The true focus of every Christian is not their salvation, but God. We are supposed to love God first of all, and then, secondly to love neighbor. An obsession with one’s salvation is far more an act of self-love rather than true love.
For true love, the love which God exhibits towards us, and which Christ commands us to do, is focused not on the self but on the other – God first, and then neighbor. Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:
“What should we be interested in? God. Beautiful, marvelous, magnificent, splendid, glorious God Almighty. And His only begotten Son Jesus Christ, born of a virgin on earth; and the all-holy, life-creating Spirit who proceeds from God, dwells in the Son, and is breathed upon us. In God is life, reality, truth, peace, and joy. We need to be interested in the God who saves us, not in salvation as such. We need to be interested in loving God. Life is about God. The Bible is about God. Church is about God. Sacraments are about God.” (The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 230-233)
In THE FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, the beleaguered family patriarch Tevye finds his thinking on marriage to be challenged in different ways by each of his daughters. While the usual way of marriage for the villagers is an arranged marriage by the parents of the bride and the groom, Tevye is confronted with a new idea: people choosing to be married based on their love for one another. Tevye asks his wife if she loves him. She is struck by the question: after 25 years of her raising their children, washing his clothes, cooking his meals, why would he even ask, isn’t it obvious? An issue is raised, do we by our behavior speak love to our spouses in a way that they can understand and feel loved?
I read Gary Chapman”s book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, and found it an interesting read and a potential tool to help couples strengthen their marriages. The book and the tools it offers help people gain self knowledge and also to gain understanding of others. This can help people overcome stumbling blocks in their relationships. Here are a few quotes from the book:
Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving. (Kindle Location 310-312)
Chapman argues that love is a form of language. Humans have different love languages – some behaviors from family and friend make us feel more loved than other behaviors even if all the behaviors are shown to us in love. If I am feeling like a failure, offering me cookies might be comforting, but praising me for deeds I’ve done might be the thing that makes me feel loved.
Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a commitment. It is a choice to show mercy, not to hold the offense up against the offender. Forgiveness is an expression of love. “I love you. I care about you, and I choose to forgive you. Even though my feelings of hurt may linger, I will not allow what has happened to come between us. I hope that we can learn from this experience. You are not a failure because you have failed. You are my spouse, and together we will go on from here.” Those are the words of affirmation expressed in the dialect of kind words. (Kindle Location 463-467)
Forgiveness is central to our Christian lives. Chapman reminds us that forgiving a loved one who has hurt or offended you is an act of love. It is one way we do show love to another.
We forget that marriage is a relationship, not a project to be completed or a problem to solve. A relationship calls for sympathetic listening with a view to understanding the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and desires. (Kindle Location 686-688)
A good reminder for any couples who are struggling – your marriage is not a problem to be solved, but a relationship which requires us to listen and to speak.
But I vacuum our house now, and I vacuum it regularly. There is only one reason I vacuum our house. Love. You couldn’t pay me enough to vacuum a house, but I do it for love. You see, when an action doesn’t come naturally to you, it is a greater expression of love. My wife knows that when I vacuum the house, it’s nothing but 100 percent pure, unadulterated love, and I get credit for the whole thing! (Kindle Location 1613-1616)
We show love in many ways. The issue is that not everyone sees our behavior in the same way. Doing acts of kindness are a form of love, but some people need to be held and touched gently before they feel loved. We can learn the love language of those around us. We can learn the love language we like to speak. We can learn how to love people so that they feel loved.
We both knew it was the choice to love. We had realized that if we continued our pattern of demanding and condemning, we would destroy our marriage. Fortunately over a period of about a year, we had learned how to discuss our differences without condemning each other, how to make decisions without destroying our unity, how to give constructive suggestions without being demanding, and eventually how to speak each other’s primary love language. (Kindle Location 1731-1734)
There is hope. We are able to learn and change and improve our relationships!
Each day when I enter the church, I see these words on an icon:
Those words have been part of my life, week in and week out for 20 years. I cannot get to my office without passing by them. Some days they seem to jump out at me and cause me to stop in my tracks. Sometimes if I mindlessly walk by them, they call me back and I have to stop in front of them and remember.
Jesus’ only new commandment is that we are to love one another as He loved us. Christ commands me to love others as He loves me. That is a tall order for sure. And every day I struggle with what it means and how I might do it, or even if it is possible for me to do it. Of course, I can find ways to make the text more palatable and doable. Since Jesus speaks to us (in the plural) he means that when we are gathered with other like-minded Christians who are all committed to Christian love, then we are to love them in that context since they will equally be loving us back. But then, of course, Christ taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), so our Christian love isn’t limited to those who love us. If it is, how are we any different than unbelievers? (Luke 6:27, 35)
“We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.” – St. John Chrysostom
“Prayer for our enemies is the very highest summit of self-control.” – St. John Chrysostom”
“Praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of the law [of the Gospel].” – St. John Chrysostom
Christ’s Gospel commandments are hard. Sometimes they seem obscure, for how can we do them? Is it humanly possible? Perhaps, Christ just was a utopian idealist, and some day, in heaven or paradise or some distant place, a pie-in-the-sky La La land, things would be so very nice and polite.
However, we live in this world, in which there really are enemies, and people we don’t particularly like or want to be around. What are we to say to Christ when He commands us to do something that seems too hard, or maybe even not possible?
He is our Lord, God and Master, and we are His servants. So before every service I light a candle before this icon which portrays Christ’s commandment, and I have to lay aside all excuses, and say, “Yes, Lord!” Bowing my head in humility, I also have to say, “Forgive me.” Forgive me for doubting it is possible, for not even trying, for not being willing to deny myself in order to follow You, for wanting to sit at your right hand but not being willing to stand with you at the Cross.
“It is a fearful thing to hate whom God has loved. To look upon another – his weaknesses, his sins, his faults, his defects – is to look upon one who is suffering. He is suffering from negative passions, from the same sinful human corruption from which you yourself suffer. This is very important; do not look upon him with the judgmental eyes of comparison, noting the sins you assume you would never commit. Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer, a fellow human being who is in the need of the very healing of which you are in need. Help him, love him, pray for him, do unto him as you would have him do unto you.” – St. Tikhon of Zadonsk
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”(Matthew 5:43-48)
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21
“Christ also taught us to give to all who ask of us: ‘Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again’ (Luke 6:30). Note that no mention is made concerning the recipient’s worthiness. Much like the Old Testament passages quoted previously, these words have no qualifications or moral criteria attached to them. Christ tells to give, when asked. St. Maximus the Confessor offers a similar teaching: He who gives alms in imitation of God does not discriminate between the wicked and the virtuous, the just and unjust, when providing for men’s bodily needs. He gives equally to all according to their need, even though he prefers the virtuous man to the bad man because of the probity of his intention.” (David Beck, For They Shall See God, p 91)
“You hate your enemy? You are foolish. Why? Because if your enemy persecutes you, you also inwardly persecute yourself; for say, is it not persecution, and the most cruel persecution, to torture yourself by your hatred towards your enemy? Love your enemy, and you will be wise. O, if only you knew what a triumph, what blessedness it is to love your enemy, and to do good to him! So did the Son of God, so did God in the Holy Trinity, triumph, and still triumphs, through His love, over the ungrateful and evil-natured human race; so also did God’s saints triumph over their enemies, by loving them and doing good to them. ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…If when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life‘ (Rom 5:10).” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp 62-63)
The amazing thing about God is that God reconciled Himself to us while we were still sinners. God did not wait until we had repented or changed before working to establish peace with us. If we are to love others as Christ loved us (John 13:34), then we aren’t to wait until others repent or change before forgiving them or being reconciled to them. That is to love as Christ loved us.
As I am able, I do Matins three times each week, as I have for the past 30 years. I am a morning person and do appreciate morning prayers for orienting me throughout the day and through the week. As I do Matins, I include the prescribed daily Scripture readings during the service, followed by a few minutes of silent meditation. Matins now begins at 8:30am, as a result of my illnesses and the ongoing chemo, and the fatigue that comes with them.
Some mornings I am alone for Matins, but I never feel alone there. Never feel like chastising parishioners for not showing up. I enjoy Matins because it is a blessing for me. I assume people will come if it is a blessing for them.
One morning, there were 3 parishioners present. I have always felt blessed by my parish and the good people whom God has called together.
As we sat for the silent meditation I looked around and thought how I loved each of these three for different reasons and in different ways. The young mom is cute with her matching 4 year old daughter. She seems to me always kind and friendly despite her suffering with an autoimmune illness. The one man is a good friend and intellectual equal with a very level headed attitude about everything. I enjoy talking with him. The other man suffers from mental illness and is an addict, and I feel great compassion for him and his many struggles. He wants to be normal, and yet it escapes him as he escapes reality.
I think that I really do love them each for different reasons. But then, into my head comes Christ’s words, “love one another even as I have loved you…” (John 13:34). Although I imagine that I really do love each of these my fellow parishioners, I realize I’m reacting to them, sympathizing and empathizing with them. Yet this is still not how Christ loves me. Christ is not merely empathetic and sympathetic to me. He empties Himself for my salvation. He dies for me, forgives me and restores my humanity to me. He leads me to the kingdom of heaven.
I have to transfigure what I think of as my love so that I love them as Christ loves me. The love is not based in my emotions or assessment of each of them. Rather the love is found in Christ.
I realize how far short I am of loving them as Christ loves me. My love is imperfect, and more a feeling noun than an action verb. I realize how far short I am from Christ’s teaching, and from His example. Yet, He still takes time to speak to me.
I have to call to mind how Christ loves me, so that I can know how to rightly love them. St. Paul puts it in these terms: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). To love others as Christ loves me means to be crucified with Christ and to have Christ live in me. Again, St. Paul says: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (Ephesians 5:1). I still have a long way to walk before I do that. Yet I realize, these days my walks are so much shorter than they used to be.
“And so when the Lord said, This is my commandment, that you love one another, he added immediately, just as I have loved you.
He means that we must love for the same reason he has loved us. My friends, when the devils draws us to take pleasure in passing things, he also stirs up a weak neighbor against us. This neighbor may plot to take away the very things we love. In this case, our enemy is not concerned with doing away with our earthly possessions; he wants to destroy our love. We may suddenly begin to burn with hatred, and while we try to be outwardly invulnerable, inwardly we are gravely wounded. As we defend our few external possessions we lose our great interior one, because when we love something passing we lose true love. Anyone who takes away one of our external possessions is an enemy; if we begin to hate this enemy, our loss is not of anything external, but of something insides ourselves. And so whenever we suffer anything from a neighbor, we must be on our guard against the enemy hidden within. Our best way of overcoming this inner enemy is to love the one who is attacking us from without. The unique and supreme proof of love is this: to love a person who opposes us.
That is why Truth himself bore the suffering of the cross, and even bestowed his love on his persecutors. He said, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Should we marvel that his living disciples love their enemies when their dying Master loved his? He expressed the extent of his love when he said that no one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends. The Lord had come to die even for his enemies. He said that he would lay down his life for his friends to show us that we are able to win over our enemies by our love for them, then even our persecutors are our friends. But no one is persecuting us to the point of death, and so how can we prove that we love our friends? In fact there is something we ought to do during times of peace to make clear whether we are strong enough to die for the sake of love during a time of persecution. John, the author of the gospel I have been quoting from, says in his first letter: Those who have this world’s goods and see a brother or sister in need, and who close their hearts, how does God’s love dwell in them? And John the Baptist says: Let one who has two coats give to one who has none. Will those who refuse to give up a coat for the sake of God during a time of peace give up their lives during a persecution?
You must cultivate the virtue of love during times of tranquility by showing mercy, and then your love will be unconquerable in a time of chaos. First you must learn to give up your possessions for almighty God, and then yourself. You are my friends… How great is our Creator’s mercy! We were unworthy servants, and he calls us friends! How great is our human dignity, that we should be friends of God! Now listen to what this dignity costs: if you do what I command you. And we have already heard that this is my commandment, that you love one another.” (Spiritual Readings from St. Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, pp 48-50)
Often when human relationships falter, there is a lot of blaming that goes on. Those dealing with such situations quickly tire of all the blaming, faultfinding, and finger pointing which only helps to escalate hostilities. The blame game. And those who see it express the sanity of “stop blaming everyone else.” While we appreciate the wisdom of this in personal relationships, we might find it harder to accept when applied to world events.
One thing one can notice in Orthodox prayers dealing with war and adversaries is that many of them do not blame the enemy, but start with personal repentance and asking God’s forgiveness. The assumption is that if terrible things are happening to us, it is because we are sinners. These assumptions and prayers are not always satisfying as they do not attempt to justify our own reactions to things, nor do they validate our point of view, nor do they vilify the enemy. The prayers do not rely on human ideas of justice or righteous retribution. They are one Christian way to deal with the antagonisms and aggression we experience in life (and might even inflict on others).
Below are a few prayers shaped by Orthodox Tradition which do not allow us to accept a self-pitying victimization point of view. They seek God’s help and mercy. The proactive prayer in Orthodoxy has us repenting first and approaching God in humility, not asserting our righteousness, but asking God’s mercy first. We approach our God on 9/11 with humble hearts, acknowledging the pain of the evil we have experienced. We recognize what evil has done to us while beseeching God for mercy.
O Lord our God, our help and assistance. You are just and merciful, and You hear the prayers of Your people. We humbly beg You to look down now upon us sinners and have mercy upon us. Through your deep and abiding love for us, deliver us all from this evil that has befallen on our nation from the senseless, violent and evil actions of terrorists and have mercy on us.
To those taken from us by these evil actions, give them rest with the saints in a place where there is no pain, sorrow or sighing, but life everlasting. Sustain and heal those who have been physically harmed but live on, and bring them to full restoration and health by Your Grace. For the families and friends of those killed or injured, grant them, O Lord, comfort, aid and mercy. Deliver them from the assaults of the evil one and grant them Your mercy.
O Lord, while we do not understand the purpose of these tragedies, we believe that you allow trials in life so that we may learn to trust in Your Love and Complete Goodness. Grant everyone awareness of your Presence, Your All-encompassing Love, and Your True Peace. Fill our hearts with Your Hope and inspire us to cherish life as well as defend against all violence, for all life is precious and comes from You the True Source of every good thing. Protect us and have mercy on us.
Endow us with patience and strength to endure all tribulations with an awareness of Your truth, and teach us to learn by our holy submission to Your gracious Will. You know our misery and suffering and to You, our only True Hope and Refuge, we flee for relief and comfort. We trust in Your infinite love and compassion. Deliver us from evil in these troubled times. Turn all of our distress into comfort, so that we can rejoice in Your mercy, and always exalt and praise Your Holy Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The Lord Jesus taught those who would listen: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36; see all Matthew 5:43-48)
Among the most difficult sayings of Christ are His words specifically directed to how we should treat our enemies. Some have tried to take His Gospel commandments regarding enemies literally, others have tried to interpret them more “pragmatically” to make them either more palatable or doable. S0me have wrestled with them trying to understand what the words could possibly mean. Others have treated them as a mystery that represent an “other-worldly” ideal but not practical in the real world.
Of course in life there can be many different kinds of enemies, not all of them make us think of a military or lethal response. When nations are enemies that might involve armies. But one can have political enemies and fight on the level of words. On a personal level we may consider someone an enemy without ever feeling threatened by them or without our trying to harm them. Even within families or Christian parishes people can become enemies one of another over issues great and small. On this level enemies might even figure out some way to get along by simply using avoidance. In the modern world we have also recognized the existence of frenemies, which is another level of the enemy phenomenon. Christ made no distinctions in His teachings on enemies. His words stand as commandments on how to treat any enemies. St Basil the Great says:
“An enemy is by definition one who obstructs, ensnares and injures others. He is therefore a sinner. We ought to love his soul by correcting him and doing everything possible to bring him to conversion. We ought to love his body too by coming to his aid with the necessities of life. That love for our enemies is possible and has been shown to us by the Lord himself. He revealed the Father’s love and his own by making himself ‘obedient unto death’, [Phil. 2:8] as the Apostle says, not for his friends’ sake so much as for his enemies. ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’ [Rom. 5:8] And God exhorts us to do the same. ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.’ [Eph. 5:1-2] God would not ask this of us as a right and proper thing to do, if it were not possible. On the other hand, is it not perhaps true than an enemy can be as much help to us as a friend can? Enemies earn for us the beatitude of which the Lord speaks when he says: ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kind of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.’ [Matt. 5:11-12]” (in Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, pp 232-233)
The last comments by St Basil bring to mind A Prayer for One’s Enemies, St. Nikolai Velimirovich’s prayer for those who hate and oppress us. Sometimes enemies can inspire in us a desire to change and to be more Christ like.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, RSV)
“Like faith, love is a word people fill with all kinds of significance. For many, love is an emotion rather than an action. For Paul, however, love is a verb, an action. This becomes especially clear in the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 13. Where the English translations have a series of adjectives ascribed to love (‘love is patient, love is kind,’, etc.), the Greek text that Paul actually wrote has a string of verbs associated with love. The closest we can get in English is to translate them as ‘love acts patiently, love does kindness,’ etc.
Like faith, then, for Paul love is an action-word, a covenantal term that describes the fundamental relationship that should exist among God’s people and from God’s people toward others. If faith is the essential ‘vertical’ relationship in the covenant, love is its corollary ‘horizontal’ relationship. Faith expresses itself in love (Gal. 5:6).” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, p 156)
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.(1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NKJV)