After I wrote my previous post, I watched a video by Fr. Robert Barron (also see his additional commentary here), where he addresses the issue of the stringency of the Church’s moral teachings in the context of the universal call to holiness, and in light of the mercy offered by the Church, embodied in the Sacrament of Confession. Coincidentally, this ties in to what I had written yesterday about the danger of separating truth, goodness and love from one another. What Fr. Barron’s video reminded me of was that there is also often a big difference in what people mean when they talk about the goodness of God.
In the third chapter of The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis considers what it is we mean when we say God is good. In doing so, he distinguishes between real goodness, in which the one who is good has a genuine concern for the welfare and development of the other, and mere kindness, which is satisfied simply with the other’s being preserved from suffering. To make this distinction, he first examines an analogy found in Scripture, wherein God is conceived of as the heavenly Bridegroom, and humanity (also, more specifically Israel or the Church) as the Bride, before summarising thus:
‘When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some “disinterested”, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the “lord of terrible aspect”, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as a love between the sexes.’
The Problem of Pain (1980), pp.34-35, Fount Paperbacks.
The point Lewis is making here, and the point Fr. Barron emphasises in his video, is that God does not want to indulge us in our established patterns of behaviour. Precisely because God loves us, He wants to drive us onwards and upwards towards sanctity, in which we may find perfect freedom and joy. Lewis clarifies this point in an earlier part of the same passage:
‘The Church is the Lord’s bride whom He so loves that in her no spot or wrinkle is endurable. For the truth that this analogy serves to emphasise is that Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; that the mere “kindness” which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.’
Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved – this, in typically succinct and crystal-clear Lewisian fashion, captures the essence of the difference between true goodness and mere kindness, or tolerance. Similarly, when we truly love our neighbour, we will not be satisfied in leaving them as they are. Though we must always approach them with compassion, meeting their situation where it is, we must always seek to help them out of this situation – to bring them out of darkness and into the light; out of sorrow and into joy. If we are confident that true joy is to be found in following Christ, then we must believe that to stand back and allow people to pursue lifestyles contrary to that path is not kind but unloving. How this is applied to individual situations of course requires a great deal of patience and tact, and cannot be attempted without a sufficient rooting of the counsellor in the love of Christ, but it must be done – at some point people need to hear the truth.
At this point one may ask the question ‘this is all very well, but who is anyone to say what is or isn’t compatible with following Christ; surely there is no right or wrong way so long as we follow Him?’ This is a good question, as it also relates to what it is to be loving, this time with reference to Jesus. Given that He wants us to follow Him, and wants us to thereby grow in holiness, and also given that He had come to show us the Father, the very heart of who God is, would it have been loving of Him to leave us without any means to know with confidence the divine nature or will?
Those who stress God’s loving nature whilst at the same time disclaiming the possibility of knowing God and His will infallibly, are, it seems to me, caught in a bit of a conundrum. For if God is love, I think it rather a cruel omission on His part not to leave us any means of knowing His nature or will with assurance. To leave us to chaos would not be loving at all – in fact, on what basis would we thereby even be able to say with any confidence that God is love? The truth of the matter is that Jesus, out of love, founded a Church, a living Body which would be able to preserve His teaching, explain His will, and elucidate definitively any developments of this teaching with respect to future cultural changes. He did not write Scripture – that was written and canonised by the Church, and cannot be relied upon for guidance alone, subject as it is to so many varying interpretations. Neither can we rely on antiquity, however many councils or centuries of the early Church that one counts as such. Times change, and we need a living, infallible voice that, whilst still rooted in Tradition, can discern and reapply God’s truth to contemporary problems.
God is love, and so gave us a Church that is neither frozen in the past, nor susceptible to the ever-changing spirit of the age. Instead, it is founded on solid rock, the living voice of Saint Peter and his successors, the seal and guarantee provided by Christ that we may always know His will, and so may be guided away from darkness and into the light. God loves us, and does not wish to leave us to our own devices – because of this, He did not leave us to chaos (or with the recourse of a simple retreat into the past). This love goes beyond kindness, for God wishes us to become holy as He is holy; perfect, as He is perfect. The process of sanctification is of course, for most of us, incomplete during this life, but that is no reason to lower the bar while we are here. The bar is set clear and high by the hand of God through His Church, but He knows our weakness, and with His other hand sets before us the offer of unlimited forgiveness and mercy. This is true love, and is greater than mere kindness or tolerance.