“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments … are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:8-13)
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)
“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:14)
Christianity proposes a paradoxical and quite radical understanding of God apart from other ancient religions. Through the God-man Jesus Christ, God reveals his character as both just judge and divine lover. Christ both deals with sin through the ultimate sacrifice of God’s very self on the cross and offers the embracing arms of divine forgiveness, such as portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Today, our culture often has a deficient understanding of love as just feelings, sentiments, or engaging in intercourse, but Christianity proclaims love as a divinely powered active willing of the good of the other person as other.
This is why the true test of Christian love is Jesus’ command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). If you love someone for whom you expect some kind of reciprocation, then your motives might just be selfish ones. But if you love someone who is not at all interested in your well-being or giving you anything in return, then the love which you offer your enemy is divine love.
In this multi-part series, we want to explore a theological reflection on love as found in the Chapters on Love by St. Maximus the Confessor ( c. 580 – 13 August 662), Christian monk and martyr for the faith. His stand against the imperial theology of the day, which said that Christ only had a single divine will (monothelitism), and his affirmation instead that Christ had a human and divine will (dyothelitism) in order to be fully Incarnated into human life, led to the emperor chopping off his right hand and cutting out his tongue. Maximus died in exile not too long afterwards. His reflections on Christian love in the lifelong process of discipleship are deep and worthy of examination in the Church today.
Maximus begins the first century of his treatise on love with a short definition: “love is a good disposition of the soul by which one prefers no being to the knowledge of God” (Chapters on Love 1.1). He says that love of God is greater than anything else because God is greater than anything He has made. So, if we love anything else in the created cosmos more than God, we are deficient in love. Why do we love created things more than the Creator?
Maximus suggests that our disordered loves are rooted in attachment, in the cleaving to earthly things. The use of earthly goods is not the problem; it is our attachment to them, which orientates our desire to them instead of to God. Christian spiritual formation, such as found in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, is really about a process of detachment that slowly lets go of those things in our lives that grab our attention and devotion away from God. Maximus begins with the fear of God as the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10) and then moves up through the process to the love of God. The whole spiritual process is a movement of God’s grace and our free response to it:
The one who believes the Lord fears punishment; the one who fears punishment becomes master of his passions; the one who becomes master of his passions patiently endures tribulations; the one who patiently endures tribulations will have hope in God; hope in God separates from every earthly attachment; and when the mind is separated from this it will have love for God (Chapters on Love 1.3).
When Maximus uses the word “mind” here (in Greek, the nous), he is not just referring to the brain or the mental aspect of life. He means the spiritual core or faculty of the soul where God communicates his grace. He is saying that the core of who you are will be full of the love of God.
Fear of punishment jolts our attention and begins the process of detaching from the world and attaching to God. This is done through discipline and the building up of our resistance to sinful desires (too much food, sex, entertainment, etc.). When we begin mastering the passions, then the ability of the world to control our thoughts and actions begins to wane. Then the theological virtue of hope keeps us on the path and not knocked down by the trials and tribulations of life.
A new spiritual space is opened up where love is not based on the conditions of your life, whether pleasant or painful, but on a relationship with the only person in the universe who will never leave you or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6). This is how Christians through the ages can be joyful even through oppression and persecution. The great C. S. Lewis was surprised by the joy of God even after the death of his wife because he found an eternal love deep enough to sustain the loss of a loved one. This is how Jesus could proclaim such an unusual truth as “blessed [or happy] are those who mourn.” What our Lord is saying is that a person who is unattached to good feelings, will not fall away from the kingdom of God when the storms of life inevitably hit. Jesus is not demonizing good feelings. Instead He is showing the spiritual power of letting go of our attachments to the world. Divine love radically inverts our expectations about life and in turn gives us true freedom, which then makes us happy.
The love of God is available to all of us, but our openness to its transformation in our lives must be cultivated through discipleship. This is why daily discipleship is so critical to recapturing the love of God in our modern disordered world. In the next part of our series, we will further explore the dimensions of love in the spiritual life.