Jesus replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands." - Matthew 22:36-40
What is the essence of the Christian life? If there is a purpose to human existence, what is that purpose? What were we made for? What are we supposed to be?
Jesus says we are supposed to be lovers. Lovers of God and lovers of people - people who give and receive freely and selflessly, finding joy and delight in blessing others. This is what we were made for. This is where we find our purpose.
Made to be lovers? "I can feel that!" says the liberally-minded with a grin - confusing loving freely with sexual promiscuity. What he doesn't realize is that true love is a giving thing, and sexual promiscuity is a pretty stingy form of giving. Promiscuity says, "I will give you my body, but I will not give you my commitment. I will give you tonight, but not tomorrow. I will take as much as I can, but I will give as little as possible."
Or, perhaps more succinctly: "I'll take what I can, you take what you can, and if contraception fails, we'll take the life of the child, too."
Earlier this year, it was reported that 41% of all pregnancies in New York City end in abortion. You can argue the dangers of overpopulation, but the point remains: free love takes. It doesn't give. And it's willing to take a lot - even life itself - to get what it wants.
Modern man is shocked by the savagery in the Old Testament. People sacrificing their children to the gods? How primitive and foolish. Thank goodness we've made progress in dispensing with the gods, they say. But people will always have a god, and that god will always demand a sacrifice. You can worship the god of sex, but don't be surprised when you have to offer your children on his altar.
Christ calls us to be lovers, but our love must be focused on what is truly love-worthy: God and our neighbors. The instant a man fixes his love on something other than those things, the world becomes a dangerous place.
It's easy to think of sin as what happens when we break an arbitrary rule imposed by a cosmic party pooper, but if Jesus' summary of the Law is right it's so much more than that. Sin is the refusal to love the love-worthy. It's a refusal to engage in the very end of one's existence.
If I think of sin in these terms, it is a little easier for me to deal with the concept of Hell. How can there be any peace or joy for an individual who refuses to love what is truly love-worthy? There is none available. Made in the image of a perfectly loving God, the human soul will languish in hopeless, unsatisfied desire as long as it refuses to bear the image in which it has been created.
The desire to be in real, loving relationships is strong within the human soul - even in those who try to achieve its satisfaction through fulfillment of less demanding desires. This is why solitary confinement - even for psychopaths - is such a horrifying punishment. The human soul, made in the image of the 3-in-1 Trinitarian God, can't bear prolonged solitude. It wasn't designed for it. It comes into the world through intimate union and is entirely dependent on others for the first several years of its life. Locking it away and leaving it with itself is a recipe for insanity.
But for those who refuse to love, that is what they are left with.
So far, all this makes sense to me. But it leads to more questions. How much control do we really have over the order of our loves? If refusing to live in loving relationship with God and with people is what leads us to despair and eternal condemnation, how does the refusal end? And since none of us - Christian or otherwise - have our loves ordered perfectly 100% of the time, how can we be sure we will avoid the suffering of eternal, unsatisfied desire? How can we be sure that we've done what we need to do? On the other hand, if our desires can only be reordered by divine intervention, why doesn't God intervene more often? Why doesn't He reorder everyone's desires all the time?
I think some part of the desire-reordering responsibility must fall on our weak shoulders, but perhaps it is only a small part. Perhaps it is simply the willingness to admit that we are enslaved to patterns of behavior that can never save us from ourselves. Perhaps it is simply the willingness to look to Heaven and ask for help. The sacrifice God desires is a broken and contrite heart.
If we realize our need, the help is there. The price for our disordered desire - the cost of our refusal to love the love-worthy - has been paid on Calvary. There is hope for us even in our trespass against the great commandment.
In John 15, shortly before Jesus went to his death, he told his disciples, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love." God loves us. The Father has always loved the Son, and the Son announces that the love of God for humanity is as deep and unyielding as the eternal love within the Trinity through which the universe was created. We just have to remain in that love.
The question, then, is not whether God loves us - the question is how we will stand in relation to that love. Will we stand in opposition to it, refusing to surrender to it? Will we persist in trying to find our satisfaction and our identity outside of our intended purpose, or will we let the love in and allow the light to overthrow the darkness?
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5). May it be so in our hearts!