The Simplicity and Difficulty of Love
Love starts with the humility that we need to turn to and be joined to Jesus Christ who is Love in order to love ourselves or others.
“I’ve heard that [soccer] is a stupid sport for intelligent people, because the simplest things are truly also the most difficult to get right.” —Massimiliano Allegri
Italian coach and former soccer player Massimiliano Allegri might also have been talking about this Sunday’s Gospel. Stripped down to its essence, Jesus’ teaching is simple: love God and love your neighbor.
So if it’s so simple, how come we can’t ever get it right?
Perhaps because it’s not so simple. Perhaps because we are broken. And perhaps because we don’t seek help.
There is a mindset in some church circles that “loving” God is just simply saying, “I love God,” or having “good, good, good, good vibrations.” It’s about a smile and a positive, can-do attitude.
All those things are nice — but hardly reach to what Jesus meant by love of God or neighbor.
Yes, Jesus said to “love.” But He also specified what love meant. “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). That already gives you ten specifications about what love entails: putting God first; giving God the respect and worship due Him; honoring human authority, starting with its primordial, parental form; not dishonoring God’s gift of life, at least by not killing; not dishonoring God’s gift of sexuality; honoring what belongs to others; dealing with others truthfully; and not coveting what is not yours. People are willing “to love” in some amorphous abstract. It’s the details they get stuck on.
But declarations of love absent the “proof in the pudding” are empty. “If anyone says, ‘I know God’ but does not do what He commands, is a liar” (I John 2:4). “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ but hates his brother, he is a liar” (I John 4:20).
It’s kind of like saying “I am for life,” until it actually comes to doing something about it — especially where life is most threatened today, in the case of the unborn, the ill, the aged, and incapacitated. The sentiments are nice but sterile.
So, love of God is not as simple as it sounds. It is especially is not so simple because love — be it of God or even my fellow human beings — requires me to get out of myself. That has always been a problem, especially after man’s Fall. It’s especially a problem in the modern world, where “looking out for # 1” and a constant refocusing on self is extolled.
Consider just one cultural phenomenon. 25 years ago, how many times might you have been asked on a vacation by a stranger to “take a picture of us?” Today, how many of those pictures “of us” have been replaced by “selfies?” Even 25 year ago, would one have thought that the opportunities modern information technology puts at our fingertips should be employed to send the world a picture of the sandwich I am about to consume?
Sin has broken human beings by turning them away from others — God, their fellow people, creation — and into themselves. Jesus told us to put God first, but our “spiritual” age — especially those who invent their “spirituality” as they go along — often envisions “the god in us.” Modernity might call it a discovery, although the idea was advanced by the snake at the start of human history (Genesis 3:5). We proclaim that “Jesus told us to call God ‘Our Father’” and declare “Thy will be done” when we really mean “My will be done.”
Do we still wonder why, as Allegri notes, “the simplest things are the most difficult to get right?”
Speaking of brokenness, people are of two camps on that question. On the one hand, we succumb to Rousseau’s temptation of progress: things are always going to get better. The future will be better than the past. “The arc of history bends towards justice.”
Considering that the 20th century mastered the art of genocide on a scale that would have made earlier ages blush, I think the vacuity of the “moral progress” claim demonstrated.
The other brokenness camp, however, is what do we do about it. Again, here, two paths diverge. Those still clinging to the myth of progress look for human redemption in this world: just create the right social conditions, just put in place the right social policy or system, and we can eliminate economic injustice, systemic racism, disease, inequality of opportunity, poverty, and acid indigestion. At least until I become jealous of the Jones’ next shiny new bauble that I don’t have. Human-designed Utopias — be they Marxism, socialism, the War on Poverty, liberation theology, or national healthcare — have neither ushered in the eschaton nor given us a much more loving world.
Perhaps, then, the problem of brokenness needs to be met by acknowledgement of human insufficiency, but for the grace of God, to do as “simple” a thing as love … and to seek, instead, that grace.
That’s what Jesus meant in calling himself “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Other ways lead nowhere. That still doesn’t deter us from following them, belting out as we go along that, “I took the blows and did it my way!” — even though the only outcome is that you’ve been badly pummeled and still back where you started.
St. Augustine masterfully boiled it down. There are ultimately two “loves” — amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui, et amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei — love of God even to the contempt of one’s self, and love of self even to the contempt of God. That each one claims to be “love” hardly means they each fulfill the Lord’s two Great Commandments.
Love starts with the humility that we need to turn to and be joined to Him who is Love (1 John 4:8) in order to love ourselves or others. It’s that simple … which is why it’s so hard to get right.