Love. Love. Love.
It is word used quite often in church circles. And rightly so. I mean, the bible might mention something about love once or twice. Okay, actually it’s closer to 772 times in 649 different verses of scripture, but who’s counting? (RSVCE edition).
The trouble with so many references to love in the bible, and in Christianity, is it can be such a nebulous word. In fact, it can mean almost as many things inside the church as it does outside the church. That can lead to some real confusion.
With this post I hope to clear up some of that confusion. If I succeed – great! If I don’t then the worse thing that could be said about me is that I only contributed to the already blaring cacophony of people offering their ideas on the subject.
First, since I am talking about love in the Christian context, it seems only appropriate to use Jesus’ words, life, and actions as the benchmark to measure our own words, lives, and actions. The gospel accounts show Jesus as fundamentally oriented towards his father’s will. So to begin with we too must orient our lives towards God’s will. There can be no divided heart in us, serving two masters. We must not be consumed with the pursuit of wealth and/or honors, even our family is to be considered second when it comes to showing where our allegiance belongs (cf. Mt 6:19-21, Mk 10:42-44, Lk 14:26).
Second, what we know about God’s will is that it does not waver (ST I, Q.19, A7). What we can also know about God, and his will, is that he wills nothing for himself. He is not in search of more power, greater glory, or mankind’s servitude. Humanity can do nothing to enhance or make greater the glory which God already possesses. God’s will then, since it is not self-serving, is to provide for mankind’s well-being. From the first verse of the bible to the last, God wills for a definitive and comprehensive good for mankind (i.e. salvation). God wills life, joy, peace, freedom, and happiness for each individual and the whole of humanity (ST I, Q.19 A2).
Third, since God’s will is directed towards the well-being of mankind, and we are to follow Jesus’ example of orienting our lives to the will of the father, then it should become clear now that our will should be directed at service towards men and women.
It is really quite simple, in theory. Since we can not do anything which can greater God’s glory nor can we adequately praise him for the abundance of his mercy, and since God is not interested in receiving that type of worship anyway but in the bettering mankind, then our focus should be on loving our neighbor. Too often, we become so busy “serving God” that we forget to serve others around us. However, “serving God” never excuses us from our duty to serve our neighbor. In fact, it is in serving (i.e loving) our neighbor that our service to God is proved.
I must say at this point, while not wanting to get too far off course, I am not advocating for us to stop worshipping God because it “doesn’t do any good anyway.” There is “good” accomplished by praising God; St Thomas Aquinas notes at least three (ST II, II Q.91, A1). He writes:
- “Consequently we need to praise God with our lips, not indeed for His sake, but for our own sake; since by praising Him our devotion is aroused towards Him…”
- “And forasmuch as man, by praising God, ascends in his affections to God, by so much is he withdrawn from things opposed to God…”
- “The praise of the lips is also profitable to others by inciting their affections towards God…”
Returning now to Jesus, our benchmark, we must ask ourselves, “What is love to Jesus?”
To used a well worn phrase: “actions speak louder than words.” Jesus’ idea of love is not talk, but action.
Jesus summed up the entirety of this life and works by identifying the two “greatest” commandments:
He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment (Mt 22:37-38).
And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mt 22:39).
When we consider what “loving God” means, I think we can see it as some kind of mystical union with the Lord, where we retreat to a private place in order to fully take in the experience. Even if a person is graced with having those types of experiences, as we read about in the lives of many of the saints, there is still a need to fulfill the second commandment and that cannot be done in isolation. Even the most mystically inclined saints came out of their cells to minister to others.
The fourth point I’d like to make is that our actions, if they are truly to resemble Jesus’ and manifest the will of the father, can not be selfishly motivated. We should not attempt to call the Lord’s attention (or other people’s) to our actions. Reaching out to our fellow man can not be our attempt at scoring “brownie points” with God.
In the story of the final judgment, Jesus says neither the sheep nor the goats recognized him in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, or the prisoner. The difference was the sheep, those at Jesus’ right, didn’t care. They helped those in need anyway. Those are the ones who inherit the kingdom. Had the goats, those at Jesus’ left, known Jesus was present in the needy, they would have helped, but their motivation for helping would have been all wrong (Mt 25:31-46).
A fifth observation I would like to point out is that “love of mankind” is too general and does not meet the criteria of following Jesus’ example of dedication to his father’s will. Jesus never spoke in terms of loving humanity universally, but in much more concrete terms. As Hans Kung noted in his book, On Being a Christian, “A kiss of that kind costs nothing: it is not like kissing this one sick, imprisoned, underprivileged, starving man.” Pope Francis recently gave the world an example of what a real concrete love looks like when he embraced and kissed a man covered in boils.
We can not, using Jesus’ example in scripture, think some abstract universal love of mankind is what Jesus was commanding his disciples to do when he told them to love their neighbor. The measuring stick Jesus gives his disciples for how to love one’s neighbor is one they should have been familiar with as he reminded them of a teaching from the Old Testament’s Holiness Code:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Lv 19:18)
Loving oneself not only implies how much we should love our neighbor, since our nature is to protect and take care of ourselves, but it also implies proximity. Our neighbor must be close to us!
We can see clearly now that love of God and love of neighbor has the same foundation; specifically, they are built on the concepts of abandonment of selfishness and the will to self-sacrifice. Only when we no longer live for ourselves can we be unreservedly open to God and to others (Lk 17:33).
We are still not done yet. The sixth part of this post on love is, Jesus revealing the perfect will of his father in the command to “love your enemies” (Mt 5:43-48). This goes far beyond the “golden rule” which can be found in various expressions in the other religions of the world. Many of the world’s religions, to include Jesus’ own Judaism, while espousing the golden rule still favored hating one’s enemy.
By saying we must love our enemies, did Jesus take things too far? By asking for some kind of moral perfectionism, as he does after issuing this command (i.e. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48)), isn’t Jesus setting us up for failure?
To be sure, we will all fail during our attempts to love God, ourselves, our neighbor, and our enemy. However, what did you expect from God? What did you expect of Jesus? To give less than all? To draw a line in the sand and say, “You only have to love to this point, no further?”
In the commandment to love one’s neighbor there is still room for selfishness to creep in which is why Jesus expands the teaching to include one’s enemy. A neighbor, which could include family, friends, fellow countrymen, members of the same clan, etc., would likely be inclined to reciprocate your loving action. Therefore, desire for reciprocation could be our motivating factor, thus preventing us from loving as Jesus did.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk 6:32-35).
Human love, if it is truly to reflect God’s love, as shown in Jesus’ living example, must incorporate all that is good about our humanity. While many times our decision to love is just that, a decision of the will, a love like God’s will also include emotion, vitality, creativity, and affection, the things we typically reserve for those closest to us, and offer it to our enemies. To love like Jesus, we must hold nothing back.