Having considered the Theological Virtues of Faith and Hope in the last two reflections (Faithful,12/09/18) (Ultimate Concern, 12/16/18), one would naturally expect this essay to center on the third of the three Theological Virtues. This is a valid and true assumption. But the problem is what do we call it? What is its name?
Even a child in elementary school knows that the names of these virtues are Faith, Hope and Love.But my hesitancy about that particular title is this: the word ‘Love’ is grounded in the misuse of that word in our culture. Love is often confused with Erotic or Romantic Love. This Virtue is not that. It can also denote a feeling that is warm and ‘cuddly’. It is not that. Finally, it often stands for a desire to have and enjoy something, like when we say ‘I love cereal’. It is certainly not that.
The problem is that, whereas English has the largest vocabulary of any Western language, it is utterly poor in describing the complexity of Love, especially when dealing with Christian Love.
In Greek, by contrast, there are a number of different words that we would translate as ‘love’. There is Philia, which is the love that we find in family and in friendship. The city of Philadelphia is rightly translated the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ (Sisterly as well!). The Greek word Eros is about the romantic and the erotic love that is very powerful and needs to be restrained and channeled if it is to avoid being destructive. Then there is the word ‘Agape’ which is the kind of love that we are talking about. When we read the Greek text of the Bible, we find that in the phrase ‘Love one another’, the word used is Agape, not Philia or Eros.
Let’s just use the term ‘Christian Love’ for this experience. What is Christian Love? This is as miraculous and necessary a virtue as Hope and Faith. It can be defined as: effectively willing the true good of the other while demanding nothing in return. A key word is ‘effectively’. This means that we do not only want the best for the other, but we work toward helping them to have it. As the Apostle James says: What good is it if you see a hungry person and you say, “I hope you eat,”, but don’t work to get him the food he needs?
It must also be the ‘true good’. It may be the apparent good that we praise someone, but maybe the true good is that he or she should hear the truth and not the praises that their ego craves for.
The third element in Christian Love is that it is gratuitous. It cannot be a maneuver to get something.There cannot be an ulterior motive. If we do something good for someone in order to get something from them in return (now or later) it is not love, it is commerce.
Oddly enough we love commercially very often in our dealings with God. We love Him because we want to get something from Him or we want Him to overlook something that we have done. It is a calculated action, not a free-will act of love.
Usually, if we keep things secret (remember the Sermon on the Mount?), there is a good chance we are doing it simply because we love the person and want what is best for them. It doesn’t matter that we get credit for it. The act of love is its own reward.
One can see clearly that this understanding of love does not depend on feelings. While positive and good feelings do aid the accomplishment of this virtue, it does not depend on them. Christian Love requires a hard, thought through decision. One decides to love the other no matter what.
When Jesus faced the redemptive sacrifice that would give us salvation, His feelings were not telling Him to go ahead so that He can feel good about Himself. His feelings wanted out from this sacrifice. But He overcame His feelings to make a decision to go with the Father’s will: Thy will be done.
Seen in this way, Jesus on the Cross is the essence of Christian Love.
Now one may say to this that it seems almost impossible that anyone can so conquer their own desires and decide something that one does not truly want. This is correct. It is too much for our selfish, sinful selves that always seek what is best for the big ‘Me’. But with the grace of God, all things are possible. St. Paul (as usual!) put it best: “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”