Thursday, November 15, 2007

God Desires Our Human Love and Its Perfection, Part Two

Last week, I looked at a couple of passages from Thomas Merton's Dialogues with Silence and began to explore the seeming paradox that God desires our imperfect human love but also desires its perfection. To recap: God desires us even in our sinfulness; as St. Paul points out, Christ died for us "while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:8). He wants us to love Him humanly - to love Him however we are able, and we are only able to love Him imperfectly - so that He can show us His great mercy. God desires our human love, yet at the same time, He calls us out of our sinfulness to sainthood, to perfect holiness. We are sinful human beings, yet as Christians we are to be perfect "as our heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

Misconceptions abound among different Christian denominations about the possibility of this perfection in love and holiness, and I want to examine a few of them - but first, let's try to make more sense of this "seeming paradox" and turn to Chapter 15 of the Gospel of John.
"I am the true vine... Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:1, 4-5)
It sounds simple enough - we share in Christ's life, and consequently we bear the fruit of love, which manifests itself in holiness and good works. If we cannot humbly acknowledge that we need God's grace, if we lack the humility to see that we can do nothing without His help, we cannot bear fruit.

We glorify God by bearing the fruit of love (holiness and good works); and in a sense, when we bear fruit, we prove our discipleship. "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples" (v. 8). We cannot divorce discipleship - our identity as followers of Christ and people who belong to Him - from the necessity of living a holy life, rooted in love and good works, that "bears much fruit."

Christ goes on to tell us: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love" (v. 9-10). Christ has loved us - He has put His love into us - so that in turn He can command us to love as He loves, which He does in verse 12: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." Christ commands us to love one another as He loves us, that is, to love perfectly. Of course, we know that we cannot even think of loving perfectly without God's grace, so Christ reminds us that He has first called us to love and gifted us with grace:
"You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another." (John 15:16-17)
In other words, Christ chose us first, and He gives us everything so that, in our nothingness, we can bear the fruit of perfect love and holiness and aspire to be saints. He has set before us an ideal, but not an impossible one - if He gave impossible commands, He would not be loving or just, and we know He is the perfection of both.

Next week, I'll examine two timeless heresies about the possibility of saintly perfection: one deems it impossible, even with God's grace; the other says it's naturally possible for everyone (humans can achieve it on our own). Until then, let us pray with St. Augustine:

There can be no hope for me except in Your great mercy.

Give me the grace to do as You command,
and command me to do what You will...
O Love, ever burning, never quenched!
O Charity, my God, set me on fire with Your love! ...
Give me the grace to do as You command,
and command me to do what You will.

Confessions, Book X: xxix)


Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey Emily,
Great post. John Wesley (one of my spiritual mentors) was always very insistent upon the possibility of what he called "entire sancification" or "perfection in love" which he interned learned from some of the Greek Fathers along with his own Anglican tradition. I think there has been some fruitful dialogue on this between the Wesleyans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox in recent years.
I've got to admit that John is one of my favorite writers to read, he seems always flirting on the edge of the ineffible somehow. Some of the themes you touch on here are strong in his first letter as well.

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

please pardon my poor grammar above ;)