One of the most beautiful descriptions of love in the Christian traditions can be found in I Corinthians 13. But it can be said that the whole of Jesus’s earthly ministry is a testament to love itself. Love is the essence of God. It is the foundation of all creation. It is the truth of who we are.
It should be no surprise that words are never sufficient to define love. We say so much about love. But we never succeed in capturing it completely in a picture made of words.
And yet, to understand God, to understand all that God is and does, one needs to look to love. Nothing can make sense without it. Indeed, to try to make sense of life or anything without it is to be deceived by nonsense. Imperfect love and lovelessness is at the root of all pain and strife — the things Christians over the centuries have called sin.
Love is, among other things, the overflowing goodness of God. It is full; not incomplete. It can endure all things and be infinitely patient because there is no lacking in love. It does not need to boast because the truth of love just is. God creates out of the fullness of love. God shares out of the fullness of love. To love is to perfectly imitate God; to be God’s child in thought, feeling, word, and deed. Love is the foundation of all we are meant to be.
It is through love that we are united in God. It is through being perfected in Christ’s love that we are true disciples of Jesus. It is through loving God, loving ourselves, and loving one another that we live as we should live.
Love unites. Any unity based upon anything else is false.
And yet, there are many things said and done in the name of love that are not love. Love is used as license to bring all kinds of falsity and evil into the world. If love is beyond adequate description, it is important, nonetheless, to always be searching our hearts and minds to see it in truth and not deceive ourselves with lesser things masquerading in its name.
We all are familiar with imperfect love and that which is called love but is not. Anything we place before our love of God cannot be true love. Anything that negates God’s love of us or of God’s creatures cannot be true love. The Great Commandments (Matthew 22.34-40; Mark 12.28-34; Luke 10.25-37) are Jesus’s measure for the way love should manifest and be ordered in our lives.
Sometimes it is said that unity is God’s gift to God’s creation. This is true. But it is love that makes this unity possible. It is love that gives things their proper shape and function. One needs to keep one’s eye on the place of love in any discussion of God, who God is, and what God does. All true things come from love. Their origin is there. They never lose connection to love. Their essence is love. It is a question of what comes first. Love is not a servant of our desires. It can be the only true desire of our lives.
When we experience romantic love for another person, sometimes we can place that individual at the center of our lives. We can make them our first concern. We make them an object of obsession. We are possessed by the idea of them. And in so being, we become confused about the place of our loves. God can be set aside as the first and be given a secondary, or even tertiary, place in our lives. This means we have made an idol of a love that is supposed to grow out of our love of God and be shaped by it. It is a love that we cut off from the source. We eventually find that we try to hold on to it like a private treasure to be locked away in the confines of our lives and of our hearts. Disconnecting our love of someone from our love of the One Who First Loves Us begins a process of decay that eventually poisons that love and, in turn, poisons the ones who are connected by that love. Romantic love, as beautiful as it can be, is sometimes distorted this way by those who feel it. They isolate themselves from the source of love itself; thinking they have hold of love between the two of them alone. Many of us experience the pain of such a love and the pain of its dissolution (because, removed from the greater context of God’s love, the attention mis-focused), such a love becomes a disease. Rather than life flourishing when built around such a love, it will cause life to whither, fade, and pass into death.
Some scripture speaks of God being jealous and wanting to be the center of our lives. Jealousy is not a way of describing it that works for me. Rather, I would see it as the love we share with God is the foundation that makes all other loves possible.
Our longing for unity with one another, whether romantically, or otherwise, needs always to make sure that we never disconnect ourselves from that foundation. We must always keep ourselves grounded in God’s love — the first love. Anything that is interposed to disconnect us from that direct relationship will prove a means of disaster.
The history of Christianity, like the history of all human experience, has countless tragic stories of loves that interposed an idol between God and God’s creation. Many times, as with romantic love gone awry, the understanding of love becomes confused (often with no ill intentions). It happens a lot when people forget that love is fullness — incapable of being diminished or destroyed. If love is patient; should not we be patient also? And yet, often we lose patience with those who disagree with us. We hear what they have to say and feel that what they espouse is mental poison. Such has been the story with many of the so-called heretics of the millennia.
One example was how the church of the 15th century dealt with the Czech priest and reformer, Jan Hus (John Hus or Huss in English — c. 1389-1415). Seeing things in the life of the church of his day that he felt did not line up with the teachings of Jesus as found in scripture, he challenged many practices and beliefs. He opposed the sale of indulgences (the purchasing of forgiveness of sins) and he argued that all teachings and activities of the church should be tested in relation to the example of Christ found in the Bible. Over the course of a number of years, he sought to debate the issues he highlighted. He wanted to have conversation with other church leaders so that they could see together what is taught in scripture.
Jan Hus’s invitation to debate was not looked upon favorably, however. True, he argued in a tone and with vitriol that is difficult for many to accept today. Jan Hus worsened his position with the vehemence of his attitude and rhetoric. But more striking than this was the way church leaders chose to “correct” him. They simply told him to accept the authority of the church council then meeting at Constance and recant his heresies. “Do it because we say so” is what their response boiled down to. Moreover, “Do it or we will have you burned alive.”
In this battle of words between Jan Hus and the leaders of the church, the patience of love seems in short supply. Arguably, both Hus and the council can be criticized on this score. But the decision to bring about Hus’s death as a means of protecting the church — of protecting the teachings of Christ — moved into the realm of the perverse. When the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Life becomes the one whose authority is appealed to in order to kill a human being there is something tragically wrong. In this instance, the council had decided that the maintenance of the church’s authority (expressed through the decisions of the council) was the most important concern in their dealings with Hus. They allowed this to override the fact that he was a human being so loved by God that Jesus suffered and died on a cross (and rose again) to save him. They boasted of their own authority and their patience for God’s creature failed. They made an idol of the church and its teachings and cut themselves off from the First Love that is supposed to shape all loves.
Another example of the misuse of the teachings of Christ in order to oppress and kill can be found in the life and death of Mary Dyer (c. 1611-1660). She was a Quaker living in Massachusetts when the English colony was a Puritan theocracy. Dyer, like other Quakers living in the colony, criticized the religious teachings of the official church. They advocated an understanding of Christianity that was at odds with the society and its leaders. She was expelled from the colony multiple times — but she returned. Her teachings were seen as a threat to the unity of the Christian society in Massachusetts and an attack upon the correct doctrines of the church. Mary Dyer persisted in her protests, doing what she felt was necessary to witness to those around her and call the church to what she believed was the correct understanding of Christ and the Christian life. Finally, Mary Dyer was put to death on 1 June 1660. Patience had run out. The dispute Dyer and the colony had with one another about the teachings of Jesus ended with a hangman’s noose.
The unity of the disciples of Jesus comes out of the love of God. It is important to remember this. The cause of unity has sometimes been made an idol and has sometimes been the justification for suppressing people and killing them in the name of God. But, remembering its proper place in the order of God’s love, it is also important that it is an expression of God’s love that we are united in the Divine, with other Christians, and with all creation.
Love is more than just a beautiful feeling. It is more than love songs so often make of it. Indeed, love challenges us to move beyond thinking too small. It challenges us to realize that God’s love is for all, is the foundation of all, and that it draws us together to live out that love in our own lives in ways that demonstrate its boundless and limitless nature.