His love for man will never rest until he has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with his own in heaven.- From a sermon by St. Andrew of Crete, pg. 990-994.
God’s love in creation: the earth, Adam, creatures
In view of all the difficulties we face, both in our personal lives and in the world, sustaining our hope is truly a challenge. When we learn of the wars, the divisions, the suffering of people around the world, our hope for unity and peace among peoples and nations is severely challenged.
Hope is not fostered by a natural reading of history. That reading of history suggests things will never change permanently for the better. That reading of history provides no model of people living together in mutual respect and universal love. In fact, we see just the opposite. The human appetite for violence is enormous. A cynic would say history shows that people love killing each other. Almost 3000 years ago, Homer wrote in the Iliad: “Men grow tired of sleep, love, singing and dancing sooner than war.” One need look no further than the last century for ample evidence in support of that view.
There is also much evidence of decline, even decadence, in our contemporary world. It is not just a question of nostalgia for the “good old days.” That perception of decline is based on reality. The signs are there: a dramatic increase in sexual promiscuity that is widely condoned; an undermining of family values; the killing of millions of innocent children by abortion; and an increase in violence beyond that of warfare.
Reflecting on our own personal condition also presents a challenge to hope. Especially, as we grow older, we encounter fears that tend to sabotage hope: fear of declining mental or physical abilities; fear because of past sins; fear of being unprepared for death. It seems true because of years of hard work bearing no apparent fruit; or when little of desired change is accomplished; or when pursuit of growth in our spiritual life may seem a futile effort. There is a danger of becoming disillusioned, even of losing hope. Often, we may feel we have only enough spiritual bread in our basket for one more day, and we are fearful about tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to come.
At one point during his last discourse, Jesus addressed words, both of warning and of encouragement, to his disciples, telling them: “In the world you will have hardship, but be courageous, I have overcome the world” (John 16: 33). The latter part of that statement may well seem problematic. Overcome the world? In view of all the evil, pain, and suffering encountered in the world, we may struggle to see how the world is overcome. St. Augustine offered an answer in one of his sermons: “Hence, if our personal pleasures do not hold us captive, and if we are not frightened by brutality, then the world is overcome” (Sermon 276). St. John in his first letter proposed a better answer: “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (I John 5: 4).
Our faith invites us to accept a number of consoling truths. For example: that our final state is life, not death; that forgiveness erases sin; that hope triumphs over despair; that love is stronger than hate; that God is love. Empirical evidence affords little support for those propositions. What is needed is spiritual insight. We need faith to see through the darkness of evil and suffering that we encounter in the world. We need hope as an antidote for the temptation to despair. The reason for our hope is our belief that God loves us; that God wills what is best for us; that God is love.
It is only by faith and hope that we accept those consoling truths cited above. St. Paul assures us: “Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for; the evidence of things unseen” (Heb. 11: 1). Some commentators say that the word “substance” here means reality. That means faith represents something more than just a pledge. It is somehow a real participation in the blessings hoped for.
God’s love is, in a very true sense, a mystery. We cannot comprehend God. If we could, God would be less than ourselves. There are, however, some ways of thinking about God’s love that provide us with some insight.
We can easily enough understand that someone who loves another, wants to be with the loved one as much, and as closely, as possible. God has found a way to be with us in a way that far exceeds anything humanly possible. God does that in the Eucharist.
St. John begins his description of the events of the passion by saying that Christ knew his hour was at hand. He then continues: “… having loved those who were his own in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13: 1). We believe that God’s love for us is eternal and unchanging. However, at that particular point in time, God, in the person of Jesus, gave a special testimony of his love.
Someone has suggested that, in this passage, John is giving us a very touching picture of the humanity of Christ. We know from our own experience that it is typical for people to give more signs of their love just before separation. Think of all the classic departure scenes in movies and novels. Part of the dialog is usually something like this: “Here, I want you to have this.” The unspoken understanding is: “I want you to remember me.” That is exactly what Jesus did at the Last Supper. Knowing that he would soon be separated from his followers, he gave a clear and special sign to show how perfect his love is for us. He gave himself in the Eucharist, saying: “Do this in memory of me.”
There are various ways in which we can see the perfection of God’s love for us. God’s love for us is perfect or complete in its extension. It extends throughout all space and time. It is poured out wherever there are people in need of that love.
God’s love is also perfect in its generosity. It is flawless in its gifts and activities. The gift of himself, in the Incarnation, is the basic act of God’s perfect love for us. The gift of himself, in the Eucharist, is a continuation of the Incarnation. The Eucharist is the perfect manifestation of his human and divine love. Even God can give us no more than himself, and that is exactly what God has done in the Incarnation, and continues to do in the Eucharist.
God’s love is unchanging. There is nothing I can do either to reduce, or increase, God’s love. I can only graciously accept it, and find in it the fulfillment of my life. Christ did not wait to offer his love until we changed. It is because he loved us first, that we have the ability to change. In his first letter, John stated that very clearly: “It is not we who have loved God, but God loved us, and sent his Son to expiate our sins” (I John 4: 10).
God’s love is unconditional. Otherwise, it would not be true love. True love is always unconditional. If I attach conditions to my love, it is not true love. It is, rather, an offering, an exchange, not a gift. In our human relationships, we tend to attach conditions to the love we give. In telling someone we love them, we may be implicitly saying things like this: “I will love you as long as you return my love. I will love you if you meet my expectations of you.” Because that is the way our human condition leads us to act, it is not easy to accept the fact that God’s love is unconditional. Being aware—often, only too painfully—of our brokenness, our failings, and our guilt, we feel unworthy of such unconditional love.
There is, however, a sense in which God’s love is conditioned. The condition is not on God’s part, but on the part of the creature. If a person is not open to receiving it, God’s love is effectively blocked. That’s the mystery of free will. By giving creatures the gift of free will, God has, in a sense, limited his own power. To put that a bit differently, we must not think of God as a kindly, but senile grandfather, who doesn’t care what we are doing.
Because God’s merciful love is infinite, there is nothing which God is not prepared to forgive; nothing which God is not prepared to remedy; nothing which God is not prepared to restore. There is no remedy for human weakness, or failure, that can compare with the love of God for the creature open to receive it. There is only one obstacle to the love of God, as revealed in Jesus. It is the failure to be open and receptive in faith. There is no obstacle on God’s part.
No matter how sinful I may imagine myself to be; how far I feel I am from God; how messed up my life may be; there is one fact on which I can count. God loves me personally. He wants what is best for me. He will never give up on me as a hopeless case. None of our sins is decisive. There will always be God’s merciful forgiveness. Even more, God offers us a future full of hope, exceeding all expectations and dreams.
There can be a subtle temptation which consists in thinking that somehow we earn, or make ourselves worthy, of God’s love. We may think that God will love us because we are good, or as long as we are good. God’s love is not a reward for our virtue, but a remedy for our sinfulness. As Fulton Sheen used to say: “God does not love us because we are good. We are good because God loves us.” God’s love is not a merited prize. It is rather a merciful gift. We don’t earn it, or make ourselves worthy of it. Our challenge is to be constantly open to that gift, to remove any obstacles to it coming into our lives. What is received as a gift must be renewed again and again by fidelity. But, we must be careful not to misunderstand, or misinterpret, that gift. While God’s love is unchanging, unconditional, a pure gift, that realization should not lead to a kind of “quietism,” i.e., a purely passive inwardness, and resignation, which dispenses us from prayer and active asceticism.
In the eyes of God, we are not, first of all, sinners, who can approach him only with fear and contrite hearts. The basic reality about me is not that I am a sinner, who will be loved only if I fulfill certain requirements. The basic reality of my life is that I am precious in the eyes of God. I am loved by God as though I were an only child. God’s love is not one of his attributes. It is his very essence. Thus, it is unchanging, whether we accept it or not; whether we open our minds and our hearts to it, or not.
The cathedral of Chartres in France is world renowned for the beauty of its architecture. High up in one of the arches is a sculpture depicting God holding Adam in his arms. Adam is asleep, his arms and legs drawn up, almost in a fetal position. God is looking, lovingly, at Adam, hoping to wake him from his sleep, so he will know who it is that loves him. What a beautiful image! It suggests that God also holds each one of us, lovingly, in his arms, hoping that we will awaken and perceive who it is that loves us.
In his letter to the Romans (5: 5-9), St. Paul speaks of “a hope that will not let us down, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” He continues:
When we were still helpless, at the appointed time, Christ died for the godless. You could hardly find anyone ready to die for someone upright: though it is just possible that, for a really good person, someone might undertake to die. So it is proof of God’s own love for us that Christ died for us while we were still sinners. How much more can we be sure, therefore, that, now that we have been justified by his death, we shall be saved through him from the retribution of God. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more can we be sure that being now reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
The realization that we are so loved by God, that he gave his only son to be our redeemer, should fill us with gratitude, hope, and courage, expelling all fear and despondency.
Sin prevents God’s love and grace from coming into our lives. It was Cardinal Newman who insisted that the sinner would not enjoy heaven if he went there; not until he has turned from his sin, and is once more looking toward God. That is reminiscent of Martin Luther’s apt description of the sinner as “incurvatus in se” (one turned in on self). The more one is turned in on self, the more a sinner chooses his will in opposition to Gods’ will. And, therefore, the less likely is the possibility that God’s love and grace can enter the soul. It is as though Jesus approached a person, reluctantly saying that: “This person is so full of self that there is no room for me.”
There is a paradox about all love, including God’s love for us. It is this: love does not exclude suffering and sacrifice. The fact of suffering in the world makes it difficult to maintain our faith and hope. The challenge becomes more severe as some suffering touches our lives more directly. How is that compatible with God’s love for us? Yet, the expression of any true love inevitably involves sacrifice. Love of God, love of a person, love of an ideal: all involve sacrifice. The Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, understood that love includes suffering. He expressed that idea very clearly and strongly. He said: “Love in dreams is easy, but love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing.” God gave us the clearest demonstration of his love when he became one of us, in the person of Jesus. That love included great suffering and, ultimately, the sacrifice of his life.
Love and sacrifice are not the same thing, but they are inseparable. Any preaching of Christ, without the cross, is deficient. It does not lead to a true understanding of Christ, and his message. And preaching of love, without sacrifice, is deficient. It leads, not to love, but to license. When marriage is proposed as something less than a vocation requiring discipline, sacrifice, and the suffering inevitably entailed in overcoming selfishness, then such marriages will exhibit a high rate of failure.
Suffering is at the heart of the central mystery of our faith. We call it the “Pascal Mystery” which is the mystery of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that is a question, not just of suffering, but of useless suffering. God made useless suffering the very means of our salvation. I say “useless” in the sense that Jesus did not need to suffer. God could have chosen to save the world in any number of ways. Any act of his could have saved the world. Why then did God choose to save the world through the suffering and death of his son? That’s a mystery that has no answer except perhaps as St. John put it: “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” (John 3: 16).
Genuine love inevitably involves some sacrifice, some suffering. A genuinely loving act will cost something. If an act, apparently done for the benefit of another, involves no sacrifice, it may well be that it is done simply for one’s own satisfaction. Examples of how a genuinely loving act will cost something are plentiful. This can be seen even in small things. A mother gets up in the middle of the night—even though she is desperately tired—to meet the needs of her child. The same is shown in big things, in the way someone might devote their life to the care of another: a wife caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s; a husband caring for a wife ravaged by a crippling disease.
God has shown how genuine is his love for us by voluntarily taking on, in the person of Jesus Christ, a full measure of suffering on our behalf. How could he have shown his love more convincingly? Can there be any greater reason for our hope?
Finally, a suggested reading: Psalm 118, which, in the Liturgy of the Hours, is entitled: “Song of Salvation.”