We are called to love God, with all our heart, soul, and mind, and with all our strength (c.f.; Mark 12:30; Deuteronomy 6:5). This, along with the call to love our neighbour as ourselves, is the greatest commandment, and yet, as I have argued in an earlier post, while the two inform one another and act as proof of the other’s authenticity, the call to love God has a logical priority in the relationship – we must love Him first, above all else, or our other attempts to act in a true spirit of charity (both individually and corporately) will suffer.
But how does one love God, truly? It is easy to love those things that we see – our family and friends, the natural world, the creatures within it, etc – but we must admit that it is much harder to generate the same affection or the same disposition of the will to that which we cannot see. It is one thing to honour God, to place Him above all other things with respect to reverence and intrinsic worth; but to love Him as we love the things of the world is not so straightforward. One can obey God out of a sense of propriety and duty, but if we remain at this point, we have not really received the good news of the New Covenant, which is that love of God fulfils the Law, and the ultimate goal is to follow the divine will freely, out of love, not out of a sense of duty.
It is possible, for a while, to convince oneself to love God above all else because He is the only permanent thing in life – all else passes away, and therefore to love created things and people over God will always leave us bereft, with nothing steadfast to orient our wills towards. This approach though, apart from doing God a great disservice (we shall only love You because the other things won’t last), and minimising the very real love we have for the people in our life, can only really help us to gain a better perspective on the true order of things – it can help us to see where our ultimate loyalties should lie, but it does not really help us to love Him more; at least, not in the long term.
A better approach is to see God as the source and summit of everything that we already hold to be good in life – to remind ourselves that everything we see as valuable (and more importantly, as loveable) in our peers and the world around us not only comes from God, but exists within His nature at an unimaginably higher level. This allows us both to affirm the worth of our earthly loves, whilst seeing them in a wider context, and also gives us positive reasons for loving God – He is our highest Good, representing all we already know to be loveable, and infinitely more so.
However, even this approach is sometimes not really enough, as it remains at the purely conceptual level – yes God is our highest Good, and infinitely more good than all we know and cherish here and now, but this remains something of an abstraction. It is good to know, but one is still left with the feeling that it fails to engage the whole person – the heart, soul, and mind that Jesus and Moses speak of. We are creatures of head and heart, body and soul, and so require something more holistic and immediate in order to engage us at all the levels that we operate on. Not only this, but more specifically, being the kind of creatures that we are, we need something that will stir our affections.
The answer to all this of course lies in Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, the Son of God entered deeply into the human experience, and in so doing, He not only affirmed the goodness of creation (particularly mankind) but raised them up to a higher level – He consecrated matter, opening the door to a deeply sacramental reality wherein through material things the veil between Heaven and earth is lifted, and He restored the image of God in man, making a ‘more excellent way’ possible for the children of Adam. But more than this, in His life, death and resurrection, we learned that ‘in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us’ (1 John 4:10).
As Saint Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, ‘one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (5:7-8). Knowing the depth of our sins (though we will often be able to conceal this from ourselves for long periods), and knowing how many times we have rejected God Himself outright, because of selfishness, inconvenience or outright malice, we can look up at the Cross of Christ and know that He still loves us, in spite of all that we have thought and done.
In Jesus we see just how much God loves us, what lengths He will go to in order to show us this, and, particularly in the Passion narratives, how He steadfastly continues to do this even whilst experiencing our rejection, hatred, cowardice, betrayal, hatred – for what He experienced from the Agony in the Garden right up to the tearing of the veil in the Temple is but a particular example of how we all have treated both God and His image in our neighbour, and many more times than we care to admit as well. Through all this He still loved us, and died for us that we may be delivered from the slavery of sin we have so willingly bought into.
This then is the best motivation for loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength – that ‘while we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly’ (Romans 5:6). When I consider the worst of all my thoughts, words and deeds (even those over the course of a couple of weeks, let alone a lifetime) I have a very hard time believing that my closest friends and family would be able to forgive me. Yet this is what God did, and does, in Christ – He knows all the blackest parts of our souls, and still loves us. In fact, He loves us so much that He could not stand to see us besmirching our selves with sin, and came to die for us, that we might live with Him. As Francis Thompson wrote in The Hound of Heaven:
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee
Save Me, save only Me?
To know that even though all our faults and misdeeds are laid out for God to see, without the cover of our excuses and equivocations, and that He still loves us to the extent that He showed in the life of Christ, more than engages our affections; when the depth of this mystery – that we are so often unlovable, and yet He loves us – is meditated upon, it stirs the soul to love in return. So, when I find it hard to love God, I try to remember this great truth, and to turn my interior gaze towards the Cross of Christ, where the ceaseless, patient, undeserved love of God for us is most supremely shown.