Because I Love God
I found myself thinking about temptation the other night, and I concluded that, among all the motivations in the world, ultimately I would choose not to do certain things simply because I love God. Then it came into my mind how this would sound to someone who does not believe in God, or at least does not feel any sort of close relationship with God. Such a person would be very likely to say: “Oh, come on, be honest. You won’t do something because you love God? Isn’t that a deception? Isn’t it more likely that you won’t do it because you are afraid to do it, or you would be ashamed to be caught doing it, or you’ve been influenced by some external standard of behavior which you can’t shake off?”
Where does this idea of love of God come from? What makes it (in some cases) a legitimate explanation for our behavior?
In the early stages of moral and spiritual development, especially as children, we obey certain rules because we have been told that these rules are given to us by God, and we have not only a healthy aversion to the consequences of transgression but a desire—presumably both innate and strongly conditioned—to please our parents and the God they represent. As we grow older and more mature, we internalize the values which underlie these rules and restrictions. Our relationship with these values may be conflicted to some degree, or at the very least we will not always adhere to them. But we increasingly adhere to those which, as we find over time, have real value to ourselves. In other words, we gradually experience the goodness of these values, and we prefer to participate more fully in this goodness.
All of this could be dismissed as mere cultural and psychological conditioning, and often, to some extent, it is. But when we begin thinking (hopefully with a certain sense of wonder) that we have actually grown to the point of making certain decisions because we love God, it means we also believe that we have transcended the normal conditioning process, a process which (after all) is sometimes helpful and sometimes not.
But how can I answer my imaginary critic? How can I illustrate this process of acting out of love in a way that enables my critic to grant at least that my self-description may be accurate? Perhaps the best way is by the analogy of romantic temptation pitted against marital love. (I would also argue that all temptations in some sense appear “romantic”. That is a discussion for another day, but if it is true, it makes the analogy even stronger.)
I take it as a fact of both nature and experience that our capacity for romance is not completely filled by marriage, if for no other reason that our capacity for temptation is not eliminated by marriage. We can always be attracted by various kinds of beauty or “chemistry” which trigger misplaced feelings of tenderness or even passion. In the early stages of a marriage, if we are fortunate, we may experience a period in which such feelings trouble us very little, as our capacity for romance is actually nearly filled by the marvelous adventure of married life. But even in the best of marriages, as the hard work of loving in all things combines with the dullness of routine, the romance quotient often diminishes even while the love quotient (frequently unknown to ourselves) continues to grow. So romantic feelings may arise elsewhere, in reality or in imagination.
Now if one resists the temptations these feelings represent, one may resist them from motives ranging from fear of being “caught” (or even of not being caught) to an unwillingness to betray one’s spouse and/or one’s children. Clearly, this unwillingness to betray is itself a movement of love, though I have expressed it negatively. But as marital love grows deeper and more secure, especially in a couple that has fully shared their lives and the lives of their children over a period of twenty or thirty or forty years, couples begin to be more aware of a very positive choice which motivates their resistance to temptations, whether they arise from reality or their own minds. Let me put the matter in a more personal way.
I am sixty-four years old. This is old enough to be unattractive to young and beautiful women, a fact that I can verify by an honest look in the mirror, despite my immense wit and charm. But I do not perpetually stare at a mirror. Sometimes my attention is caught by the young and the beautiful, and sometimes I respond not through the eyes of an old man but through the eyes of eternal youth. I am simply me, as I have always been, not at all old and certainly not contemplating death at every moment—just me, immortal me, certain in a flash of instinct that I cannot cease to exist. As a result, feelings of wonder and tenderness (or even a stirring of passion) may instantly arise in response to this inrush of beauty, or even to the very thought of beauty and all that goes with it. This can also occur in dreams.
Now, having habituated myself to the obligations of matrimony, the duties of religion, and (I hope and pray) the trust and love that goes with both, this first response lasts but an instant, nipped in the very bud of thought by the recollection that I am exceedingly foolish, and more, that I am an old fool, and even more than this, that I am an old fool who—by some mysterious and utterly undeserved alignment of the whole universe—is very much in love. In this moment—this second moment which follows like lightning on the heels of the first—I become aware that I have freely chosen this love, that it is more important to me than anything else on earth, that everything else on earth pales in its comparison, and that I simply refuse to indulge this temptation because I have already chosen the better part. In the way that a man loves a woman, I love my wife and her alone.
Let me pause for just a paragraph to mention just one interesting sidelight on the difference between romance and love, which mirrors the difference between sex and love as well, and which very likely applies to all temptation. A romantic temptation peaks in the anticipation, settles down somewhat in the fulfillment, and pales in the aftermath. By contrast, a solid, well-grounded and authentic love is a mere shadow of itself in the anticipation, grows mightily in the fulfillment, and has an almost annihilating intensity when it is involuntarily severed (as it may be by death or even abandonment).
In any case, over years of challenge and trial, my wife has shared my dreams, my fears, my goals, my triumphs and my pains. We have had children together, and poured our united life into them. She has been my inseparable partner in life, both natural and supernatural. At first I was drawn to her by attractions which seem almost beside the point now, and perhaps I strove to please her partly through my own fantasy of love and commitment. But now, in some limited sense, it is not I who live, but she who lives in me. I seem to love almost without effort, returning the love she herself has given me. Yet I know I have freely chosen this love, that I could forsake it, and that moment by moment I choose to reaffirm it against every challenge.
As with marital love, so too with God. Through years of challenge and trial, God has shared my life and permitted me to share His. Through prayer and sacrament I have both worked toward and received the incomparable gifts of this union, which have also poured forth into personal formation, work, marriage and family. At first I sought to please God because of what I was told, or because of some exalted image I had of myself—the evangelist, the apostle, the hero, the saint! But now, in ways that actually define what I have become, I have decreased and He has increased (Jn 3:30). It is now, not I who live, but Jesus Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20)—the Lord and bearer not only of every human love but of the infinite Trinitarian cascade.
Please understand that I am not making a special claim to personal holiness. I am, in the first person, describing the universal experience of the Christian life. My Beloved has chosen me, and I have chosen to return His love. And if I also choose to resist some temptation or do some good thing, it is in the end most definitely because I know I have already chosen the better part (Lk 10:42). This—yes, only this!— is a love which even the incomprehensible love of marriage can only foreshadow, and it is the most powerful motive we can possibly know. For in God alone are there three things which endure, and divine love dwarfs the rest (1 Cor 13:13).
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Posted by: rdubin1661 -
Aug. 27, 2012 10:55 AM ET USA
Beautifully witnessed and written, Jeff, as always. I know whereof you speak: My wife and I have been married 32 years, I'll be 64 in a couple of months, and I'm a charter member in good standing of the old fool club. As a corollary to your column, I would offer St. Augustine's marvelously cogent analysis of the dynamics of impurity: "The thought follows the look; delight comes after the thought; and consent after delight."
Posted by: koinonia -
Aug. 25, 2012 9:12 PM ET USA
The temptation is to believe that he who denies himself and lives for another is a fool. Today it is a tremendous, almost overwhelming, temptation for the Christian to feel foolish. Dr. Mirus, your candor and intimacy in sharing is much appreciated. One day I found myself in the presence of two couples. One husband lay dying. One couple had been married more than 50 years, one just shy of 70. I was in the presence of enduring love and I was in awe, yet "divine love dwarfs the rest."
Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Aug. 25, 2012 9:56 AM ET USA
Dr. Jeff, I don't agree the feelings are misplaced at all. Feelings are neither good nor bad. The hope is that we can, over time, order our feelings / passions to the good - which is what you are saying. What we do with the feelings - that is another matter and quite possibly can be misplaced or misused. Thank you for your testament to Christian Life in simplicity and committed pursuit. We share a common path. Let's pray together for those who have given in and know no boundaries.
Posted by: caroleuhlarik4443 -
Aug. 24, 2012 9:37 PM ET USA
Beautiful...thank you for writing this. You're doing it all for His greater glory, so thanks be to God!