…I've been visiting your website for years and it struck me the other day that I've never read anything there about loving God. Lots about loving oneself and loving other people, but nothing about loving God. Surely loving God is the basis for everything. If we don’t love God we are ignoring the Gospel where it says Love God and love your neighbour. I'm very worried about this because I'm asking myself have I been led astray. Can you please comment on this? Norah
I did a site search on this website and I found lots about loving God and little or nothing about loving oneself. Still, I'm glad you raised this question, because it is a basic one.
We have to be as accurate as we can when we talk about these things. The Gospel passage you refer to is Mt 22:35-39: “A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus 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. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” The law they were talking about was the Mosaic law, not the Gospel. Jesus was not being asked about his own teaching but about his understanding of the law of Moses.
Jesus’ own teaching makes it very clear that our love for God is not “the basis for everything.” The basis of everything is God's love for us. Read, for example, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). This is not about the prodigal son’s love for his father. He loved himself, and he returned home only because he was destitute. Nor is it about the love the older son had for his father. It is not clear that he had any. He was a surly character, full of anger and resentment. No, this story, invented by Jesus to tell us what God is like, has touched the hearts of countless people because it is a story about God loving us while we are still sinners. As John put it: “This is the love I mean: not our love for God, but God's love for us” (1 John 4:10). No doubt John’s mind was full of remembered sayings: “The Father himself loves you” (Jn 16:27); “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (John 15:9); “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father” (John 6:44).
If “the basis for everything” was something we were expected to provide, the Good News would no longer be good news but only good advice. In fact it often comes down to that in practice. Instead of the Good News that lifts us out of despair we hear a hectoring moralism that leaves us sunk deeper than before. That was the problem with the religious teachers in Jesus’ time. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,” Jesus said, “and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4). Good advice is very plentiful – and cheap. But the Good News opens us up to a wider vision.
“God loved us first” (1 Jn 4:19), but it remains true that we have to love God too. However, our love is now a response to God's love, and not “the basis for everything.”
How do normal people respond to love (I'm not thinking yet about God's love)? After a few disappointments they are not so naive as to be impressed by the word ‘love’. They learn that it is far from being an ego-dream. Instead it is a purification, a slow emergence from self-centred delusion and self-centred will; it is the death of ego; it is a rebirth. Then when they are sure that they are in the presence of the real thing they respond with gratitude, with joy, often with surprise…. They no longer feel alone in the world; they feel lifted beyond themselves.
Does our love of God have any of that drama of purification in it? Yes indeed, if it stays alive. But most of us settle down with a rather jaded and lifeless relationship, like a couple who have been bored with each other for many years, and no longer share anything or speak their real thoughts. It is like an arranged marriage: it was other people’s idea.
If my relationship to God is like that, can it ever come to life? Nobody can predict when and how a moment of grace happens. But such moments happen frequently. No amount of self-admonition, no amount of scolding, will bring them about. But it helps if we take long looks at how our religious spirit has dried up. We usually have to smash several idols that have been taking the place of God. There was a book some years ago by Juan Arias called The God I Don’t Believe In. We must smash our idols – or at least loosen their grip – but only God's grace can make us love God. “The cause of loving God is God,” wrote St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153).
Loving God is in some respects like loving another person (we ourselves are the constant in the two cases). But of course it is also very unlike loving another person. Some of our trouble is caused by a failure to see this. Saints have sometimes used very emotional, even passionate, language in describing or expressing their relationship to God. Then the rest of us feel we should produce something similar. But nothing falsifies a relationship so profoundly as false emotion. The key is to be truthful, and to feel whatever you feel without trying to make it look better. Henry Suso (14th century) imagined Jesus saying to him: “If you cannot meditate on my passion with eyes that weep, you should ponder it instead with a cheerful heart, because of its benefits. If, however, you can neither laugh nor weep, you should meditate on it in the aridity of your heart; and in this way you will not benefit less.” Many got the same message. In fact it is normal to expect to go through “the dark night of the soul.” Love is then just hanging on in faith and trust – hanging on to that unconditional something that never goes away, the unquenchable light from beyond, the ‘north star’ of our existence. We can never ‘grasp’ it - “This is the final human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God,” wrote St Thomas Aquinas. This is an astonishing statement, and indicates that there is nothing facile about belief in God. (I give the reference in case you think I made it up: de Potentia, 7, 5 ad 14.) We cannot grasp the divine presence, yet it never goes away.
I mentioned St Bernard a moment ago. In the ‘Wisdom Line’ page of this website, for the years 2000 and 2009, you will find extracts from his little classic On Loving God. They are the kind of texts that can be read again and again. Since the 12th century he has been helping seekers to open their hearts to God. Don’t worry, Norah, he won't lead you astray!