On the 14th of January, 1982, Americans were glued to their television sets, watching with baited breath the unfolding rescue of passengers from a plane that crashed into the frozen Potomac River near the city of Washington, D.C. Normally, under similar life-threatening circumstances, people are gripped by panic, and everyone thinks only of saving oneself. Passengers commenced to jump from the crashed airplane onto the nearest ice-floes of the semi-frozen river, but soon a helicopter arrived and lowered a special basket on ropes to pick up the stranded people. It was at this stage that the viewing public saw something totally unexpected: One of the passengers on the ice began to assist others to clamber into the helicopter’s basket.
The recovery procedure was quite slow, as the helicopter had to discharge its human cargo onto the riverbank before returning for its next load. Meanwhile, the unidentified individual continued to help his fellow passengers scramble into the dangling cradle. Finally, when the helicopter arrived to airlift the last person on the ice, namely, the unknown hero, he was gone . . . apparently he had slipped and fallen into the icy water. He perished while helping others. While his name still remains unknown, the rescued passengers will always remember him with deep gratitude. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).
This and other examples of bravery and self-sacrifice prompt us to ponder on the nature and source of this noble emotion that we call love. It is easily understandable that people in the grip of fear will save themselves at the expense of others. Under these circumstances, they are controlled by the prevailing feeling of self-preservation, which exists in every living creature. But where does the self-sacrificing love come from? After all, it directly contradicts the fundamental evolutionary principle of the survival of the fittest at the expense of the weakest.
In this work, as far as is possible, we will attempt to fathom the nature of this mysterious spiritual force and discuss its attributes.
Stairway to Heaven
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God . . . for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
On the lower levels of life forms – in the world of microbes, where the merciless battle for existence reigns supreme – everything appears logical and intelligible. In contrast, self-denial and love are nothing but extraordinary and mysterious contradictions to the blind instinct of self-preservation.
Paradoxically, the higher the developed state of an animal on the ladder of existence, the more frequent are observed instances of self-sacrifice or manifestations of gentle, altruistic feelings. Sometimes this is expressed through mutual help among animals of the same species. As an example, wolves and lions live as family units and hunt in packs. Males and females share their responsibilities in caring for their young and at times exhibit very tender feelings among themselves. If on the lower levels of life some animals exhibit savagery, as, for example, a crocodile consuming its young or a fish consuming its roe during a famine, on the higher levels of animal life, the love of a mother reaches total self-sacrifice.
Here of course it can be said that such altruistic behavior is essential for the continuation of the species and therefore can also be rationalized within the parameters of the laws of evolution.
However, on the highest level of existence, humans can attain noble heights of such munificence and self-abnegation that are impossible to explain by biological-evolutionary principles.
Indeed, human beings are capable of sacrificing themselves not only for the good of their children but for total strangers – for example, to dispense their own resources to the hungry, care for orphans, attend to the sick, look after ailing individuals stricken with contagious diseases
From such altruistic activities, these people not only receive no personal gain but place themselves in such a position that not only their well-being but their very lives are threatened.
Moreover, humans are capable of loving their enemies – people that in principle are dangerous to them. This runs totally contrary to the laws of nature and self-preservation.
A deeper examination of the mysteries of existence reveals that the ascension on the ladder of life from the microbe to the more developed animals to, finally, human beings progresses not only along the lines of physical completeness and increasing intellect but more so along those of “spirituality” and altruism. The most remarkable aspect of this is that the process of perfection of these attributes is not confined to our physical world but crosses over into the realm of angels and finally culminates at the feet of the highest Being and Creator of everything, whom we call God!
Indeed, the greater the development of a creature, the greater its ability to love. Accordingly, it becomes apparent that if the principle of self-preservation flows from blind physical laws, then the wonderful capability to love is essentially a non-physical attribute. It is something that we acquire as we come closer to Him that is Perfection and inexplicable Love: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).
Consequently, genuine improvement consists not only in the development of one’s intellect and spirituality but also more specifically in the improvement of oneself in unselfish love.
In this context, the highest example can be seen in Jesus Christ. Being the Son of God and dwelling in unreachable glory, He left His marvelous world and entered into our “valley of tears” to share with us our burdens and sorrows. He suffered so that we would be liberated from suffering. He died so that we could have life. “But God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… for if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:8-10).
And so our capacity to love cannot be deduced from physical laws. Love is a characteristic from our Creator, Who implanted it in us together with His image and likeness. God endowed animals with the capacity to love to a certain degree because He predestined man to be the representative of both worlds (physical and spiritual) and this made the transition from lower to higher life smooth and sequential. In giving us this greater ability to love, God elevated us above the rest of the creation and joined us to the spiritual world.
However, movement on the ladder of moral improvement can lead not only upward toward God but also downward toward the deadening of spiritual attributes and the dissipation of benevolent feelings. Thus, it is possible to sink from selfless, Christian love to a stage of the lower animals and insects, where the battle for survival reigns supreme… and this is not the bottom. Lower still can be found the unnatural environment of animosity and hatred. A person who distances himself away from God immerses himself into the abyss of demonic evil – the abyss of a stupid and mindless urge to destroy and demolish.
If the feeling of love warms, builds, and brings life, then hatred demolishes, injures, and destroys. The most frightening aspect of this is that the more people resemble demons in their behavior, the more they begin to experience sadistic pleasure in their actions that bring pain to others. At the same time, the slaying of others does not produce any direct benefit, as for example in the world of microbes, where one eats the other for the sake of survival. Here, the aim is the actual process of derision and destruction. This is a frightening satanical gorge, a black hole from which it is impossible to break free.
That is why Christ calls upon us to struggle with all our might against our evil inclinations and compel ourselves to love everyone, including our enemies. Although common sense and practical reasoning might tell us that one should stand up for oneself and resolutely resist our foe, for the sake of our own spiritual health it would be more correct to respond to malice with love. We must learn how to sacrifice temporary gains for eternal rewards. Let people look upon us as being strange. The next world will reveal who was truly wise.
Our Lord, knowing how hard it is to go against the obvious and to conquer our base instincts toward our enemies, gives assistance by commanding us to pray for them. Prayer possesses enormous spiritual power. In the first place, it helps us to overcome our evil feelings that lead into the pits of hatred. Secondly, prayers for an enemy can help him realize his error and prompt him to return to the true path. In this way, by saving him and ourselves, we can participate in the great enterprise of saving mankind, for the sake of which our Lord Jesus Christ came down to Earth.
Consequently, each time we sacrifice a personal gain and self-satisfaction while manifesting love toward others, we ascend one rung closer to God.
People value achievements in sport, sciences, and the arts. However, improving one’s ability to love is a higher and more authentic form of perfection. Therefore, let us ask God to teach us how to love, especially Him – our Creator and Savior.
Mysterious Nature of Love
What is love? How can we define this feeling that contains so much diversity both in its elements and intensity? For example, when we say, “I love hot coffee with milk,” or, “I love my children,” we express very different feelings. In the first case we are simply declaring our preference for something that gives us pleasure; in the second, our parental attachment to our loved ones.
While our love for God flows from our feelings of gratitude and veneration toward Him, our love for the unfortunate – orphans, for instance – stems from our emotions of pity and compassion. Love between husband and wife emerges from totally distinct feelings that are biologically based. Again, the benevolent emotions of love for family and for one’s own people or country embody completely disparate qualities. Naturally, one form of love does not exclude another form. It is possible to love a person’s outward appearance as well as his inner qualities and at the same time feel sorry for him.
In the main, love comes naturally, as though by itself. It is easy to love someone who is pleasant or has performed a good deed for us. However, to love an offensive person or one who has inflicted an unpleasantness on us requires an internal effort.
If the word “love” expresses so many different feelings, perhaps it follows that we should describe it in different terms. The Greek language has these distinctions under three designations: the word “eros,” meaning physical, inclined toward the flesh; the word “filia,” denoting feelings of friendship; and “agape,” elevated, spiritual love. Also, the language does not allow these words to be intermixed.
Nevertheless, even in all the variety of appearances in which love can be expressed, among them they have something that is mutual and unifying. This common thread is the pleasant, joyous, and bright feeling that both the giver and receiver encounter through the expressions of love. Leibnitz defined love as “a jubilant feeling, emerging from the happiness of a relative.” The substance of love’s nature is incomprehensible: It is like a visitor from that ideal and magnificent world toward which our soul subconsciously reaches out yet finds its fullness and perfection inaccessible at this time.
Another remarkable trait of love is its ability to establish a mysterious connection, as if erecting an invisible bridge between loved ones so that their feelings and thoughts begin to communicate with one another – and what’s more, spontaneously and over long distances. Who hasn’t sensed the feelings of joy or sorrow of a loved one as though they were your own? This uniting nature of love is well illustrated in the individuals Jonathan and David described in the book of I Samuel in the Bible. Being the son of a king, Jonathan enjoyed all the luxuries of life. However, nothing satisfied him while his friend David was in danger: “He loved David like his own soul” and was prepared for any sacrifice in order to help him (1 Sam. ch. 20).
Love also possesses a power of attraction and edification. This is best witnessed in the mutual attraction between two lovers. The Bible often quotes examples of love between a bride and groom as a love similar to that between God and righteous people. The whole book The Song of Solomon (ostensibly written by King Solomon) is dedicated to the theme of love:
“Set me as a seal upon thine heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love;
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
Its flames are a blazing fire.
deep waters cannot quench love,
Nor floods sweep it away.
were one to offer all he owns to purchase love,
He would be roundly mocked” (Sol. 8:6-7).
In order to ransom Rachel, Jacob worked for her father Laban for another seven years after marrying Leah – and did this with great joy, for his love for her was very strong (Gen. ch. 29). Samson’s love for Delilah appears as an outstanding example of the all-consuming power of this emotion (Judges ch. 16).
In general, love is a marvelous feeling, even on a most incomplete level. The first reflections of love can be observed in the kingdom of unintelligent creatures. Natural or instinctive love is based on mutuality and is nurtured by outward expressions of favors, ministrations, and enjoyment. It appears in the form of love within families, tribes, friendships, and human society. It brings people together and unites them into a society.
If God Himself is love, then obviously His Kingdom in Heaven is saturated with and breathes of love. Like the sun’s rays, this love fills everything with harmony and joy.
Unfortunately, our divided world is far from this perfection, and in many of us this heavenly emotion is in an inchoate and weakened condition. Sometimes, because of our inexperience or wickedness, love may take a wrong direction, bringing more harm than good. At times our love is very weak and does not progress beyond a good feeling. Should someone close to us sustain some grief that really demands our sympathy and help – here, then, our love seemingly evaporates and we turn away. The greatest obstacles to love are egoism and vanity, with which each of us is infected to a greater or lesser degree. As Christ predicted of the people in the last days: “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12).
If we do not restrain and direct our physical urges, they may take the form of shameless animal lusts, which have nothing to do with genuine love. There is a well-known occurrence in the Bible of the strong but unchaste love for Tamar by Amnon, the son of David. Inflamed with lust for his half-sister, Amnon could find no peace. He lost all interest in life, stopped eating, and lost weight. Eventually, cunningly enticing her into his quarters, he overpowered her. And what resulted? Having satisfied his lust, he later felt repugnance toward her without whom “he could not live,” and in fact he drove her away. “Then Amnon hated her with an exceedingly great hatred: so that the hatred wherewith he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her before” (2 Sam. 13:15).
In order for love to be firm, it has to be based on such feelings as trust, respect, friendship… It is hard to love someone whom you don’t respect and don’t trust. It is good to have mutual interests and ideals.
Parental love also requires the processes of directing and spiritually cleansing. It’s not good for parents to make their children little “gods” – to indulge their vagaries and not curb their bad inclinations. Used to being the center of attraction, these children often grow up pampered and are not adapted to everyday living with people. The Bible provides us with the high-priest Eli as a good example of a father’s excessive “love.” He never restrained his sons when they were doing something improper. Having become priests themselves and their father’s helpers in the temple, they offended people who came to pray or bring their offerings to God. Eli saw this yet made no attempt to stop them or change their behavior. Eventually, God punished not only the two sons but also the high-priest Eli himself, by denying him descendants who would have been able to serve in the temple (1 Sam. Ch. 2, 4).
This and other like examples prove that love requires self-discipline and spiritual direction, otherwise even the most benevolent feelings can lead to tragic results. The other deficiency in our love is that, arising within us through natural and altruistic causes, it is not constant and is imperfect.
How can we not love those whom we like and who are favorably disposed toward us? This type of instinctively natural love requires no effort and does not produce any spiritual growth. Therefore, “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the heathen do so” (Matt. 5:46-47).
However, God wants our feeling of love to be perfected, to become strengthened within us, and to draw us closer to Him in order to achieve this:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, . . . bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends Rain on the just and unjust . . . Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:44-48; Luke 6:27-36).
Such perfect Christian love does not come about by itself. First of all, it demands internal effort, and secondly, help from the Holy Spirit. Because people have not as yet been restored spiritually and are therefore incapable of reaching this high level, God calls it the New Commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles often summon us to love one another because love is the distinguishing characteristic of a true Christian: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8) Here, the standard of perfection depends upon our level of unselfishness and self-abnegation: The purer and stronger our love, the greater our willingness to help our loved one – to the extent of total self-denial and sacrificing one’s life. Christ has this to say about it: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:12-14).
That the ability to love with a pure Christian love comes specifically from the Holy Spirit is witnessed by the Apostle Paul: “the fruit of the Spirit is love” (Gal. 5:22). The wonderful characteristic of the first Christian community was their strong mutual love, given through the recent descent of the Holy Spirit upon them:
“Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the Apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them Who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the Apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need” (Acts 4:32-35).
The distinctive indications of love can clearly be observed in the state of mind of the faithful: joy, inner enlightenment, spiritual uplift, and the mutuality of feelings (when the happiness or sorrow of one is assimilated by others as their own). If these symptoms are felt rarely and feebly on the lower levels of spiritual development, then on higher planes they emerge with all their power and clarity.
It is important to remember that genuine Christian love is not a normal attribute of our nature but is granted by the Holy Spirit to those who seek and achieve it. St. Macarius had this to say on the unseen workings of the Holy Spirit’s blessing in the heart of a Christian: “Just like a bee builds a honey-comb in its hive, unseen by the human eye, so does grace secretly build its love in the heart of a person, changing bitterness to sweetness and a cruel heart to a beneficent one. And as a master silversmith forming a filigree on a plate slowly covers it with a pattern and shows it in all its beauty only after he has completed his work, so in like manner, our true Artisan the Lord embellishes our hearts with a filigree, mysteriously renovating them until such time as we transmigrate out of our bodies, revealing the beauty of our soul” (The Philiokalia, Russian edn. v.1).
While physical love requires encouragement and outward pleasant reasons to be strengthened, spiritual love needs no outside conditions; it gets there through God’s mysterious way and draws the person’s heart toward the Primary Source. Consequently, a person who abounds in love, feels a growing thirst for communion with God. If sometimes physical love is strong and impels a person to take a big step for a loved one, how immeasurably stronger can be that spiritual love that draws toward God. It is this love that motivated many faithful to give away their wealth to the needy, leave their families and favorable positions in society, and dedicate their lives to God.
Experiencing a strong surge of this love, the Apostle Paul wrote:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).
Many righteous people were conversant with similar types of emotions. For example, Macarius the Great describes this condition in the following manner: “A soul that genuinely loves God, even though it has performed thousands of good deeds, because of its unfulfilled yearning for God, considers itself as having done nothing. Although it has debilitated its body through fasting and labors, it thinks that it has not begun to accumulate good deeds; even though it has attained the honor of having various spiritual gifts, of revelation, of heavenly mysteries, because of its immense love for God, it deems that it has acquired nothing” (The Philokalia, Russian ed., v. 1).
Hence, the ability to love is implanted in us by our Creator. It is on this feeling that all forms of family and societal life are based. Love brings people together, encourages them to do good for one another, gives them vigor, joy, and an aim in life. However, just natural love is insufficient. In order to succeed in this divine feeling, one has to compel oneself to love those that are disliked by us or those that cause us hurt. This spiritual love will lead us along the path of improvement toward our Primary Source – God. However, it must be remembered that without the grace of the Holy Spirit, our damaged nature is incapable of pure love.
Because of this, let us ask and implore God to increase the Christian love within us. For only through possession of this treasure in our hearts will we be able to regard material blessings with apathy and indifference – but more importantly, we will comprehend and actually feel with great clarity that communion with God is the highest form of benevolence and joy.
Remembering the One Who Loved Us
“Therefore be imitators of God
as dear children” (Eph. 5:1).
The outstanding nature of God is Love (1 John 4:8). God is a limitless, all-encompassing and life-giving sea of love. From the largest to the smallest, everything in existence – visible and invisible, including every molecule in our being – is the work of His incomprehensible love and wisdom. Consequently, it is natural to expect that our daily need must be a ceaseless thanksgiving to our Creator – and not only for evoking us from non-existence by giving us life, but for His continuous fatherly caring for our welfare.
In need of no one, through His surfeit of goodness, God created us so that we could be in communion with Him in eternal life and ecstasy. His fatherly love unfolds with particular distinctiveness in the concern shown in establishing our human nature and the surroundings in which He intended us to settle. It would appear that mankind requires very little to survive and could have been limited to the bare daily essentials. However, through His generosity, God created this immense universe, containing countless galaxies and star systems in all their vastness and splendor that fascinates the mind and delights the heart. Who is worthy enough to competently describe the beauty of God’s creation and do justice to it – the azure of the sky and the invigorating warmth of the sun, the immensity of the seas and grandeur of the mountain ranges, the vastness of the plains and the whiteness of the snow, the fragrance of grasses and flowers, the singing of birds, the bubbling of a brook?!
Just like a benevolent mother who is concerned for her children, our Creator has enriched our world with countless varieties of sustenance that strengthen and give us satisfaction, and with a diversity of plants to treat illnesses and fortify our health. In a word, all that is around us, right down to an insignificant blade of grass, is witness to the generosity and fatherly care of our Creator!
That is why learned thinkers and philosophers derived their brightest ideas in contemplating nature, while sensitive poets, composers, and writers, inspired by its beauty, created their works of genius, as exemplified by some of Lermontov’s poetry:
When the yellowing wheat field ripples,
And the fresh forest rustles before the sound of the Breeze,
And a raspberry-colored plum hides
Under the shade of a delightful green leaf.
When, sprinkled with fragrant dew,
In the glowing evening or in the golden hour of morning
From under a shrub the silvery lily of the valley
Affably nods its head to me.
When a very cold stream plays along the ravine,
And, a thought, submerging in some vague dream or Other,
Babbles to me a mysterious saga
About a peaceful land from where it is rushing.
Then the uneasiness of my soul is subdued,
Then the wrinkles on my brow scatter,
And I perceive happiness on Earth,
And in Heaven I see God.
M. Lermontov (1814 – 1841).
Translated by Dimitry J. Hicks Hloboschin 8/XII/1999
And it is not only humans but everything that is gifted with life that feels the need to praise our Creator for His wisdom and benevolence, as witnessed by the visionary John, who heard the Heavenly dwellers sing the hymn: “You are worthy, O Lord, To receive Glory and honor and power; For You created all things. And by Your Will they exist and were created,” and wrote that “every creature which is in the Heaven and on earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb [the Son of God] for ever and ever” (Rev. 4:11, 5:13).
During the Liturgy, as though joining in this universal praise, the priest glorifies God on behalf of all the people, saying:
“It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks unto Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion, for Thou art God inexpressible, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, eternally the same, Thou and Thine only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit. Thou didst bring us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away, didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven, and hadst bestowed upon us Thy kingdom, which is to come. For all these gifts we give thanks unto Thee, and to Thine only-begotten Son, and to Thy Holy Spirit, for all things of which we know and which we know not, for the benefits both revealed and unrevealed, which have been done for us. And we give thanks unto Thee for this service which Thou has accepted from our hands, even though there stand beside Thee thousands of Archangels and ten thousands of Angels, Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed . . .”
Our Lord should be valued not only for His gift of life but also for His constant concern for us and His mercy – not only in the general management of the universe but in every personal event, so that not even the most minor issue in our lives escapes His Fatherly observation, so that even every hair on our head is numbered by Him (Luke 12:6-7).
Acknowledging this through his personal experiences, King David reminded himself:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: Who forgives all thy sins, Who heals all thy diseases; Who redeems thy life from destruction, Who crowns thee with mercy and compassion; Who satisfies thy desire with good things; thy youth will be renewed like an eagle’s . . . The Lord offers mercy and judgment to all who are wronged . . . The Lord is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and of great mercy” (Psalm 103).
The greatest and indeed the most incomprehensible work of mercy, which demands our incessant gratitude to God, is that He sent His only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, so “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
If the first-created people had retained the moral rectitude with which God endowed them, then we as their progeny would not know illnesses, sorrows, misfortunes, or death, but would have eternally enjoyed the life of paradise. All our misfortunes are the result of the original sin of our foreparents as well as our own personal sins. Sin is not just a capricious act, a disobedience, but an insolent insurrection against the Law-giver, and as a consequence it would have been fitting to God to have destroyed those who were contaminated and corrupted. Instead, from the very first day of the fall into sin of our ancestors, He patiently began to direct the fate of humanity toward a virtuous renewal.
The whole period covered by the Old Testament was a time of preparation of the human race for the coming of the Messiah-Savior. This was a long and complicated process of teaching people faith and establishing those essential conditions (that “infrastructure”) that would assist the dissemination of Christianity throughout the whole world.
The fundamental meaning of the Son of God’s sacrificial act of salvation is revealed in a series of parables contained in the New Testament, e.g. of the lost sheep, of the barren fig-tree, of the prodigal son, of the Good Shepherd. Because humanity became lost like a helpless sheep, the Good Shepherd went out to look for it in the hills and deserts. In finding it perishing, He did not leave it but gently lifted it on His shoulders and carried it back. Christ taught us not only the proper way to believe and live, but accepted the heavy burden of our sins, and He personally bore the punishment which we have earned. Oh what unfathomable mercy and love!
And this entire great act of redemption relates not only to our historical past but also to this day; because of His Only Son’s suffering on the Cross, God continues to forgive and renew us spiritually. Even though we violate His commandments daily and offend Him with our sins, He waits patiently in the hope that we will eventually come to our senses. All this, because “God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).
The Elder Silouan writes that Our Lord Jesus Christ’s love for us is so strong that it is beyond our understanding. He loves us as though we were His children, and His love is stronger than that of a mother’s because while a mother occasionally forgets us, our Lord has us in mind always . . . He loves us so much that for our sake He became incarnate and shed His Blood for us and slaked our thirst by It and gave us His most pure Body. Thus, we became His children through His flesh and blood in His physical likeness, just as kindred children resemble their father regardless of age, and the spirit of God gives witness to our spirit that we shall be with Him forever . . .
Because we are inured in sin and steeped in worldly worries, our hearts have become so callous that we often do not notice God’s benevolent works and do not value His Fatherly care.
Indeed, many people have become so attached to all that is earthly and are so involved in their pursuit of worldly satisfactions that they not only do not thank their Creator and Savior, but they also do not even think of Him – as though, for them, God doesn’t even exist.
It is paradoxical that when these people encounter some illness or sorrow in their lives, they instinctively remember His presence. However, they do not recall Him for the purpose of imploring His forgiveness and assistance in escaping their predicament, but with a feeling of rancor: “Why has He punished me so! After all, there are many people who are worse than me living in prosperity, and yet I am being chastised!”
Grumbling against God is an enormous madness and totally unfair in respect to Him Who does everything for our welfare. People themselves have turned away from God, sinning daily, trampling all moral norms, offending one another, and then blame God for the evil that they themselves have sowed. In essence, they are rebuking God for giving us a free will and not interfering in our activities. With great patience, God does not punish, because “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11).
Misfortune in this life is not a form of punishment but a reminder that in this life we are mortal and that we will all one day stand in front of our Judge to answer for our actions – as the Apostle Paul explains: “But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32). And usually, a father’s punishment of his children is not to seek retribution but to enlighten. Even though it hurts him, he punishes because he wishes them well.
The measure of God’s mercy is illustrated in the following Biblical story. When King David sinned, the prophet Gad came and offered to him the choice of one of three punishments: Either the country will suffer three years of famine, or for three months the pursuing swords of his enemies will hang over him, or for three days the Lord’s sword and pestilence will wreak their destruction within the boundaries of Israel. “And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let me fall now into the hand of the Lord; for very great are his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man” (1 Chron. 21:8-14).
In relation to explaining God’s “anger,” St. Anthony the Great gives us this understanding: “God is immutably beneficent. To those who are baffled at how He rejoices in the righteous, turns away from the evil, gets angry at sinners, and when they repent appears in mercy to them, it has to be said that in reality God neither gets angry nor rejoices – these are traits of constrained humans. It is absurd to imagine that because of human actions something would be good or bad for the Deity. God is goodness and creates only good; He does not inflict harm on anyone, being always the same. We, on the other hand, when we are being good, because of our likeness to Him, enter into communion with God, and when we become evil, we distance ourselves from Him through our unlikeness . . . Therefore, to say that God turns away from evildoers is the same as saying that the sun hides from those that have lost their sight” (The Philokalia, v. 1).
Every sorrow and difficulty of life should be viewed as an enlightenment sent to us for our improvement. “Like a mother teaches her infant to walk,” St. John of Kronstadt informs us, “so does our Lord teach us a living faith in Him. A mother will get a child on its feet, walk away herself and call upon it to walk toward her. The infant cries without a mother’s assistance, wanting to go to her yet afraid to take a step, or attempting to come to her, falls over. This is how our Lord teaches a Christian to believe in Him. Our faith is as weak as a child that is learning how to walk. Our Lord leaves a Christian for a time and gives him up to various adversities, and later, when the need arises, He delivers him. Our Lord bids us to look and walk toward Him. The Christian attempts to see our Lord, but untaught in how to look upon Him and afraid to be bold, trips and falls. Yet the Lord is close and is in some way ready to take the feeble Christian into his arms. Therefore, during various woes or the devil’s contrivances, learn how to view your Savior with your heart. Look upon Him boldly as an inexhaustible repository of goodness and ardently implore Him for His help. And instantly, you will receive what you have asked for. Here, the important thing is to have a heartfelt vision of God and a hope in Him as being All Good. This is true from experience! Thus, our Lord teaches us to acknowledge our impotence and have faith in Him.”
Consequently, let us remind ourselves daily how strongly God loves us and how much He has done and is doing for us in order to save us. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32)
From one standpoint, these reminders will strengthen our feelings of gratitude toward God, while from another, they will induce us to improve our treatment of people, in line with what is written: “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children” (Eph. 5:1).
Let us contemplate this phrase: We are insignificant creatures, incapable of emulating God in any way – not His omnipotence, not His omnipresence, not any other of His other Divine traits. At the same time, we can and must follow in the footsteps of His love! And this for us is a great honor. “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Love Toward God and Those Close to Us
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39).
This marvelous statement in its confined, condensed and understandable form imparts the essence of the Holy Bible’s teachings, as explained by our Lord, Jesus Christ: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40).
However, an immediate question arises: What with love being a whole feeling, would it not be simpler to say “Love everyone,” and then everything would lead to a single commandment. As we will see later, love for our Creator must occupy a particularly holy place in our heart so that our love for creation does not turn to idolatry. Indeed, love of God ennobles, directs, and warms all other manifestations of this good feeling.
If all the teaching of Holy Scripture leads toward two short commandments, does it mean that everything else in it is superfluous? Not so, because beneath the simplicity of these commandments, there lies a great depth. To learn how to love truly and genuinely is a science of sciences, for “above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (Col. 3:14). A goal of Scripture amounts to instructing us in how to love correctly and genuinely, both by its teachings applied to different events and by examples from life.
And first of all, we must learn to love God so that this feeling would fill and transform all our being – enlighten our thoughts, warm our heart, direct our will and all our actions – in a word, so that God becomes the most sought after and most important thing in our life. To love those close to you is also important, but not as strongly as you would God and only as you would love yourself.
The following example by Abba Dorotheos illustrates the interrelationship of love for God and love for people: “Let us imagine,” says he, “a large circle. Let us suppose that this circle is our world and the center of it is God and the dots on its periphery are people. Some are closer to the center, i.e., to God; others are further away from Him. They draw closer to the center through the measure of their love for God, and through this same measure they draw near to one another, while in contrast their animosity draws them further away from one another and simultaneously distances them away from God. Such is the nature of love: The measure of our unity to those close to us determines our closeness to God.
Although God abides in an unreachable world, He is near to each and every one of us as our Father and Savior at the same time. That is why we can and must love Him. Here are some concrete examples.
When we love someone, we want to be with our loved one and are tormented when we are apart. Similarly, if we truly love God, then we should find pleasure in having communion with Him. For instance, in praying to Him, we enter with Him into a certain mysterious though sentient and real contact. We can pray anywhere and at any time – alone at home, at work, on the road, and in the midst of nature. Especially in Church, a believing Christian is favored with a special closeness to God, since as God promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). Being in constant communion with God though prayer, a person who believes gradually becomes a temple himself, as the Holy Apostle Paul explains: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who, is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19), and in this way this person is always with the Beloved.
When we love someone, we are afraid to offend him in any way, so that all our words and actions are directed toward obliging him. We should, in a similar manner, condition ourselves to be reverent before God (to fear Him) and in every possible way not to “cause Him grief” by some sinful act or thought. Christ said: “If you love Me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
When we love someone deeply, that person’s welfare and happiness become more important to us than our own. Likewise we should learn to direct all our actions toward the glory of God and in every way to assist the promulgation of His Kingdom of Goodness amongst humanity. “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
To love God is to commit ourselves totally to His will. If some unpleasantness occurs or some tribulation overtakes us, we must believe that God permitted this to happen for the sake of our spiritual benefit and salvation – not only according to the plans of eternity but also because “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). In other words, when in resolute faith we commend ourselves to His will, He turns everything earthly – even human deceptions and misfortunes – to our benefit.
In difficult circumstances, let us remind ourselves that God is love. For sake of us, ungrateful sinners, He even gave over His Only-Begotten Son – “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:15).
Insofar as love is a perceptible and concrete feeling, by examining our thoughts and feelings, we can accurately establish how genuine and strong our love for God is. If, for example, we find pleasure in obscene thoughts or harbor animosity toward someone or are strongly attached to something worldly, or if we find the Holy Gospel boring or are unwilling to pray, this means that our love for God is weak and, possibly, is dying out. Then we have to ascertain whether we have created a temporal idol and are serving him instead of our Creator, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be” (Matt. 6:21).
Initially, our love could be weak and faltering. However, like a spark, if it is genuine and with God’s cooperation, it will increase in intensity and begin to transform our internal world. Parallel to our inner transformation, there will be changes in our understandings, tastes, and senses of values. That which before was interesting and pleasant will begin to look boring and superficial. Instead of the theater, dances, and films, we will begin to prefer a good book or praying in solitude. Money, comfort and various earthly blessings will begin to appear as of secondary importance, but to attend church, partake of Holy Communion, or perform a charitable act will become important and pleasant.
We begin, then, to understand those people who, through their love for God, left their families and all their earthly possessions, dedicating themselves to serving Him. Even greater than this, for the glory of God they voluntarily endured all sorts of humiliation, persecution, beatings, and agonizing death itself. As an example, the Apostle Paul in his younger days was quite affluent and had a brilliant education. As a Roman citizen, all doors were open to him. Notwithstanding all this, he submitted himself to many hardships, persecutions, misfortunes, deprivations, and sorrows for the sake of spreading the Gospel.
The most wonderful thing about this is that he regarded as an honor and privilege that which would have seemed to others a great misfortune:
“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 Thy sake we are killed all day long. We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor Angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love Of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).
This is how great a blaze our love for God can become!
Even when our love for God is not as fervent as reflected in the above, it will nevertheless pour into us fresh spiritual strength. Indeed, it is our love for God that will provide us with the ability to love those that have not earned that love because of their sins, ungratefulness, egotism, pride, capriciousness, rudeness, slyness, invidiousness, etc. . . . This is because a person who loves God has a spiritual vision before him of the One Who “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45) and remembers the One who said:
“For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:46-48, Luke 6:27-36).
This is what Blessed Diadochos wrote about the warming power of love: “When a person senses God’s love, he then begins to love people close to him, and once started – doesn’t stop . . . At a time when physical love can evaporate for the slightest reason, the spiritual – remains. A God-loving soul, being under God’s influence, does not sever the bond of love, even when it is maltreated. This is because the God-loving soul, warmed by its love of God, quickly returns to its former benevolent condition and willingly reestablishes within itself the feeling of love, even though it endured anguish from that person close to it. The bitterness of dissension in it is completely swallowed up by God’s tenderness.”
On the other hand, if we do not love those close to us, it is impossible to truly love God. The Apostle John the Theologian wrote:
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his Brother also” (1 John 4:20-21). “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his Heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not Love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).
All religions recognize the worthiness of love – at the same time, nearly all limit it to those who are pleasant or close to a person. For example, Judaism in the Old-Testament Ohuman interpretation and practice of the Torah clearly taught: “Love thy brother and hate thy enemy” (Matt. 5:43). Only Christianity removes all human barriers and beckons to love everyone unconditionally. To the question as to who is my neighbor, Christ explains through His parable about the Good Samaritan that a neighbor is every person that is in need of help, irrespective of his religious beliefs, nationality, or other traits (Luke 10:25-37).
The distinguishing mark of a Christian should be an all-encompassing love and not an ascetic life or the accurate observance of rituals or a deep understanding of dogmas. As Christ bequeathed to His followers: “By this all will know that you are My Disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
The commandment directs us to love our neighbor as we would ourselves. However, it cannot be said that the ability to love others is directly proportional to the love one has for oneself. Experience shows that the exact opposite occurs: The more a person loves himself, the less able he is to love others. Egoism and self-adulation destroy authentic love: “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold,” said our Lord (Matt. 24:12).
The Blessed Diadochos wrote: “He who loves himself, cannot fully love God, but he who does not love himself by reason of his strong love for God, only he truly loves God. Such a person would never wish glory for himself, but to God only . . . A God-loving soul, filled with Divine feelings, naturally seeks glory solely for God – and for himself, the enjoyment of humility. Due to His greatness, God deserves glory – and man, humility.”
Although a person’s love for himself serves as a measure of his love for his neighbor, nevertheless “Greater love hath no one that this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13; also see Matt. 5:42-48). And here our Savior proves to be the supreme example: “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16-18). On this subject matter, Abba Pimen wrote: “If someone hears an offensive word, and, instead of answering with a like insult, conquers his feelings and stays silent, or, having been cheated, bears it and does not avenge himself, then by this he lays down his soul for his neighbor.”
In contrast to other religions, the concept of loving one’s enemy is the outstanding virtue of Christianity. Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches: “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45). “But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well” (Matt. 5:39-40).
The Old Testament tolerated vengeance (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” Lev. 24:20) because in pre-Christian times people were not spiritually renovated and were incapable of elevating themselves to feelings of all-forgiveness and love for the enemy. A Christian is summoned to crush within himself all malevolent feelings – and this is so important that forgiveness of our sins is conditional on our forgiving our neighbor: “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
Of course, to forgive an enemy requires great internal effort, nobility, and even help from above. At the same time, without a doubt, our relationship with those we regard as our “enemies,” harbors much subjectiveness. Some people are more suspicious and sensitive than others; some are hotheaded, and others, of placid temperament. It is also interesting to note the following truism: The more a person is attached to earthly possessions, the more he is vainglorious, self-centered, proud, and quicker to be offended by others. Contrary to this, the more a person is inclined toward the spiritual and is modest and humble, the easier it is for him to bear insults and the quicker he is to forgive them. Consequently, if we become angry with someone, it would be beneficial for us to determine why we have succumbed to this unhealthy feeling. Doesn’t this indicate that we have something evil in our souls?
Apart from this, when somebody offends or denies us something, it is not a big calamity; after all, everything is temporary in this world. It is far worse for us to carry in our heart the poison of anger because animosity makes us dejected, gloomy, irritable, antagonistic, and incapable of either enjoying life’s blessings or communing with God. Let us imagine that a person was truly malicious toward us. So why poison our lives and ruin our souls? That’s why for the sake of our internal well-being, it is imperative to eject from our being all evil feelings, just as the Gospel states: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). “The life of a heart, explains the righteous John of Kronstadt, is love, and its death – hatred and animosity. That is why God is keeping us here on earth, so that love would totally permeate our hearts: that is the purpose of our existence.”
Sometimes people are afraid to forgive their debtors, so as not to appear stupid and be tormented by them further. We must stand higher than these petty fears, implanted by the devil. Love draws us closer to God and likens us to Him. It carries within itself His all-conquering power. “Love has been so perfected among us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He [Christ] is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us,” writes the Apostle of love (John the Theologian, 1 John 4:17-19).
In one way or another, love for your enemies (factual or imagined) always requires great inner striving. It is indeed for this reason that it is rewarded generously by God. “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). The Holy Fathers advise us: “If you want God to hear your prayer, first pray for your enemy.” Under normal circumstances, both forms of love (for God and for your neighbor) strengthen one another. However, sometimes a sharp conflict may arise when we have to make a choice between being true to God and doing something pleasant for a loved one. In such a situation, one must prefer being faithful to God because, as the Lord said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:37). Even under circumstances in which a person that is dearest to us in the whole world, someone for whom we are willing to sacrifice our life, is propelling us into sin or against the Gospels teachings, we must not yield to him. It is better to lose his good will than to betray God. This type of sacrifice is demanded of us by God, Who said: “And if your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matt. 5:30).
Had Adam not submitted to his wife but remained faithful to God (Gen. ch. 3), then, undoubtedly, there would not be so much evil on earth, and the history of mankind would have progressed along a completely different path.
Many are frightened of love because they feel they are unable to commit themselves totally toward good deeds. They are afraid of the labors, tasks, and poverty that are allegedly associated with this. At the same time it must be understood that love is not so much deeds as it is feelings. It is not so important how much we have done but with what attitude we did it. Much can done, but because of our irritability, rudeness, and other failings, we offend those whom we wished to help or repulse those who work with us.
That is why, initially, it is especially important to nurture within yourself benevolent feelings toward people. The Apostle Paul explains superbly the essence of love: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-2).
Further on, he explains which feelings are kindred to love and which are not:
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away” (1 Cor. 13:4-8).
Deriving from this magnificent directive of the Apostle come others toward which we must strive:
* Preserve a peaceful frame of mind and carry ourselves modestly and quietly, just as Saint Seraphim of Sarov taught: “Acquire spiritual peace and thousands around you will be saved.”
* Treat people with trust and good will.
* Wish good to everyone.
* Do not display your superiority but conceal it and make concessions to people.
* Try not to notice other people’s shortcomings, and compel yourself always to think good of people.
* Don’t judge others and don’t discuss their shortcomings, but on the contrary, try to say something good about them.
* Patiently endure hurts and don’t show that you are aggrieved.
* Pray for others.
* Listen patiently to an aggrieved person and endeavor to cheer him up with a kind word.
* If it is necessary to speak the truth to a person’s face, do so calmly without annoyance. And if this doesn’t work, it is better to pray for him.
* When we help someone, it is important that we do this delicately, so that the recipient doesn’t feel obligated to us.
The remarkable thing about this is that all these manifestations of love require virtually no external effort, only a benevolent disposition and willingness.
In general, it is not necessary to attempt great deeds or exploits but rather to attempt to comprehend God’s calling. Otherwise, through our impetuosity and self-reliance, we could do more harm than good. Daily, under different circumstances, God presents us with opportunities through which we can perform minor acts of kindness . . . and many grains of sand can outweigh a mighty rock. Every act of goodness that we perform through our compassionate feelings for another person is accepted by God as though we did it for Him: “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:40).
So, love – this is an enormous discipline that is impossible to master even in a whole lifetime. However, there is no need to despair; a future life awaits us, in which we will be able to improve ourselves in this queen of virtue.
In conclusion, let us quote St. Maximus the Confessor: “We must love every person with all our hearts, place our trust in God, and serve only Him with all our strength. For, while He protects us, all our friends will remain favorable, while our enemies remain powerless. When He departs from us, then will our friends turn from us and our enemies secure ascendancy over us. Friends of Christ genuinely love all, though they themselves are not beloved by all.”