Love. “God is love,” the scripture says. “God is love,” the saints all tell us– not only in the Christian tradition, but in the mystical literature of Islam, Judaism, and even sometimes Hinduism. This is such a universal truth that it cannot be hidden from anyone who sincerely seeks to know God.
But God as Love is most perfectly revealed in Christianity, in the person of Jesus Christ, who is Divine Love incarnate. To say that the fullness of infinite, all-surpassing Divine Love became incarnate as an ordinary human being is an insane statement– truly mind-boggling– but that is precisely the core of Christian belief. No other religion claims this. All great religions and philosophies teach a version of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but it is only Jesus Christ who takes it to its farthest extreme: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt 5:44). It is Jesus Christ who says, “Father forgive them,” even as he is hanging on the cross.
But first, what is love? We apply this word so broadly. I love cookies. I love Ewan MacGregor. I love your dress. Sometimes we say “love” to mean “I approve of” or “I desire.” In the case of mere approval, we are sitting in judgment over something or someone, and this is not really love. In the case of desire, human love tends toward possessiveness, which is not perfect love either. There is a line at the end of a Pride and Prejudice movie adaptation where Lizzie Bennett says, “Now I shall no longer call him Mr. Darcy, but my Mr. Darcy.” Even in a Jane Austen film, we feel the need to insert a little sense of ownership into love. Lizzie’s statement was harmless enough, but human love can very easily degenerate into jealousy, greed, the need to control, and even to abuse. Divine love, however, is love without judgment or the desire to possess. God loves and gives us total freedom to hate him in return. He never forces himself on us.
Human love is very often one-sided (or at least lop-sided). What would be left of Shakespeare and classical literature without the theme of unrequited love? As an experiment, the next time you see a Hollywood film with a kissing scene, look closely at the actors’ body language: very frequently, one person is more demonstrative while the other is holding something back– allowing themselves to be kissed, but not fully reciprocating. How often does the same happen in real life? But with God, we never have to fear that He will hold anything back. God loves us infinitely and unconditionally.
The goal of Christianity is union with God. And what that looks like, of course, is that we too become filled with divine Love. To experience God means literally to love, and to love ever more perfectly– not to possess or control or to receive some personal gain from it, but simply to love, and to love divinely, without bounds or conditions. The saints tell us that God dwells in our hearts; we must not seek him outside ourselves but within– why? because he is Love.
When God created man in his own image, it means that he gave every person the capacity to love and be loved. It is our most natural instinct. From the moment we are born and take our first breath, babies seek comfort in the loving embrace of their mothers. Human parents always fall short, of course, but parenthood is meant to point the way to God’s even more perfect love. Romantic love and marriage are, likewise, meant to point the way to God’s love. This love comes so naturally to us, and though it, too, falls short, romantic love is also meant to point the way to God’s total and radical love. By learning to love another, we take our first steps towards learning God’s kind of love.
It is so difficult for us to love Love itself, to love God who is infinite and beyond all our ability to conceive. How can we love what we do not know? So He commands us to love Him through loving our neighbors, the people that cross our path each day. And then, he not only gives himself a name, but actually takes flesh and lives among men: the Son of God, Jesus Christ. It is astonishing to think about!
The mystery of the Trinity ceases to be an arcane Byzantine doctrine when seen in light of God as Love. God as only one would be selfish. God as only two would be unconcerned with the rest of creation, in the same way that two lovers can ignore the rest of the world and be consumed with adoring each other. But God as three is perfect love: overflowing to the whole world, creating new life, filling all things with his love.
Love is the heart and goal of all the trappings of religion: the forms of worship, the ascetic and spiritual disciplines, teaching the virtues, enduring sorrows and illnesses, practicing gratitude. The goal is to overcome our ego and allow us to love. So many obstacles prevent us from loving truly. We are afraid to risk pain and rejection. Or we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we cannot see others for who they are. Or we are not willing to let others be themselves, but want to make them an extension of our own self. It is a life’s work to learn to love. Humility, the most important of the virtues, does not mean learning to think that you are a worm. It means being able to think about others first, a precondition for love. Even prayer, the saints agree, becomes perfect prayer when all words finally cease and it becomes a silent expression of pure love and adoration.
The seeds of divine love have been sown in all our hearts. Tending them becomes a labor of joy as they begin to bear fruit. And the fruit of Love that they bear is God Himself.