Love is a Gift of God“For God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only begotten son, in order that whoever believes into him should not perish but have everlasting life.” 1
Love is our gift to the world because Love is God’s gift to us.
Bear with me while I tell you of a dream through which God’s gift of Love was made more real to me than it had ever been before. I was in a huge auditorium-like courtroom. I was on trial. The charge: unfaithfulness to God. Everyone I had ever met was present and filled the auditorium. The charge was presented, I pled guilty, and sentence was passed—death and hell. Though it was a dream, I felt deeply the trauma of that moment, knowing as I did that the sentence was right and just. But then I flashed back in the dream to a point just before the sentencing. In this flashback, Jesus entered the courtroom from a back entrance. The court proceedings stopped. The courtroom fell silent as Jesus walked slowly down the long aisle and over to where I was seated. He said nothing but motioned for me to stand. When I did so, he took my seat. The court proceedings resumed and Jesus took my sentence.
I was appalled and overwhelmed and incredulous and grateful. I awoke crying, having learned experientially something of the cost of God’s Love. Never since have I been able to contemplate casually the cross of Jesus. Never since have I been tempted to denigrate the Love of God, for I know the dream portrayed the reality. What I experienced there was a vision of what has really transpired—and that billions of times over.
Dorothy Day asks, “What is God but love? What is religion without love? We read of the saints dying for love and wonder what it means…. Our Lord did that, but most people no longer believe in Him.”2 Aren’t we a crazy people? We say we are dying for love, we sing odes to it, we saturate our language with it, and bombard ourselves with televised and printed images of it, but when we are presented with the real thing, we neither recognize nor accept it.
Love is a free gift. Agape love is a free gift of God. Perhaps it is the very fact that it is free that makes it difficult to accept. In our Western society at least, we have our minds set against anything labeled “free.” Such a label often means that (1), the gift offered isn’t worth much and (2), there’s a catch to it.
What about the gift of agape? What is it worth? The value of a gift may be measured either by its cost to the one who gives it or by its worth to the one receiving it. In the case of God’s gift of agape, I think it can fairly be said that it cost him a great deal. God laid the life of his “only begotten son” on the line in giving his Love. If our freedom to accept or reject his Love means anything at all, then his gift was at the risk that nobody might accept it, that all of us might choose to go our own way. There was the risk that all the pain and trauma of the cross might have been for naught. But that risk, that insecurity, that possibility of indescribable heartbreak was, for God, part of the cost of loving.
Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s gift of his own life for us. It was a gift so reckless and given with such abandonment of self as to exceed the limits of human credibility. But it happened. History attests to it and both our faith and life experiences affirm it. From the standpoint of the one giving it, it was a gift of unsurpassed worth, costing Life itself.
Love? Would there have been resurrection? For all his riches, God had nothing greater to give. Having given his Love, was there anything left that could have been as effective in wooing us to him? If Love had not worked, nothing else would have. Perhaps all, all, would have been lost—which leads us to the second question.
Is there a catch to God’s gift of Love? Is it a gift with strings attached? After all, what is it that Love wants to effect? What is the goal of Divine Love? Love has been defined, as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”3 Love may also be defined as the pull towards unity of that which should never have been separated, as the urge towards the healing of relationships that are broken, thus a move to wholeness. Yes, if spiritual growth, unity, restoration and wholeness constitute a “catch,” then there is definitely a catch to agape Love. God is out to kill us with Love. He is out to kill that man or woman who is living the illusion of separateness, transforming us into that image of himself in which he first created us. He is out to kill the illusion and confront us with our essential unity with each other, with our shared identity, and with our birthright of oneness with himself.
The pull towards unity, towards oneness, is the pull on the created towards the Creator. The Hebrew prophet spoke for God, “You shall seek me and find me, when you shall search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). In loving us, it is God’s purpose to bring us back to himself, to reestablish the union which once was and, in so doing, to restore us to our true selves. Yes, there is a “catch” indeed. In responding to God’s gift of his Love we are freed from the bondage of our illusion of separateness and we come into the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God. In responding to his gift, we reestablish our “luminous and noble” place in God’s family.
There is imagery in Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” where God is portrayed as the relentless pursuer, we the pursued. God pursues us until, at last, there is no escape. But we try to flee, even though we should know that the quest for independence is futile. “This is eternal life,” Jesus prayed, “that they should know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) God so loves that he gives—even to the point of pursuing us to do it.
Love is a gift of God. It is the free and sacrificial gift of Jesus Christ. It is a gift of union, of wholeness and of life—and that eternal. It is also a gift which, when openly received, transforms us and infuses us with the same capacity and compulsion to be channels of agape for others. It is only natural that when we come into union with the giver of Divine Love, into a real oneness, we will participate in the giving. In receiving Love, we become Love. Love becomes our nature. And in so becoming Love we learn first hand a little of what it cost God. We, too, experience the pain and trauma of being misunderstood and rejected. But worse still, we see those we love still trapped in their illusion, still trying to go it alone when all the freedom of life in God, life in its unimaginable fullness, is theirs for the asking. We learn what God has always known—that we must love and accept all persons just as they are and love them for who, in God, they can become.
>When we give the Love that God has given us, we allow ourselves to be drawn closer to those we are given to love. “…this aspect of love says, ‘I love you as you can be, beyond who and what you are now, in your boundless possibilities. I dream of you, for you, and with you toward a limitless future of love’. In Gabriel Marcel’s phrase…’I hope in you for us.’”3
The gift of God’s Love is given to others through us. We, too, are Divine Lovers. The gift we have been given is ours to give. “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.” (Luke 12:48)
1 Author’s translation of John 3:16. The use of “into” to translate the Greek eis is consistent with the usual translation of that preposition. It also adds significantly to the meaning of the text.
2 Robert Ellsberg, ed., By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day (New York: Alfred A. Knopft, 1983), p. 226.
3 W. Harold Grant, Magdala Thompson, and Thomas E. Clarke, From Image to Likeness: A Jungian Path in the Gospel Journey (New York; Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 192