In my thirty years on this earth, I have strived to live according to the commandments handed down by God fully manifest in the incarnate and risen Jesus Christ. It is never easy, regardless of which commandment. While all are challenging in their own respect, a product of our broken nature resulting from the sin of Adam and Eve, certain commandments prove more burdensome than others. But I would argue that the most difficult one to follow is not to give in to lust, greed, or envy (as some might imagine), but to love each other.
Our Lord told us that the greatest commandment is to wholly love God, and the second greatest is like it: to love our neighbors as ourselves. But why is this such a difficult commandment? Because our salvation depends on it.
Christ gave us a promise and a warning after he instructed us on how to pray the Lord’s Prayer. He said, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:14-15).
It does not take much experience to realize how difficult that is. Look no further than social media to see countless people giving in to hateful—and frankly cancerous—ideologies and conspiracy theories that dehumanize others. When we encounter people like this, it is easy for us to conclude that we never want to see any of these people again.
But why can’t we simply ignore people who have embraced dangerous ideas? For one thing, it would be contrary to our Lord’s commandment to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19). Jesus does not want us to retreat from the world, but rather to go forth, often in the face of the evil that influences our brothers and sisters. While it will be the work of the Holy Spirit who will truly convert souls, we must keep ourselves engaged. This can be incredibly trying, considering all the hatred that men and women have embraced throughout history, including in our present day.
Christ has given us a model to follow. During the Last Supper discourse (Jn 13:34), he commands us to love one another “as I have loved you.” That’s the answer: we must love as God loves us. One way that has helped me to understand God’s love for us is to turn to one of the first true theologians in the Church: St. Irenaeus of Lyons and his magnum opus, Against Heresies.
St. Irenaeus—a student of St. Polycarp, who had been taught by John the Evangelist—examines the metaphysics revolving around the classic question, “Who created God?” To summarize his argument: God is immaterial because having tangible parts demonstrates a dependency of some kind. St. Irenaeus uses this starting point as an opportunity to provide us with a powerful paradox: Because God does not need us, that is a sign of his love for us.
God has no needs and no dependencies on anything whatsoever. Yet we exist, a sign that we were created by him. But he was not in any way obliged to create us, and we must remember that no other being—spiritual or physical—can create beyond the knowledge and power of God. Everything that is created is of his hand. His decisions to create are rooted in desire and are acts of generosity.
It is also important for us to remember when contemplating this that God does not have emotions. Emotions are an attribute of created beings. They can influence our decisions, and often for the worse. Our existence, therefore, is truly his will—a reflection of himself.
We can go even further. St. Irenaeus elaborates on the creation of the sabbath, a day for us to become holy. This is an opportunity for us to grow with the God who made us. Remembering the metaphysics of God, should we cooperate with him and go to Heaven, he gains nothing. Should we reject him and be condemned to Hell, he loses nothing. His grace to us is not for his benefit, but ours.
Truly the most important part of my journey of self-discovery was my realization that God (who is self-sufficient and is incapable of gaining or losing) created and redeemed me as part of his will. While I have not committed any atrocities, there certainly have regrettably been moments when I truly hurt others. To know that my Heavenly Father is always ready to forgive me is one of the greatest consolations he can give. It is also vital to understand that those who have hurt me over the years not only needed repentance, but also stood before their Father yearning to bring them back to goodness.
But this extends to the whole of creation, beyond my immediate circle. Innumerable saints continue to inspire us, but many of us have been terribly wicked. Still, no one is an accidental creation, every person has been deliberately and willfully made by God in his image and likeness. There is no exclusion. All of us are made in the same manner, and any of us—myself included—might have very well gone down a sinful path. And if it is unreasonable to believe that God would give up and exclude me from his mercy, then this must also be the case for the greatest of sinners?
This is found in the parables of Christ, the stories that express his desire to win back sinners. The father seeks the Prodigal Son and celebrates his return. The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine behind so he can search for the one lost sheep. He then brings it back proudly on his shoulders. Christ says he dwells with the prisoners, and not just the ones who committed misdemeanors, but all prisoners, including the most wicked. When Peter asked if it was reasonable to forgive somebody seven times, Jesus responded that it should be as many as seventy-seven (Mt 18:21-22). And writhing in pain during his crucifixion, Jesus begged his Father to forgive those who had pierced him. God made them, too.
When we see our brothers and sisters engage in reprehensible sins of any kind, let us not turn away in hatred. Rather, let us remember that they were made by God with the same desire that he made us. Let us share in God’s desire for their redemption. In this way, we will truly understand what Our Lord meant when he said, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 15:7).
Image: Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., The Father’s Embrace, National Gallery in Washington DC. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Source: https://flic.kr/p/DYZUH2