Introductory Note:

What do we mean by saying “I’m only human”? Usually we use it as an excuse for bad behavior or an expression of our low sense of worth. But being human is a glorious reality. It reflects aspects of the Creator’s love, creativity, and ability to bring about good.  Have you shortchanged the fullness of your own humanity? Chris Webb helps us seek God’s grace to restore us to our high calling: to love as he loves.

Grace Pouch
Content Manager

We Are Created to Love

The opening chapter of the Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). Scholars and theologians have reflected for over two millennia about exactly what that might mean, but the apostle John, in his first letter, gives us an important insight into at least one significant implication. God is love,” he writes, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn 4:16). To bear the character of God is to have love hardwired into our essential nature. The more we are conformed to the character of God, the more perfectly loving we will become. We are created to love.

When God calls us to holiness, he roots that call in his own character: Be holy,” he says to the Israelites, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44). Holiness, then, cannot simply be an abstract purity of our interior nature – an unsullied conscience, free from guilt. Rather it is a summons to pure love, to be the kind of people who can develop good, deep, loving relationships, both with God and with other people, relationships which are safe and enriching for all concerned. Jesus certainly seems to understand the call in this way. In the first half of the Sermon on the Mount he addresses a series of issues which threaten to undermine the quality of loving relationships: anger, adultery, divorce, deception, and revenge. He then pushes the boundaries of love further than any reasonable morality would seem to demand: Love your enemies,” he says, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). In this way, he says, you will be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Love, it seems, is the fulfillment of holiness.

Many years later, the great twelfth century Dominican writer Thomas Aquinas picked up on this strand of biblical teaching and made the startling assertion that love was more than the goal of Christian perfection: it is the fundamental power behind the created order. Just as physicists probe sub-atomic structure to identify the basic forces and particles that make up this physical universe, so Aquinas probed to the depths of Christian theology to identify the driving energy behind creation itself. In the end, Aquinas argued, everything is grounded in love, since all creation reflects the character of the one who made it. He suggested that we are not only made to love, we are made of love. Everything we do is driven by this divine quality: all we can do is love.

But Aquinas had no illusions about the terrifying human capacity for sin. He wrote about the lethal power of sin, that turning away from our last end which is God.” He came to see love as having the kind of awesome power we see in nuclear fusion. Well-ordered and directed to the right ends, love can transform lives, inseparably unite people with one another and God, and act as the harmonious and creative power which holds all creation in being. But misdirected – allowed to turn in on itself, allowed to run wildly on the heels of any and every desire of our misguided hearts – love can become a horrifyingly destructive force, tearing apart the world from under our feet. 

Love, rightly ordered, will be the foundation of the kingdom of God. But grotesquely disordered love, inordinate self-love which swirls in on itself like a fierce tornado, has the capacity to shape tragedies like Auschwitz or the Rwandan genocide. Sin – love disordered – is horrific. But holiness – love rightly ordered – is life in all its abundance.

How Do Our Hearts Grow in Holiness?

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, discusses the root and origin of sin by comparing two verses, one from the New Testament and the other from the Deuterocanonical books. He notes first that Paul writes to Timothy: the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). But alongside this he sets a line from the apocryphal book of Sirach which says (in the Latin Vulgate), pride is the beginning of all sin” (Sir 10:15). Whether or not we want to accept, with Aquinas, the authority of the deuterocanonical text, the point he makes from these verses fits well with the tenor of Scripture as a whole. The first, he says, describes the way in which we allow our hearts to turn to an inappropriate degree towards the beauty and richness of creation. But the second cuts to the deeper and more serious issue of the way we allow our eyes to be turned away from God himself in the first place. As Paul puts it so directly, they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). Our hearts become increasingly holy as they are healed of these twin maladies; we begin though by focusing our attention on the latter, our prideful turning from God.

The most odious corruption of love within our souls takes place when we allow love to become inwardly directed and self-absorbed. Christians insist on a simple truth which is strikingly counter-cultural in our contemporary society, obsessed as it is with self-realization and self-regard: we are not here to love ourselves.

Now that needs some qualification, of course. It is not that we Christians are called to hate ourselves. The loathing which some people experience when they look in the mirror is neither natural nor healthy. But, contrary to the way many preachers and writers have come to interpret Christ’s teaching on the great commandments, the call to love your neighbor as you love yourself ” (Mt 22:39) does not imply that our first task is to learn self-love. 

The twelfth century Cistercian writer Bernard of Clairvaux had a clearer picture. In his short but brilliant work On Loving God, he argued that love at its least perfected is inwardly focused, seeking only its own good. And this self-love is not true love at all, merely the power of love corrupted into pride and vanity. As grace begins to reorder our hearts, though, some of that love starts to turn outward, towards God (and our neighbor), drawing us beyond ourselves – even if initially only because of the selfish benefits we can derive from others. A yet more well-ordered heart is able to love God and others for their own sake. And finally, says Bernard, we then truly learn what it means to love ourselves: to be grateful for the gift of ourselves, the only thing we truly have to offer to God and those around us, to express love. Growth in holiness ends in a proper love of self by turning outward to others, not by turning inward on ourselves.

The hallmark of the holiness of Jesus is this constant turning toward others seen in his acts of humility and service. Perhaps the most striking example occurs on the night of the last supper. The apostle John tells us that Jesus, fully aware of his divine origins and significance, was seeking a way to love his disciples to the end” (Jn 13:1 – an equally accurate translation of the Greek could be to the utmost”). So he stripped off his outer garment and proceeded to perform the work of the lowest, most menial slave: washing the filthy, dirt-crusted feet of those around him. The disciples are shocked and appalled, so much so that Peter is embarrassed for Jesus and tries to refuse. But Jesus persists, teaching them what holiness towards others might mean — and calling them to love one another to exactly the same degree.

For we who follow Christ, opportunities for similar acts of humble service abound. The world around us scrambles to be the first, the greatest, the strongest; the way is wide open for those willing to become the least and the last. Jesus himself gives us numerous ideas of how we might live into the holiness of the servant. 

  • Choose to take the lowest place in the pecking order, not the highest (Lk 14:7 – 11). 
  • Share meals with outcasts, even inviting them into your home (Lk 14:12 – 14). 
  • Do not be misled by trappings of honor and power, but be ready to recognize the presence of the King of Glory in even the smallest child (Lk 9:46 – 48). 

You might want to pause for a moment and reflect. 

What opportunities has God placed before me to serve others? Do I sense the resistance of my heart to taking the lowest and least place? 

Pray for the grace to be able to lay aside pride and take up the servant’s towel. A heart reordered towards others is a heart which is growing in holiness.

This piece combines two essays by Chris Webb that explore our human calling to love.

Photo by Nowshad Arefin on Unsplash

Text First Published November 2016 · Last Featured on September 2023