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Sunday 25 October 2020

 

Love and happiness

Psalm 1; Matthew 22:34-46

 

By Simon J Taylor

Director of Ministry Development, Diocese of Bristol

Context: a mixed urban congregation

Aim: to encourage Christians to see love as a decision

Happiness, says the Psalmist, is found in delighting in the law of God. The law, says Jesus, is summed up in two commandments – to love God and to love our neighbour as ourself. We are commanded to love.

 

FOUR STAGES OF LOVE

Help can be found in St Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval writer and monk. Bernard spoke of four stages to love. First, there is love of self for self’s sake. Second, there is love of God for self’s sake. Third, is love of God for God’s sake. And finally, there is love of self for God’s sake.

The love of self for self’s sake seems selfish. But don’t judge it too quickly, it truly is the first stage of love. Those who can’t love themselves will find this stage a liberation. The first stage of love is to find ourselves lovable. This is a foundation for love. If we don’t love ourselves, any love we might have for others will be brittle. It will not last, because it is not rooted in love itself.

The love of God for self’s sake, takes us beyond ourselves. We learn to love another, one who loves us. This mutual love opens us out from ourselves. We build on the foundation of the love that we have for ourselves as we love another.

The love of God for God’s sake is when the adventure of our love of God really takes off. Our love for God leads us to do things that really give of ourselves, to go to places and people we wouldn’t choose, to respond to God’s call more deeply.

The love of self for God’s sake is the hardest. It is to see ourselves as God sees us, to know all the selfish, hurtful or sinful things we do and to know that God loves us anyway. It is when we love self for God’s sake that we remove the conditions we impose on God’s love. God loves us, and nothing we do can change this.

 

LOVING OTHERS

It is through loving our neighbours that we learn to love God. Elsewhere we read that ‘no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is make perfect in us’ (1 John 4:12). The same passage goes on: ‘If anyone says, ‘I love God’, and hates their brother or sister, they are a liar; for anyone who does not love their brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen’ (1 John 4:20).

We learn to love first of all from our parents, and then from family, friends, partners and spouses. We learn to love as we encounter other people. Love is seen in our actions, not in our words or our feelings. God has made us in such a way that we need other people to teach us how to love. God gives us the great gift of other people, family, friends, strangers, even enemies, so that we can truly learn how to love.

God’s love is hard work. It takes all our heart and soul and mind. But it is rooted in the God’s nature. God is love. God is secure in that love. There is no rivalry, no competition, no conditions applied to God’s love. As we love our neighbours as ourselves, we stop seeing other people as our rivals for love, we stop competing with others for love, we stop putting conditions on love.

 

DECIDE TO LOVE

Let me finish with a practical challenge: Don’t see love as a feeling, but as a decision. Decide this week to love someone you find difficult, and act on that decision. It could be yourself. That would be an important step on the ladder of love. Decide to love the person at work who gets on your nerves; or your brother or sister who you keep falling out with. Decide to love them. Pray for them each day this week, asking God to help you to love them. And act on your decision, behave towards them in a way that is loving.

It’s a difficult challenge, I know. But it is a reflection of the God we worship, whose Son’s death on a cross is the fullest picture of love we have. God commands us to love, and in doing so to find our deepest happiness.

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