God First Loved Us

By: Christopher West


A friend of mine — I’ll call him “Joe” — recently came to me in distress asking me to help him process the counsel he had been receiving from a Catholic therapist.   “You need to love God more,” was his therapist’s repeated advice.   Sounds fine.   Don’t we all?   But as Joe shared more, I began to understand why his stomach was in knots.  Joe is a man profoundly in touch with that deep “ache” in his soul, that human desire for happiness, love, fulfillment.   As the Catechism  makes clear, this yearning “is of divine origin: God has placed it in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who alone can fulfill it” (CCC 1718).   Like most of us, though, Joe, at his own admission, has looked to fulfill that desire in wrong ways.   One of his goals in going to a Catholic therapist was to learn how to direct his desire rightly.

Love God More?  

Over several sessions, the impression Joe got from the therapist was that his hunger, his “need” itself  was the problem, and somehow it needed to be annihilated.   His therapist said he was being self-centered; he shouldn’t be thinking about his desire at all, but should focus on serving God more, on loving God more.   Of course, we often are self-centered and need to focus more on God.   Acknowledging that, Joe tried dutifully to put his therapist’s counsel into practice.  It didn’t work.   And the more his therapist insisted that he “love God more,” the more Joe felt like a failure, until one day Joe erupted: “I can’t love God more!   I try and try but I don’t have it in me.”

Joe is right.   In and of ourselves, we aren’t able to love God.   Our loving God can only be a return of the love he pours out on us.   “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us” (1 Jn 4:10).   As the Catechism  states, “God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response” (CCC 2567).  My point here is not to pounce on Joe’s therapist.   There may well be more to the story.   Rather, Joe’s situation presents the opportunity to reflect on a widespread “trap” we’re prone to in the spiritual life — the trap of thinking it’s up to us to “be good” to “be holy” to “love God more.”   When we think this way we’re actually forgetting our basic status as creatures.

Allowing God to Love Us

In his book Faith, Hope, Love, Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper put it this way: “Need-love, whose goal is its own fulfillment, is also the nucleus and the beginning in all our loving.   It is … set in motion by the act that created us.   Hence, it is fundamentally impossible for us to control it, let alone annul it.”   Pieper continues, “The call for an utterly disinterested, unmotivated … love that wishes to receive nothing … simply rests upon a misunderstanding of man as he really is.   The error, it must be noted, consists not so much in mistaking man’s empirical imperfection as in failing to recognize that the human condition is that of a created being.”  In other words, this deep need  that Joe experiences is not the result of some stubborn imperfection that he must strive to overcome.   It’s something God put there to lead Joe to heaven: that is, to invite Joe to open himself to divine love, the one and only thing that satisfies the ache.

We have nothing to offer God (or anyone else for that matter) that we have not first received.   This is why, in the biblical analogy of spousal love, we are always the “bride” (even men!) and God is always the Bridegroom.   For, according to the theology of our bodies, the bride is the one who receives the gift of the bridegroom and conceives life within.   As John Paul II put it, “the husband is above all the one who loves and the wife … is the one who is loved” (TOB 92:6).  So, how can we love God more?   By letting him first love us more.   How can we serve God more?   By letting him first serve us more.   For Christ came not to be served, but to serve (see Mt 20:28).   We must let him serve us.   We must let him “wash our feet” or we can have “no part in him” (Jn 13:8).   Mary is the one who shows us how to receive  this kind of love, this kind of service.   Mary, Mother of God, pray for my friend Joe that he would learn how to open his desire to the One alone who can satisfy it, just as you did.   Amen.

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