This week I am writing about love from the point of view that the spiritual life consists of developing the capacity to love as God loves and to have integrity. (Next week’s blog will be about integrity.) God is love. How we define love—our own capacity as humans to love–is a very watered down version of God’s capacity to love that is endless, eternal, undifferentiated. For us it’s “falling” in and out of love; it’s often manipulation wherein “I’ll love you if you do what I want;” or it’s a trade-off: “I’ll love you after you love me first.” It’s no wonder we are so often disappointed in love, our ability to love is limited. But in God love is an unending outpouring of the positive towards all of his creation—love, forgiveness, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control– all the fruits of the Spirit.
Love is not a tap that God turns off and on, it is an endless spring of outpouring and caring. Best expressed in Luke in the Parable of the Prodigal Son(Daughter) the father(God) is waiting and watching out for the return of his wastrel son; upon seeing him he runs out to meet him, embraces, welcomes and celebrates his return—I am sure to the consternation of the “bad” son who, like us, expected to be punished. For the “good” son who now complains that a celebration was never held for him and reminds the father that he has been the “good” son, the father reminds him that his whole kingdom has been his all along.
Throughout the Gospels In so many passages of the New Testament, Jesus demonstrates the love God has for all people especially the unlovable of that day, when welcomes the stranger, the foreigner, even the outcast, beggars, the blind and lame, the rich young man, Romans, and even the Samarians with love. He demonstrates God’s capacity to love in every gesture and word. In the second of the Two Great Commandments he commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That curious phrase, according to Cynthia Bourgeault in The Wisdom Jesus means to see, to love the neighbor as no different from yourself, as one with yourself, as if all mankind were just one single being with many different faces. That puts a whole new light on love.
The capacity to love as God loves is given to us as we empty out our own selves—full of expectations about how the world should work, assumptions based on cultural wisdom, and preferences for our lives, skewed thinking and emotions—and come down to the bottom line of who we are: the soul with its promise of living out who we were created to be. It’s when we are living out of the soul’s agenda—soulfully– that we begin to express God’s love wherever we go, whomever we see. It’s called a journey because it takes many steps—a whole lifetime from whenever we start—to fully develop this capacity to love as God loves.
Once we have turned our lives over to God’s Spirit and are led by the Spirit from within, our spiritual lives are pretty much in God’s hands, but there are things we can do to help the process. We are never meant to be passive and just let God do it all. We are to work hard at our part, while God does the transformative work on us. We are to be co-creators with God in reaching our full potential and in being able to do the work we were created to do to bring in the kingdom.
What is our part? to be vigilant in knowing and acknowledging exactly who we are. It’s important that this not be the start of an interior witchhunt! We’re not going to be perfect! Our goal is to be whole people of God, to know and to embrace all that we are. First, we have to take responsibility for who we are. That means to apologize or to make amends for anything we say or do that is not loving. Secondly, we set intentions around the behavior that is not loving—i.e. “I love towards ____” or “I am aware of God’s grace and blessing in my life” or “I do not judge _____”—allowing God to transform these places in us. Third, we forgive ourselves for being human. We realize that we have layers of motivations. Again the goal is to be whole people, not perfect people.
Fourth, we work at feeling God’s love for us. It’s one thing to know in my mind that God loves me, but it’s quite another to feel that love in my whole being. God shows us love in so many ways, but we deflect them. We feel unlovable, so we don’t hear, see, or experience the enormous outpouring of love that God has for each one of us, even me, even you. Here’s another place where intention can help. “I feel God’s love in every cell of my body.” Let God tear down the walls, disarm the part of us that deflects love.
We’re too close to ourselves to see what we really need to transform the broken places in ourselves; we often don’t have a way other than brute force which is not love—that’s why it is better done by the Holy Spirit– but we can and do notice what is off about our behavior. I know when I awaken in the morning if my energy is off in some way. I have learned to name exactly how I’m feeling at that moment—I might be tired, or anxious, or a little depressed, or something else. I name it and lift it up to God. It’s amazing how that little practice helps me to get back on track.
We’ve talked about making amends, setting intentions, forgiving ourselves and others and naming our energy or how we’re feeling—that is all about looking at our shadow sides, but we also need to look at how God is working in our lives. A good way to do this is with a gratitude journal. At the end of the day or the next morning note what you are grateful for in the day that just passed. The thoughts or words that came just as you needed them, an offer of help from X, the beauty of the day, the sense of God’s presence, whatever you were grateful for. The focus is to be on the blessings and graces of the day, not the things you have. This one practice –five or ten minutes–will focus your attention throughout the day on noticing where God is acting on your behalf.
Some of the practices I’ve mentioned above have to do with emptying out ourselves and some to do with filling us up with God’s love and caring. We have a lot to do on both sides of the equation as we cooperate with God in emptying and transforming ourselves so that we can develop that capacity to love all people, all creation, as God loves them. By ourselves we’re only capable of a watered down, incomplete kind of love. With God leading us we can live into expressing the fullness of love.