because we, ourselves, and, indeed, the whole world are so well-loved by God.
Edward R. Dufresne, © 2017