Love of God is known by the courage of correction, against the world
In his homily at daily Mass today, Pope Francis preached on the reading from the first Letter of John which emphasizes that whoever loves God must also love his neighbor. He contrasted genuine love with the spirit of the world, which creates division, and he offered three signs of a lack of such love:
- Failure to pray for others, including those we dislike;
- Failure to resist feelings of envy, jealousy or wishing someone ill;
- Failure to avoid gossip about others.
This homily offered some practical guidance for assessing our love of others as a means of discerning whether we really do love God. But I would suggest a fourth test which Church leaders are seldom willing to mention in our secular age:
- Failure to summon the courage to offer correction to those who, by their thoughts and actions, deny reality, oppose God’s will and place themselves in grave spiritual danger.
This courage is especially needed now because we live in a culture which denies the natural law and regards religion as a violation of human liberty. It is also a rationally inconsistent culture, for those who shape it do not hesitate to create their own moral codes out of mere fashion, condemning as beyond the pale their neighbors who fail to agree with positions which shine like Lucifer. This hypocrisy places at a severe cultural disadvantage those who understand both natural law and Divine Revelation as liberating guides to a good life—not to mention happiness after death.
St. John was (obviously) correct when he wrote:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. [1 Jn 4:20-21]
But he was also correct when, a few lines earlier, he wrote about false prophets:
They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them. We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. [1 Jn 4:5-6]
It follows that we who confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2)* bear a heavy responsibility for fraternal correction, a responsibility which must first of all be exercised within the Church (see Mt 18:15-17). Outside the Body of Christ, while we ought to insist on the natural law, our corrective responsibility consists primarily of proclaiming the Gospel and drawing others to the Church, where Christ is most fully known. But it seems that in our own day Church leaders, including Pope Francis, are far more prone to offer active fraternal correction in favor of positions embraced by the spiritus mundi than in favor of positions in which the Spirit of God pits us against the world.
St. John addresses this a little further on: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments, for this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments…and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 Jn 5:2-4). Yet again it seems that this victory is often lacking in the way we bear witness today, in which it is very common, even in the highest places, to praise the nobility of popular causes while condemning the “rigidity” of those who are not afraid to witness to Christ by exposing the lies of the world—lies which undermine human society and consign so many to spiritual death.
The need for courage
I suggest that this represents a failure of courage, a failure which gives the lie to the genuineness of our faith. In precisely these same Johannine chapters, we find the following:
So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. [1 Jn 4:16-21]
What is important here is the recognition that “perfect love casts out fear”. A great many fine homilies could be preached on this—on the principal failing of the Church in her members today, who have little confidence for the day of judgment and who, because they fear the judgment of the world, demonstrate that they are not perfected in love.
The failure to pray, an indulgence in every form of worldly envy, and the resulting fruitless tittle tattle among idle souls offer ample evidence of a failure to love. But we drive out one spirit of antichrist (1 Jn 4:3) only to admit seven more when we overcome such spitefulness only to swell the chorus of those committed to worldly causes. Yet how many Catholics who should know better do exactly this! Nine times out of ten, fear is a major part of the cause—fear of being different, of being judged irrelevant by our cultural elites and all who imitate them.
That is why I call attention to the need for courage. But I also note that this courage must come from the Spirit of Christ, or rather through an ardent love for that Spirit, through a total dependence on the witness of “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” (1 Jn 5:8). For “if we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater”, and “he who has not the Son of God has not life” (1 Jn 9-12).
We do not love God nearly enough if we are still afraid. St. John writes: “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the Evil One”. But do we know this? Not if our moral priorities and our witness are reserved for what is popular. Rather, we know and honor false gods. This is why St. John writes in the last line of his letter just one simple instruction: “Little children, keep yourself from idols.” For steering clear of false gods requires precisely that perfect love which casts out fear. Courage cannot flourish in a divided heart. It comes directly and exclusively from the love of God. If we see that we are lacking in courage, then we know we are lacking in love.
* St. John refers to the difference between the Spirit of God which confesses that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” and the spirit of antichrist which denies it and “is in the world already”. This can be applied to many situations. The immediate danger at the time may have been early Gnostic heresies which reduced Christianity to a set of ideas, a “gnosis” to be enjoyed by elite souls. Hence the dramatic connection between Christ in the flesh and love of neighbor. But just as clearly, the text refers to the contrast at all levels between the Spirit of Christ and the spirit of the world—worldliness—which seduces so many in every time and place.
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