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1 Man's invitation to love The word religion is derived from a Latin word religare, which means to bind back. By his practice of religion man binds himself back to God who is his alpha (origin) and omega (destiny). To anyone who is familiar with the New Testament there can be no doubt that the essential act of religion and the essential bond between man and his God is love. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees: 'Which is the greatest commandment?' he answered:
'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.'
What does it mean to love God with one's whole heart, soul and mind? I think that St John would answer this question by telling us that before anyone can really give his heart, soul and mind to God, he must first know how much God has loved him, how God has thought about him from all eternity, and desired to share his life, joy and love with him. Christian love is a response to God's infinite love, and there can be no response until one has somehow perceived that God has first loved him, so much so that he sent his only-begotten Son to be our salvation.
More than this, God does not simply have love; he is love. If giving and sharing with another is the character and essence of love, then God is love. He can acquire nothing because he is God. He needs nothing because he is God. He has all goodness and all riches within himself. But goodness is self-diffusive; it seeks to share itself. So the infinite goodness which is God seeks to communicate, to diffuse, to share itself... with you... with me... with all of us.
We know something of this love in our own instincts to share that which is good and is our possession: good insights, good news, good rumours. Perhaps the best analogy in our human experience is that of the young married couple, very much in love and very much alive because of that love, wishing to share their love and life with new life which it is in their power to beget. But it is even more than this with God who tells man: if the mother should forget the child of her womb I will never forget you!
It is precisely this that is the point of most failures to love God truly. Most of us are not deeply aware of his fatherly, even tender, love. It is especially the person who has never experienced a human love, with all of its life-giving effects, who has never been introduced to the God who is love through the sacrament of human love, that stands at a serious disadvantage. The God of love who wishes to share his life and joy will probably seem like the product of an overheated imagination unreal.
There is no human being who will not eventually respond to love if only he can realize that he is loved. On the other hand, if the life and world of a person is marked by the absence of love, the reality of God's love will hardly evoke the response of his whole heart, soul and mind.
False gods before us The God who enters such a life will be a fearsome and frowning idol, demanding only fear of his devotees. The Book of Genesis tells us that God has made us to his image and likeness, but it is the most perduring temptation of man to invert this, to make God to his human image and likeness.
Each of us has his own unique and very limited concept of God, and it is very often marked and distorted by human experience. Negative emotions, like fear, tend to wear out. The distorted image of a vengeful God will eventually nauseate and be rejected. Fear is a fragile bond of union, a brittle basis of religion.
It may well be that this is why God's second commandment is that we love one another. Unselfish human love is the sacramental introduction to the God of love. Man must go through the door of human giving to find the God who gives himself.
Those who do not reject such a distorted image will limp along in the shadow of a frown, but they certainly will not love with their whole heart, soul and mind. Such a God is not lovable. There will never be any trust and repose in the loving arms of a Father; there will never be any mystique of belonging to God. The person who serves out of fear, without the realization of love, will try to bargain with God. He will do little things for God, make little offerings, say little prayers, etc. to embezzle a place in the heaven of his God. Life and religion will be a chess-game, hardly an affair of love.
Response to God's love The person who is open to the realization of God's love will want to make some response of his own love. How can he make a meaningful response if this God cannot acquire and needs nothing? St John points out the place of human response:
We know what love is from the fact that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. We, too, ought to lay down our lives for our brothers... Beloved, let us love one another, because love takes its origin in God, and everyone that loves is a child of God and knows God. He who has no love does not know God, because God is love... No one has ever seen God, yet if we love one another, God abides in us and our love for him reaches perfection.
(1 John 3:16; 4:712)