Love of God
The more we love God, the more we will grow in holiness.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (Luke 1:46)
Greatest Virtue and Commandment
As we grow in the theological virtues, we grow in sanctifying grace. Having covered the virtues of faith and hope in the last chapter, we now turn to the greatest of the three theological virtues, the virtue of charity. The Catechism states: “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Charity is the last of the three theological virtues and the most important one. St. Paul writes, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). And without love, says St. Paul, everything is meaningless:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1–3)
Charity is the preeminent virtue that gives life and meaning to the other virtues and orders them in perfect harmony.
Not only is charity the greatest virtue, but it is also the greatest commandment in both the Old and New Testaments. In Judaism, the commandment to love God is known as the Shema, which refers to the first two words: “Hear, O Israel.” This most important commandment remains the centerpiece of Judaism and its liturgical and prayer life. God gives the great commandment through Moses to His people:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deut. 6:4–7)
The Shema is recited at every Jewish morning and evening prayer service and is considered the most important part of the prayer service by observant Jews.
In the New Testament, Jesus confirms that to love is the most important of all the commandments:
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:34–40)
These two commandments form the two parts of the virtue of charity: love of God and love of neighbor. We will see more clearly that the two cannot be separated. To love God is to love our neighbor, and we love our neighbor because of our love for God.
In order to love God, we have to know and experience His infinite love for us. Many people do not love God because they do not know Him and have no knowledge or experience of His love for them. How can you love someone whom you do not know? The Jewish people first had to learn that there is but one God. God chose to reveal that He is the only true God to the Israelites and, ultimately, to the whole world. He made a covenant with the chosen people: He would be their God, and they would be His people. In this covenant, God revealed His love and care for His people, liberating them from slavery in Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land. In return, the people were to be faithful to the Lord by loving Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
In a polytheistic world, it was earth-shattering to discover that there was but one God. This meant that the Lord created every person and everything in the universe, and that He sustains and keeps everything and every person in existence. Through His providence, the Lord protects and provides for every living creature. As such, each person owes his or her entire life to the Lord and is to love God with his or her entire being.
Let us examine what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. First, the heart is the innermost part of the person. It is where we decide to respond to God’s love or to reject it. If we love God with all our heart, then every decision or choice we make must be consistent with our love for God; that is, it must be pleasing to God and bring us closer to Him. Second, the soul is the life-force of a person. To love God with all our soul is to give our time and our life over to the Lord. This entails sacrificing our own interests in order to serve the Lord’s interests. It means dying to self and living for God alone. Third, the mind includes our thoughts, imagination, knowledge, understanding, and memory. Do we use all our mental faculties for the praise and glory of God? How often do we think about God, contemplate His goodness, or seek to know and understand Him? Do we entertain selfish thoughts and sinfully indulge our imagination? How often do we dwell on negative experiences rather than God’s blessings? All our mental abilities should be animated and directed toward the love and glory of God. And fourth, to love God with all our strength is to be our best in everything for the glory and honor of His name. This includes refraining from doing anything that is sinful or displeasing to God and going out of our way to show our love for God by acts of worship and charity.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.