Happy are Those who Love – Part 1

Maximus Confessor

“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.

The “O” Word

monk praying

“By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (NAB John 15:8-14).

Christian charity, or love, is how one “abides” or “remains” in our Lord Jesus Christ and through Him the Father (1 John 3:24). From the mouth of our Lord Jesus comes a new commandment of love. It is the commandment of the new covenant par excellence, but it is really an ancient law, which God created for His sons and daughters to walk in (1 John 2:7).

St. Paul even places love above faith in his first letter to the Corinthians! “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (NAB 1 Cor. 13: 13).

Why is love so important?

First of all, God is love itself (1 john 4:7). And through love, Christians share in the very divine life of the blessed Trinity! Love is the currency of the Divine economy encapsulated in the person of Jesus Christ, particularly in His death, burial and resurrection.

Not only is love the essence of the drama of salvation, but it is the telos, the fulfillment of the Christian life. In the first letter of St. John, we see that the love of God is “perfected” in the Christian through obedience:

“By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and  the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to live [just] as he lived” (NAB 1 John 2:3-6).

We read in this letter of St. John and in his Gospel passage cited at the beginning, that there is a reciprocal relationship between the perfection of love within the Christian and being obedient to the commands of Christ. Oh my, St. John used the “O” word…obedience.

In fact, St. John says that we Christians know God (i.e., know that we are in “union” with Him) if we keep His commandments. If we obey Christ, then the love of God is “perfected” in us, and we know that we are in right relationship with Him.

The opposite would also be true. If we do not obey Christ’s commandments, then God’s love is not perfected in us, and we are not in a right relationship with Him. St. John says that such a person is a liar, and the truth is not in them (1 John 2:4). Mere intellectual belief in Jesus without obedience means an individual does not have the Truth in them.

Jesus has even harsher words about what happens when a Christian does not abide in Him:

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned” (NAB John 15:5-6).

“Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer presents two statements that must be held together in tension: (1) only he who believes obeys; and (2) only he who obeys believes (1995, p. 63ff). This is the difficult truth to live out in a life of discipleship. The Christian journey requires the interdependence of faith and love.

In our modern world, particularly in the West, there is an easy-believism of faith but not a lot of obedience. This is because the Church has swallowed the rationalist kool-aid of faith as a mere intellectual belief instead of faith as trust, as faith infused with soul-transforming love.

Love requires action…

We frequently find it difficult to obey anyone or anything. It is seen as a weakness, a loss of power or rights to live as we want to live. When our lives are comfortable and we fall under the trap of believing that we can control our environment, it is difficult to follow the high bar of following Jesus. Oftentimes, this mindset sets in very slowly and innocently over the course of our lives. A jolt is sometimes needed to wake us from our cushy slumber of comfortable Christianity.

In Matthew 19:16-22, a rich young man approaches Jesus with a question about salvation. It captures the struggle of meeting the cost of discipleship:

“Now someone approached him and said, ‘Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?’ He answered him, ‘Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He asked him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus replied, ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, ‘All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (NAB Matt. 19:16-22)

The rich young man was indeed sad because he could not meet the demands Jesus placed upon him. However, one thing Bonhoeffer points out about this particular story is that Jesus created the opportunity where obedience was possible (1995, p. 79). Jesus cuts through the barriers in all of our lives so that obedience to His call is achievable, but inevitably we find a way to get around the call of Christ to what Bonhoeffer calls “single-minded obedience.” Here is how Bonhoeffer says a scenario of spiritual dodge ball might happen:

“‘It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions. Jesus may have said ‘sell thy goods,’ but he meant: ‘Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not” (1995, p. 80).

Bonhoeffer distinguishes between this mature form of spiritual “detachment” (perhaps what the desert fathers and mothers would call apetheia) and the initial act of single-minded obedience. Being spiritually detached from the barriers to faith in our lives is what Bonhoeffer calls the “ultimate possibility” in the Christian life and is paradoxical in nature (1995, 82). However, many Christians are not spiritually mature enough to hold this paradox in their lives. What frequently happens is that the Christian just continues in their entrapment.

The more fundamental step in discipleship is single-minded obedience. It is the step where Jesus makes faith and obedience possible. In the Christian life, single-minded obedience to the call of Jesus is where one should focus their attention on and resign their will to. Do not skip over single-minded obedience for the paradoxical level of inner detachment from external goods. Open your heart and soul to divine love, participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), and obey the call and commandments of Jesus. Only then will your faith be fully brought to fruition.