What is true love?

“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Our Lord makes it sound easy – too easy, really. We only need to follow these two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. What could be more simple? Who needs all of those complicated rules about: what to do, what not to do, how to do the things that you ought to do, how not to do the things that you ought not to do? (PAUSE) However, while our Lord does in fact propose something that is radically simple, He never said that He was proposing something easy.

Another important misconception of our Lord’s two-fold command – love God and love neighbor – is that we often see these two injunctions as separate. We might see it this way: There are some things I do to love God, like going to Mass each and every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligations (like All Saints Day this Wednesday!). Then, there are things I do to love my neighbor, like feeding the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless. However, this would not really be sufficient. It is not enough to see your neighbor merely as a charity case, and it is not enough to love God merely on your own. These two commandments – loving God and loving neighbor – are tightly interwoven in the fabric of a genuinely Christian life. Neither can truly be fulfilled without fulfilling the other.

We heard from the Law given by God to Moses in the first reading that we are not to wrong widows and orphans, or to extort the poor by charging them interest, or to oppress aliens (not green Martians, of course, but rather immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution). Indeed, God promises some harsh punishments for those who profit from the poverty of others: “[T]hen your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”

Why, though, does God have such powerful concern for widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor? His concern for aliens, particularly, seems to go against the basic Jewish tribalism that is rampant in the Old Testament, which led them to be concerned for their own good and not with other nations. God teaches us that we are called to love others not just as charity cases, but rather to love them because of the love that we have for Him, to love Him in our neighbor.

Loving our neighbor, after all, is not always easy. Sometimes it comes with a pretty significant cost. Maybe that cost is the inconvenience suffered by the Good Samaritan, or an economic cost, or the cost of emotional vulnerability in being willing to listen to the concerns of others, to show them that someone cares. When we see God in our neighbor, loving him or her becomes not only easier, but also all the more necessary. If you choose not to love our neighbor, you are choosing not to love God.

Up to this point, we can all probably agree without any serious objections. Even to someone who does not believe in God, an idea like loving God in others is relatively harmless. However, what would be a bit more controversial is the following: Just like loving God without loving our neighbor would not be true love, loving our neighbor for his or her own sake is also insufficient. Rather, just as we must love God in our neighbor, we must love our neighbor in God. Without love of God, our love of neighbor would be incomplete.

Without the love of God, any human love is incomplete. Actually, it is worse than that: human love without God’s love is not true love at all. It is possessiveness, use, or lust. If we do not love our neighbor in God, we do not truly love him or her at all, because we have made of him or her an idol to worship instead of God. This is the case when someone loves something good – a spouse, family, or friends, for example – more than God. Even things that are very, very good, such as a spouse or a family, can become an idol that separates you from God if you do not love that person in God.

Okay, so what does it mean, then, to love someone in God? Is that not just meaningless theological mumbo jumbo? No, absolutely not, but I will admit that it is a bit abstract, so let’s look at some examples of what this might mean. First, though, when we think about loving someone in God, we could think of it as loving him or her into God. That is, you love another person in God when your love brings that person closer to God.

We have an example of this today in St. Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians. Paul tells the Christians at Thessalonica that they have become imitators of the Lord “with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers.” We too should strive to be such model believers, and we should see our efforts to do so as an act of true charity – genuine, Christian love – for others.

Unfortunately, loving others is often reduced to “acceptance.” To love another person, the secular world would say, means to accept that person just as he or she is, allowing him or her to make their own decisions, such as what he believes is right or wrong, what his or her sexual orientation might be, or – reaching what must be the final frontier of self-determination – what his or her preferred pronouns are. Let’s look at two commonly accepted examples of love to see if they stack up to this standard:

The love of parents for their children is universally accepted as one of the dearest forms of love. Scripture asks, “Will a mother ever forget her child?” Yet if a child decides that her bath does not conform to her identity, will her mother choose acceptance over hygiene? Of course not. Her mother wants the good for her. Here we see another important element of true love in God: the love of benevolence, the love of desiring the good for another.

The love of a husband and a wife for each other is another universally recognized standard for true love. This love is founded not just on sentimentality, but upon their joint resolution to spend the rest of their lives in a loving, committed, and fruitful relationship. We know, though, that marriage, like all the sacraments, exists to make us holy. Sometimes, beginning married life makes the flaws of one’s spouse all the more apparent. A certain amount of the time, the married couple must learn patience and long-suffering when faced with slight character flaws, but should they merely accept when the other is rude or neglectful? No! Love is more than mere acceptance of the other person. True love in God desires that the beloved continue to grow in virtue. Likewise, our Lord, when he welcomed sinners, always told them, “Go, and sin no more!” True love does not want the beloved to suffer in sin, but rather that he might be converted and live. Desiring the good for another means that you love the other person too much not to speak about their destructive behaviors, rather than giving into the shallow love of acceptance.

This idea of acceptance, though, has begun to dominate how must people think about love. Parents, pay attention to the media that your children are consuming! They are absolutely bombarded with false ideas and images of love.

True love, loving the other in God, leads to true joy. If we want to convince the world that God’s version of love is the true one – love that loves God in neighbor and loves our neighbor into God – we need to be like the early Christians at Thessalonica praised by St. Paul as model believers, filled with the joy of the Spirit. Christians in our own day and age have a bad reputation as prudish and judgmental. We have to change that reputation – not by changing what we believe, but by changing the way we act towards others. Everything we do must be motivated by love. Even if we cannot accept the behavior of a person that he or she mistakenly thinks is essential to his or her identity, we must approach that person with love. I think that one of the most important ways we do this is by listening. So many people believe that they have never really been heard by the Church or by Christians, so we need to begin by listening. Love always listens. It does not have to agree, but it does have to listen.

Part of this perception, though, if we are honest, is going to be inevitable. Even if we preach the truth with perfect charity, listening to others with love and compassion, some people are still going to perceive us as unloving. That is part of why changing the Church’s teaching is not going to help, because there will always be a new frontier for the false love of acceptance. Most people who cease practicing Catholicism because of the Church’s moral teachings do not start going to churches that align with their moral beliefs; they just stop going to church all together. Changing the Church’s teachings will not even begin to solve this problem, but true love will.

Those Thessalonians praised by St. Paul for their joy in the faith knew something about these trials. St. Paul says that they “became imitators of … the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that [they] became a model for all the believers.” It was actually in a time of affliction that the Christians at Thessalonica received and accepted God’s truth and became filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Certainly these, my brothers and sisters, are times of affliction for God’s Holy Church, but like the Christians at Thessalonica, we must face these afflictions with joy. God does not need any more dour defeatists; he has plenty of those already. Rather, He needs you to be the sort of Christian who loves the truth with the conviction of joy. This joy is what has the power to inspire others to believe that the truths we profess are not simply controlling intolerance, but rather a path to true happiness.

True love, then, is not feelings, is not sentiment, is not shallow acceptance. True love is working for the good for the other, a good that will reach its fulfillment only in God.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
XXX Sunday through the Year
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen, Ind.