Thanks to the recommendation by Halden Doerge at Inhabitatio Dei - Halden has impeccable theological taste - I’ve just bought and read How to Become a Saint(2007) by the late Jack Bernard. That God is “all love” is the sun around which the author’s down-to-earth understanding of holiness, much inspired by the “being little” spirituality of Thérèse of Lisieux, revolves. Here is one of many nicely observed and very wise passages in the book.
“The images we hold of God are the most important ones we have. The images of God that have motivated the church most powerfully toward faithfulness are images of God as love. But there are other images of God. The Bible also contains images of God as a God of righteous wrath. People who have been nurtured on images of God as wrathful judge often have a hard time getting hold of the image of God as love. How do these images fit together? I do not know. I do know that images of God as righteously wrathful must be interpreted through the lens of God as love and not the other way around…
“There are those throughout Christian history and tradition who prefer the righteousness (or justice) of God as the frontline image of God that Christians should attend to… However, when used as the dominant image of God, it does not seem to feed the life of the church over time. Over the long haul, a constant primary emphasis on God’s righteousness and judgment against sinners seems to slide downhill into a perverse image of God who is harsh and demanding and before whom we must scrutinize ourselves and each other constantly. This is not of the Spirit and is death to the life and mission of the church….
“We fulfill God’s righteousness exactly to the degree that we willingly place ourselves into the hands of the God we know to be ‘all love.’ The image of God as all love can elicit self-giving from us in a way that the image of judgment cannot, and self-giving love is the only response that actually leads to righteousness….
“Righteousness must never be used against itself. Righteousness can never put limits on God’s mercy or it is not righteousness. After the argument [with the Pharisees over keeping the Sabbath], Jesus proceeded to heal the man with the withered hand, and the Pharisees went out and conspired to destroy Jesus (Matt. 12:1-14)… Destroying Jesus is the natural consequence of holding an image of God as absolute purity and righteousness without allowing love and mercy to define what righteousness and purity mean….
“This is not an attempt to answer all the obvious ‘But what about …?’ questions… I am not concerned about people taking a unilateral focus on love as an excuse to sin, because I am not writing for people who care nothing about righteousness. I am showing people who care about righteousness how they can believe that God is all love without feeling this belief to be in tension with any other legitimate image of God. We can give ourselves without reservation to God who is all ‘yes’ to love, not ‘yes, but.’”
Jack Bernard, How to Become a Saint (London: SPCK, 2007), pp. 46-49.