A teacher of the law once asked Jesus: "Master, which is the greatest commandment?" And Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There are no greater commandments than these."
There are, indeed, no greater commandments than these. If we were to love God and our neighbor, the world that we lived in would be a heaven on earth. Unfortunately, we do little of either.
Though the command to love God is primary, we will look at loving our neighbor in this article, because as the apostle John writes, "If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." (1 John 4:20)
Part of the reason we are unable to love anybody is due to the fact that we don't know what love is. Love is a word whose meaning has become so warped in our time, it has lost all connection with the divine meaning that it once had, and consequently has become a pale imitation of the real thing. Real love is God's love, described beautifully by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
I would like to engage you in a little exercise now, if I may. I want you to think about your spouse (or, if you aren't married, your sibling or a parent) and try to ascertain how much you love her (or him). The reason it has to be your spouse or another immediate family member is because these are the people that God has given you for your own. Consequently, they are the people whom you are called upon to love first. You can't even begin to take love out into the world if you don't love those nearest to you.
So, think about your spouse and ask yourself these questions: Are you kind to her? Are you patient with her? Are you rude to her? Do you trust her — not once in a while, but at all times? Do you protect her — or does she need protection from you? Do you keep track of every wrong thing that she does to you? And at the end, ask yourself this question: Do you love her?
I had been married for 15 years before my conversion which took place two years ago [see The Return of the Prodigal]. If you had asked me at any time during this period if I loved my wife, my answer would have been an unhesitating and emphatic, "Yes, of course!" And I would have meant it.
Soon after my conversion, however, I read Paul's letter and put the same questions to myself that I just put to you. I didn't get a single answer that I liked. I was not kind to my wife. I was rarely patient with her. More often than not I was rude. I didn't trust her even though she had never given me the slightest reason to doubt her. I got angry constantly. There wasn't a single characteristic of love that I could lay claim to and the conclusion was inescapable. In God's eyes, I didn't love my wife!
I now found myself faced with two choices. I could tell myself — like most people do — that this definition of love was too idealistic for ordinary mortals. Or, I could try to learn to love her like how God said I should. I decided I'd give it a shot, and what began were the hardest lessons I have had to learn on the Christian road.
To learn love, I had to learn kindness and patience and self-control and a dozen other things. I had none of these qualities and if this wasn't difficult enough, I had my old friend the devil try to make things even more so. The more patience I showed, the more it was tested. The kinder I tried to be, the greater I was provoked into being rude. There is nobody who knows you as well as the people close to you and they know exactly which buttons to press to hurt you or get you upset or make you boiling mad. They are capable of drawing blood with their words, and very often they do. Which can make the task of loving them in God's way very, very hard.
I was often tempted to give up the entire task as being hopeless, but I have a very personal feud with the devil and there was no way I was going to let him win this battle. So I tried harder. And, when I fell on my face, harder still. Until one day there dawned the realization that I had succeeded. I had learned to love in the manner that God wanted me to. And with this knowledge came the added realization that I had changed in some fundamental manner. And my wife had changed too!
This ability to change people, including oneself, is the true power of love. I have no doubt whatsoever that if there are even five people in each parish across the globe who practice love the way our Father wants us to, they will transform the entire world in a matter of months! But it all begins at home.
These are a few things to keep in mind when you get started.
- Learning to love is like learning any difficult subject. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes effort. It takes persistence. And it takes determination. Love is the most difficult subject that you are ever likely to learn, so be prepared to slog it out for a while.
- Accept the other person for what he is. This sounds very clichéd but it is the very first lesson in love. It doesn't matter what failings the person has, you have to accept him in his entirety. This acceptance implies never making any attempt to change him. It might help you to realize that you can't; you simply do not have the power and any attempt to do so will only result in failure and frustration. If God thinks the person needs changing he will do it. And, quite possibly, through your love. But leave the decision, the mode and the method to him!
- There is one person you can change, though, and that is yourself. You are responsible for your actions. Do not, however, make your actions determinant on the actions of the other person. You won't get anywhere if you lock yourself into that trap. You have to be loving, regardless of what the provocation. And I can assure you right now that you are going to face a lot of it.
- Provocation is just one of the hurdles on the course. Whenever you attempt to do God's will, you will face a number of them. They are going to be specially severe here because the devil knows that love is the one weapon that can bring him to his knees and he is going to do everything he can to prevent you for learning how to use it. But remember that even as your limits are tested, God will expand them and give you the grace to cope with everything the devil throws your way. All he needs to see is that you are serious in your desire to do his will.
- Remember also that the Holy Spirit is by your side, working with you and within you constantly, smoothing the rough edges, fine tuning the growing love in you. Let him decide the pace of your growth. His only requirement is obedience, but he makes allowances for genuine weakness so do not fear that he will leave your side if you fail. He won't give up on you. Just make sure that you don't give up on yourself.
- Be kind to yourself when you do fail. Do not get discouraged when you mess up on occasion. Realize that there are times it may be to your benefit. God often works more powerfully in you when you fail, because you are more likely to surrender your will into his control and he is able to work better in you as a result. So take encouragement from that.
- Understand that love and the fruit of the Holy Spirit go together. If you develop the qualities required of love, you simultaneously begin to yield the fruit of the Spirit. Conversely, if you practice the fruit of the Spirit, you will learn to love. Both go together and are prerequisites for living a holy life, which is a Christian life. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is one of the bonuses you get when you graduate from the school of love. And this is what is going to transform the people around you.
- Expect to succeed! If there is one thing that annoys me profusely it is to see Christians disparaging themselves in the belief that it indicates humility. Remember that you are no ordinary person. You are a child of God, and consequently should have a healthy sense of self-esteem and a strong degree of confidence in yourself and in your Father. This is advice to be kept in mind for every lesson in Christianity that you wish to learn, so please don't forget it.
- And finally, memorize 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 till you can say it backwards. And whenever your love is tested, tell yourself: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy ......
May the Spirit be with you.