February 2020: Apologetics

What is the ‘Love of God’?

All you need is love, the Beatles sang in the 1960s. In the 1970s the Hollies were a bit more circumspect and realistic, but they still sang: All I need is the air that I breathe and to love you. At the time it seemed obvious to them and to everyone. Love is what makes the world go around. And Christian believers on the whole would be happy with that. After all, they proclaim that God is love (1 John 4:8 & 16) and that his love for humanity is unconditional. The very fact that we exist is a proof that God loves us. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). ‘Beloved, let us love one another,’ writes John. ‘For love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.

He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins… So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love’ (1 John 4:7 10.16-18). Quite a mouthful!

Nobody would doubt that the faith of Christians is directed to a God of love; in fact the reason why we believe, why we trust, is because God loves us. And this seems to invite us to bask in the love of God, to open ourselves to his goodness and favour and forgiveness, to accept ourselves as we are ‘as God made us.’ I love you just the way you are! – Billy Joel sang. Yet perhaps the matter is not so obvious to us today.

Stoic philosophers, who were very influential in the centuries before and after Christ, did not consider love to be a primary virtue, a fundamental criterion. Anything but. In fact they said that it is better to avoid loving altogether, because love only causes suffering and pain, and thus restricts happiness. For the Stoic, the path to human fulfilment is to be found in indifference, apathy: indifference to the material world, to fellow humans, to long-term commitments of any kind. For the Stoics, the same principle is applicable to religious life, for God is the guarantor of the natural order, but not the ultimate source of love. At best, we can establish with the gods an interested, collaborative, contractual relationship. As a result, the happiness of the Stoic, such as it is, is poor, insecure, limited: humans at best should love and look after themselves. In their solitude they have nothing or no-one to love. They aspire to love, they seek happiness, but can do little or nothing about it. Maybe their position resonates with contemporary society.

But Christians do believe in love, in God’s love for them, and say so openly. Moreover, they believe in a love that transforms them and makes them capable of loving all that is great and permanent and worthwhile. Augustine says this brief terms: ‘God makes us become his lovers’ (De spiritu et littera 32:56). This is the theological virtue of charity, a divine power infused into humans through baptism, a capacity for loving God and neighbour in a way that reflects God’s own way of loving, though poorly. Receiving the divine gift, the Christian is not surprised or inhibited by the biblical commandment: ‘you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12,30-31), for God is the One who gives us the capacity to love in this way. In that sense we can say that the ‘love of God’ is not simply our effort to love, because God is the one who loves us ‘while we were yet sinners’ (Romans 5:8). We might say that love in a Christian sense is a letting go, an allowing ourselves be loved. The Beatles said as much in All you need is love, while adding It’s easy! – it’s easy to love. But is that so? Is it that easy to love and to be loved? Maybe not.

We tend to think of love in terms of being affirmed. When we are loved we feel accepted, justified, endorsed. And if God is the one who loves us, then even more so: we feel confirmed, ratified and supported. Besides, since God expresses his love as mercy, we take it for granted that he will overlook our faults and sins and transgressions… as long as we love. After all, all you need is love… it’s easy! We bask in the comfort and consolation of God’s love, no matter what. As Peter Shelley used to sing, love me, love my dog: as if to say, if you love me you must accept everything about me, even my faults and weaknesses. But of course things are not as simple as that.

The fact is that ‘real love is demanding,’ as John Paul II said to young people in Cuba (23.1.1998). When God loves us he seeks our response in faith. In a strict sense we cannot give any ‘thing’ to God because God has created everything, but we can and should ‘give’ him our gratitude and fidelity and obedience. In fact Jesus demands that of us: ‘if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love’ (Jn 15:10). Specifically, the love that God offers us excludes sin and requires repentance on our part. Love transforms us. God’s gift ‘changes us,’ Flannery O’Connor wrote, ‘and the change is painful’ (Habit of Being, 307). Besides, the love of God is demanding because it must be expressed in the love of neighbour. ‘You will love your neighbour as yourself,’ we read in Scripture (Mark 12:31).

If the love of others is missing, John tells us, the love of God is false: ‘Whoever says that he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother remains in the light’ (1 John 2:9f.). However, loving another person does not mean simply giving him or her what I think, what I like, or what I am; or turning them into a replica or clone of myself. The dynamics of love are determined not by the one who loves, but by the one who is loved, by their needs and situation. St Josemaría understood this when he wrote: ‘More than in “giving”, charity lies in “understanding”’ (The Way, 463). To live and  think and act within the mind and heart and life of another person is anything but easy.

Maybe Billy Joel was right: I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times. I love you just the way you are! Loving is hard, harder today perhaps than it ever was before. Why is this so? Maybe because we suffer from the ‘next best thing’ syndrome, and are afraid of commitment. Maybe because we’re  unhappy ourselves and are seeking instant gratification from others. Or maybe because we just take people for granted … It’s just as well God doesn’t.

Fr Paul O’Callaghan is a priest of Opus Dei. He is professor of theological anthropology at the University of Santa Croce in Rome

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