I’m very hesitant to approach the topic of “The love for God.” It is probably somewhat audacious to write this blog post after many church fathers have already written extensively on the topic, reflecting on their experience and that of others. However, I’m writing because I believe that this generation has moved far away from loving God, and occasionally we need to be reminded of it. In the midst of a congested and complicated theological environment we tend to forget the basic elements and the purpose of our presence. We speak about very lofty theological debates that are sometimes empty of true Christian living. Our love for the world has distracted us from Him whom we ought to love the most. We have come to love things more than people, and we love people more than God. We forget that it’s in loving God that we come to be true humans, and that in this love we are restored.
We, as Christians, want to love God. We hear about those who love Him and we want to experience this relationship. I will pose to you three questions that might help you to determine if you love God and to what extent. First, do you live a life of prayer? And I’m not asking if you pray, because I believe that we all pray in some form or another. I’m asking about dedicating your time, your effort, and your heart to prayer. Second, do you give God and His people from that of which you have little? That is, can you give from that of which you yourself don’t have enough, can you give of the little which you have? Third, are you able to forgive others? When we honestly and sincerely ask ourselves these three questions, we will be able to determine if we love God and to what extent.
We love Him because He loved us first, He loved us before the foundation of the world, to the end, and He loves us in His Son. God loves us despite our condition: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) Our love for Him ought to be a willful response to His everlasting and consistent love. He tells Israel, the church, you and me, “Yes, I have loved you with everlasting love, therefore with loving kindness I have drawn you.” (Jer. 31:3) Because God loves us with His divine love, I don’t think we will ever understand the fullness of the love of God towards us, not even in heaven. We are given the chance to taste His love for us as His Spirit pours out His love in our hearts. If we want to get a better understanding of His love for us, we should live a more virtuous life to come close to God and become like Him, and then we will have a better understanding of His love.
When we read the New Testament we are sometimes faced with violent imagery, in verses like “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26) “If your hand makes you stumble cut it off, if your eye makes you stumble pluck it out.” (Matthew 5:29-30) These imageries are there to help us understand that we ought to love God and desire Him much more and far beyond anything. They are there to tell us that nothing and no one should come between us and our love for God. They also tell us that setting God as the greatest love in our lives might not be easy, and that eliminating roadblocks like sinful habits and sinful relationships, and dealing firmly with our passions might feel like plucking out an eye or cutting off an arm.
Our love for Him must surpass everything else in our lives and nothing should come between us and Him. You might agree, disagree or be uncomfortable with regard to the use of these imageries, but that’s their purpose. As it is written, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’” (Rom 8:35,36) On this subject, St. Macarius the Great writes, “Therefore their longing is towards that love of the heavenly King, and having Him only before their eyes with great desire, they detach themselves for His sake from all worldly affection, and withdraw from every earthly tie, that they may be free always to cherish in their hearts that one longing, and to mix nothing else with it.” (Homily 5:60)
In the gospel of Luke, two disciples of Emmaus (Luke 24) walked and conversed about events that had taken place over the previous few days. The Lord approached them and walked with them, and although they were conversing with Him, their eyes were closed and couldn’t recognize Him. However, their hearts were burning inside them. It was their love for Him that convinced the disciples of Emmaus and helped them to recognize Him. It was not their reason, knowledge, or minds that led them to recognize Him. It was their aching love that opened their eyes. Love that aches and burns is the love that we ought to have for God. It’s by this love that we see that the martyrs are willing to die, the ascetics are willing to sell all, those who live in the cities are willing to pray, fast and do charitable work. We all grow in this love at our own pace until we are consumed by His love in our hearts.
In expressing our love for God, the Bible invites us to offer our bodies as a living acceptable sacrifice, which is our reasonable service. One of the reasons for fasting, prostrating, and standing in prayer is that we offer not just our voices, hearts, and minds, but also our bodies as an expression of love. We offer our bodies as the martyrs offered theirs, we offer them in our sweat and physical work, and we offer them all the way until we take our very last breath.
On the love for God, St. Silouan writes, “Where a man fears to distress God by sinning in any way, that is the first degree of love. The man whose mind is undistracted has love in the second degree, which is greater than the first. A third and still greater degree of love is when a man is aware of grace in his soul. And, finally, the man who has the grace of the Holy Spirit both in soul and body is in a state of perfect love.” This might be St. Silouan’s experience of love, however I don’t think that one must go through the different degrees to reach perfect love. Some might experience a sudden transformation in their lives and become aware of the love that is poured into their hearts for God by the Holy Spirit.
On the love for God poured by the Spirit into our hearts, St. Macarius writes “…if, I say, carnal men thus desire the glory of the earthly king, how much more are those upon whom has dropped that dewdrop of the Spirit of the life of the Godhead, and has smitten their heart with a divine passion for Christ the heavenly King, bound fast to that beauty, to the unspeakable glory, the immortal comeliness, the unimaginable wealth of Christ, the true eternal King, with desire and longing after whom they are carried away captive.” (Homily 5:6) St. Gregory of Nyssa defines the life of perfection as the life of continuous growth, so I would conclude that the perfect love for God is simply the growing love for God, that it is a level we will determine for ourselves, and that we have no limits in how much we can love God.
I went to visit a simple older woman, and her love for God had a powerful impact on me. She was sick, so as a priest of the church I went to visit her. I was between other visits so I stopped by for 10 minutes.
During my visit she said, “Father, I love God so much.” These were very simple words, however the way she said them was very powerful. They indicated such a true deep love for God that I could almost feel it filling the room. As we spoke a little bit, I concluded that she was illiterate, and immediately my mind started to race—how could this woman, who is unable to read scriptures, pray the psalms and even follow through the liturgical prayer books—have obtained such a love for God? As I was leaving, I asked, “You mentioned that you love God so much—how did you learn to do that?” Her answer was striking. “Father, my dad taught me three things: to go to church, not to lie, and not to hold grudges against anyone. I grew up keeping these commandments.” This was her recipe to love God; she took these three commandments from her father and lived them honestly. I believe that through her diligence and honesty in keeping these simple commandments she found her way to what many of us struggle to obtain. My purpose of telling this story is to impart that loving God with all our hearts, souls, and might doesn’t have to be complicated, fancy or theological, but we must be honest and sincere in our relationship with Him.
The bible speaks about the greatest love, where one lays down his/her life for his/her friends, and as the Lord considered us His friends and laid down His life for us, our love for Him should grow until we are willing to lay down our lives for Him. This path requires commitment, prayer and understanding. We need to understand that the road to the fullness of love might not be very easy, however the growing love in our hearts will be our reward and the Lord Himself will be our guide on this road, because in His humanity He walked this road of love step by step until He was crucified on the cross willfully and lovingly. As for the saints who completed and perfected their lives in the love of Christ, we ought to learn from their practices, asceticism, and struggles until they shed their blood for their great love for Christ.
We might not have perfect love yet, but let’s not be troubled. We need to think about the Lord, His mercy, and His love towards us, and guard ourselves from sin, and the Holy Spirit will teach us the rest.