Without articulating and criticizing in detail other accounts of Christian love, I wish very briefly to point out how different this chapter’s account is from some other views.
Some think love of God is simply a desire to get to heaven. True, such a desire follows from love of God, but love of God is much more, for it is a sharing in divine life. Others think love of God is simply friendship with him. True, the concept of friendship has application here. But to reduce love of God to friendship is to miss this love’s supernatural meaning.
Others think love of God is just love of neighbor, and to love one’s neighbor is just to satisfy his or her human needs. This view often underlies the proportionalist idea that one who loves God will be prepared to do anything necessary in a given situation to satisfy a neighbor’s needs. But love of God cannot be reduced to love of neighbor, although supernatural love of God entails love of neighbor.
Some think love is a particular act rather than a disposition to action. This view makes one think of God’s love for us as his act and our love for him as our act, and our loves for our neighbors and ourselves as so many other acts. This view is based upon a misunderstanding of what love is. The model of the Trinity shows that love is not primarily an act directed at a person as shooting is an act directed at a target. Rather, it is a communion of persons which in no way lessens their mutual distinction. Among finite persons, whose fulfillment in communion is a gift and/or an accomplishment, love is a disposition to this fulfillment. Such a disposition can be shared by many persons.
Some think “love” means exactly the same thing when it is said of love of God and love of the basic human goods. This view misses the wonder and mysteriousness of the revelation of divine love and God’s invitation to sinful creatures to share in it. Moreover, it inevitably leads to unsolvable conflicts between love of God and love of basic human goods. The false, forced option between secularist humanism and fideistic supernaturalism depends in no small measure upon the logical working out of the implications of this view.
Moreover, because natural human love always requires some fulfilling good other than the love itself, one who thinks of heaven as the consummation of divine love and does not sufficiently distinguish between natural and supernatural love either will think of heaven as empty or will posit some particular form of human fulfillment to make heavenly happiness humanly interesting. The former approach, a vacuous heaven, makes all talk of love of God pointless. The latter approach, a heaven described in terms of some specific human fulfillment, introduces a division between that human good and all others. This division will make love of God seem a humanly limiting thing.
Others think love of God is experienced closeness to God. If one does not have the sentiment, one does not love God. The fact is that love of God makes possible experiences of communing joyfully with him, but these are particular favors without which it is possible to love God. Emotionally, one can feel angry at God and alienated from him yet still love him; the evidence will be that one is prepared to accept and to do his will despite one’s feelings.
Still others think love of God is exclusively his love—his eternally free, totally gratuitous, saving love of sinful humankind. Except for its exclusivity, this view is basically correct, and those thinkers who have developed it have unfolded most beautifully a fundamental and essential part of Christian teaching about God’s love. But this view, which so perfectly protects those who hold it from false mysticism and pantheism, is dreadfully incomplete. God loves sinful humankind like a faithful husband whose love brings his unfaithful wife back to loving him faithfully. Thus God’s love which is poured forth in our hearts by the gift of the Spirit also inheres in us, as the Council of Trent teaches.
Love of God is something greater than desire for heaven, friendship with God, benevolence toward one’s neighbor, actions God and we do, a disposition of one’s heart to rest in God rather than in created goods, experienced intimacy with God, and God’s loving-kindness toward sinful humankind. The love of God makes us desire heaven, makes us friends of God, makes us do good to our neighbors, makes us interact with God, disposes our hearts to rest in God, allows us to taste his sweetness, and gratuitously redeems us. It does more. It makes us children of God, adopted children who freely consent to be members of the divine family, and who therefore enjoy the glorious liberty to be fully ourselves, full human persons.