Trouble with Loving God
Jesus said that the greatest commandment (= our purpose in life) is to love God with everything we have and our neighbor as much as we love ourselves (Mk 12:28-31).
I know this sounds shallow and immature, but here it goes:
The greatest stymie to me loving God with all my heart, mind, strength, and soul is the fact that I can’t see God.
I can see “my neighbor” just fine. I can see my enemy even more clearly. So, when Jesus tells me to love my neighbors and my enemies (Mk 12:31; Matt 5:44), I can work on that faster than loving God. I can understand frailty and brokenness. It’s easier to work on loving them, I must admit, because I can see them. So much of what I know to be true in this life is based on haptic experience.
I’m aware that there are countless facts of the universe that are very real even though no one can see them: laws of mathematics, laws of logic, the Law of Morality, consciousness/soul, aesthetic value, the whole host of scientific laws and the scientific method itself. People fight and die over things they can’t see all the time: justice, protecting the weak, freedom.
Yet, I’ve never tried to love justice or freedom. I’ve never put my trust and faith and love in the laws of logic or mathematics. I believe they are very true. In fact, we all take them for granted on a daily basis. We assume they are true, and we must.
Yet, I don’t have to love them.
This is also the problem with historical figures. It would be impossible for me to say with any sanity that I love George Washington or Winston Churchill. They are dead. I might appreciate what they did or love what they stood for. But, in no way would I say that I love them now. I can’t have a love relationship with a dead person.
And this is where the Christian faith makes a fundamental shift with every other religion. Mohammad is dead. Mahavira is dead. Kong fu tze is dead. Moses is dead. David Koresh is dead. Jesus is not dead; He is alive.
But why can’t I see Him? Because the risen Jesus is present as Spirit among His people (Rom 8:11). And this is where my heart begins to falter. Remember my confession? It’s hard for me to love something I can’t see, yet Christianity teaches that the risen Jesus is present in a form that is invisible. CS Lewis, as usual, helps me here:
“Do not be worried or surprised if you find [the Spirit] rather vaguer or more shadowy in your mind than the other two [Persons of the Trinity]. I think there is a reason why that must be so. In the Christian life you are not usually looking at Him: He is always acting through you. If you think of the father as something “out there,” in front of you, and the of the Son as someone standing at your side, helping you to pray, trying to turn you into another son, then you have to think of the third Person as something inside you, or behind you. . . God is love, and that love works through men—especially through the whole community of Christians. But this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and Son.”
Christianity teaches that the Holy Spirit of the risen Jesus is invisible and life-giving (1 Cor 15:45). The Spirit, if you’d like to think of it this way, is Jesus’ personality. Those characteristics of Jesus while He walked on the Earth—His power over evil and sickness, His ability to calm storms and bring peace, His ability to take upon Himself the people’s yokes of burden and give them rest, His ability to bring forgiveness and wholeness, His ability to bring judgment and wrath to injustice and abuse, His ability to reveal new truths concerning the reign of God, and His ability to love people unconditionally—are still just as active and real. That is, the resurrected Jesus has the same personality and character as when He was bound to space and time in His mortal body. He still has it. He still, right now, is capable of doing the same things. His character has not changed one bit. He does also have a resurrected body, but that body is corporeal in a way for which there is no modern analogy. In any case, it is His Spirit at work in the community of faith that is the main focus of the New Testament authors, not His resurrected body.
And here is where I realize that I’m being hypocritical (at least it’s unintentional!): I don’t love people because I see them. I love people because I know their personality. I love people’s character. I love their senses of humor, their spirits (see how easy it is to use “spirit” to convey what we mean?) of generosity, their loving-kindness, and many other features of persons. I love what my wife looks like, but I love her because I know her character.
Of course I love when someone serves me. I can see a person serve me. That is, I can love the action of service. But I can think of no one that I love simply because s/he serves me. I’ve never once left a restaurant saying to my wife, “Wow. I think I love our waiter.”
I love a person because of his/her personality and character.
And this is a great realization. A person’s physical characteristics have nothing to do with my loving a person. Of course, in my limited experience, a person’s personality has always been bound up with a person’s body. That is, I’ve only met other souls when I’ve met their bodies first. And now perhaps you can give me mercy. Perhaps you can see now how easy it was for me to confuse loving a person’s bodily presence with loving a person’s personality or character.
So it is with Christianity. The risen Jesus’ Spirit, my sisters and brothers in Christ, is alive and well, right now, working “behind the scenes” all over the world through His people. Perhaps an analogy will help.
At Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, no young person would ever guess what Disney World really was. My children don’t see fabricated buildings painted with primary colors in order to attract their attention, fans in the stores that actually blow the smell out into the streets, dressed-up teenagers in costumes pretending to be princesses and princes, and huge, elaborate tunnel systems that undergird the entire park which allow servants to travel expeditiously and surreptitiously to any location. From the exterior, based on face-value, things look perfect and all connected in a systematic fantasy. That is, they have no idea that behind it all lays a grand design and intentionality. Moreover, underneath it all, Disney workers are active running to and fro, manipulating the entire process: changing clothes, bringing in supplies, and exchanging shifts. They just appear from out of nowhere in stores and behind buildings. If you’re not careful (and who wants to be?), you’d forget how the whole show has been designed and being run from the inside out, not from the outside in. The fantasy works best, you see, when you just focus on the exterior and forget what you know about how it all works.
That’s my problem. Day in and day out, I focus on the exterior of life. I smell the wind, see the sights, and focus on the physical nature of life. It takes very careful attention to focus on the “behind the scenes.” When I do, I realize that this is the life of the divine realm. The Spirit is behind the scenes, under, above, and through us all, working on an elaborately designed reality in order to get what He wants. And unlike the Disney workers in the tunnels below, the Spirit is not bound by time. It travels in and around us outside of time. It takes Him no time to move from person to person.
You and I can meet the living Jesus via His Spirit today. We meet Him every single time we really, honestly, worship together. We meet Him in the Eucharist. We meet Him when we serve each other (because His servant attitude is coming through). We meet Him in prayer. We meet Him when we read the Bible. We meet Him when we meet other saints who have been formed into His image more than we. We meet Him when He speaks to us. Did you really think that idea to “read your Bible” was your idea?
Being made into the image of the Son (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18) means that we are being infused with His personality and character. This is how any change in character occurs. We change into the people we admire. This is why picking righteous mentors is so crucial. Give it time and you’ll end up acting like those you emulate. It happens over time and, often times, without conscious decision. We slowly pick up their speech patterns, their accents, their taste in music and movies, their tastes in food, and their sense of humor. Transformation happens like this for both sides: good and evil.
This is why we must be really certain that we actually want what we ask for when we pray. Receiving the character and personality of Jesus means that the silly, prideful self we are so used to must be killed first. This is why repentance hurts so much. It also means we must really focus on this Person we keep meeting over and over, no matter how often we ignore or excuse those thoughts. We cannot forget: the risen Jesus is extremely interested in redeeming us by infusing His personality and character into us. That is, if we really want it, we have the staggering capacity to be participants of the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4).
I’m committing to get past the physical. I want to love Him with all my heart, mind, strength, and soul. I want to love you as much as I love myself.
And now I want to go to Disney World.