‘God’s love is so wonderful’, so begins a hymn that we often gladly sing. Through this beautiful hymn we try to express a great truth: God’s love is beyond all our concepts and comprehension. We cannot express it in our words, we can only experience it.
How do we define love? The dictionary says that love is “an intense affection for another person based on familial or personal ties”. Notice that a key phrase in this definition of love is the phrase ‘based on’. This phrase implies that we love conditionally; in other words, we love people because they fulfil a condition that we require before we can love them. Our love is not only conditional, it is also mercurial. We love based on feelings and emotions that can change from one moment to the next. But God’s love is unconditional, that means that it transcends the human definition of love to a point that is hard for us to comprehend.
The Bible tells us that “God is Love” (1 John 4: 8, 16). Never was a more important declaration made than this—God is love. This is a profound statement. God doesn’t just love; He is love itself. Love is the fundamental essence of His nature and character—His very being. God is perfect in love. Love permeates His very being and infuses all His other attributes. God loves because that is His nature and the expression of His being. He loves the unlovable and the unlovely. He loves us not because we deserve to be loved or because of any excellence we possess, but because it is His nature to love and He must be true to His nature. He never stops loving us. But how can we even begin to understand that God is love? There are many passages in the Bible that give us God’s definition of love. The most well known verse is John 3: 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life”. God sacrificed His only Son so that we, who put our faith in His Son, will have eternal life with Him. It is God who mends the separation through His intense personal sacrifice, and all we have to do is to accept His gift. Another great verse about God’s love is found in Romans 5: 8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In this verse and in John 3: 16, we find no conditions placed on God’s love for us. God wants us to know that His love is unconditional and unlimited, so He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us while we were still unlovable sinners. He loves. He did this in spite of the fact that we did not deserve it.
God’s love is very different from human love. It is not based on feelings or emotions. God doesn’t love us because we are lovable; He loves us because He is love itself. He created us to have a loving relationship with Him, and He sacrificed His own Son to restore that relationship. And as if that were not enough to convince us of His love and concern for us, Jesus, His beloved son, gave up His own life upon the cross in the greatest act of love the world has ever known! In doing so He took our sins away, effectively nailing them to the cross with Himself. Thus, He who knew no sin became sin for us and He who gave life to all, tasted death for those condemned to it.
This is the good news of the Gospel and in his Apostolic Exhortation called ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ Pope Francis tries to bring home this truth to the Christians all over the world. God loves us infinitely, without any limit and conditions. It is out of love that He created us and it is out of love that he sustains us in existence and watches over us every moment and draws us into the fullness of divine life. This is the central message of the Gospel.
God Loved Us First
As we mentioned above, St. John the Apostle, who was privileged to lean on Jesus’ side at the last supper and experience his tender love, gives the shortest and the most beautiful definition of God: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16). God manifested his love by sending his only son into the world. He revealed himself as love in Jesus Christ. St. John writes: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). St. John states that the basis of man’s love, who is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1: 26) is the love of God. “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4: 19). That means that the beginning of the God-man relationship is in God.
The constant presence of Christ, who became Emmanuel through the incarnation, and his merciful love for the world is the recurring theme of the Gospel. God sent the Son into the world to make the world perfect in love through Jesus who is the incarnation of love itself. Christ is the complete manifestation of God’s love. “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (Jn 14:
9). Christ wants to assure us that it is through Him that we experience the infinite love of God. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lam. 3: 22). A Christian should never cease to be aware of the loving presence of God and of his merciful love that is being poured out on him and on the whole world.
Jesus’ Infinite Love on the Cross
The cross is the most eloquent revelation of the unlimited love of God. We experience God’s infinite love for us in his passion and death on the cross. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3: 16), to be crucified for us on the cross. Thus the cross of Calvary stands as the supreme and most sublime expression of God’s love. Through his death on the cross, Jesus showed us to what extent he can stoop down and humiliate himself, to what extent he can suffer for the sake of love. He had said at the last supper: “Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15: 13). He not only called us friends, but he also sacrificed himself for us. “God,who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him” (Eph: 2. 4-6). In these words, St Paul praises God’s unlimited and forgiving love towards us sinners. This love of God is his free gift, not something we earn through our deeds. Therefore Paul calls it grace. Christ’s love extends to those most unworthy of it. He willingly took the punishment of those who tortured Him, hated Him, rebelled against Him, and cared nothing about Him, those who were most undeserving of His love (Rom. 5:6-8). Paul says, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
This is God’s love for the world. We read in St. John: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3: 17). Jesus Christ loved the world so much that He gave his very being for it, he emptied himself and took the form of a servant. One needs only to look at the cross to grasp the depth of God’s untold love for us. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4: 9-10). Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the greatest act of love the world has ever known! We human beings did not deserve such a sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Through his death on the cross Jesus teaches us how to transform this sinful world that is devoid of love and how to overcome evils like hatred, revenge, grudge, anger, envy, jealousy, pride, greed, selfishness, etc., in man. He fought against evil with the weapon of love. Even on the deathbed of the cross his prayer was: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do”(Lk 23: 34) – to forgive those who tormented and crucified him. This is the supreme manifestation of his infinite and unconditional love and mercy. Only a God can pray like this.
How to respond to God’s Love? One requires the readiness to surrender oneself totally to the divine love and the openness of the heart to let God’s love flow in to the soul. The more we understand and experience God’s love, the more will be the desire in our soul to respond to that love. The nature of love is such that it should be returned. We must do this by loving our God ‘with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind’ (Mt. 22: 37; Deut. 6: 1,5). and by ‘loving our neighbour as we love ourselves’.
Jesus says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (Jn 13:34- 35). The divine love that flows into our heart is not to be kept for ourselves; it should overflow into our brothers and sisters. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”. St. John says: “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:11). “By this we know love, that Jesus laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brethren” (1 John 3:16). God’s love is being poured out into us through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. And it is the same Spirit of God who enables us to love one another.
God in His profound love wants us to become His sons and daughters. All we have to do to become His children is to learn to love Him, His family and His creation, as He loves. God’s love is personal. He knows each of us individually and loves us personally. As St. Augustine says, “God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us”. God created each one of us special, and he wants to have a personal relationship with each of us. We must make love the motivating and constantly energizing force of our life in order to grow up to the fullness of our human existence and reach out in love to our brothers and sisters, to all the members of the human family. God stands at the door and knocks. It is up to every individual to respond wholeheartedly to the personal and unconditional love of God.
Fr. James Mundackal CST