PERFECTING IMPERFECT LOVE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ 1 JN 4:11-18; MK 6:45-52 ]
We all know the two great commandments that Jesus gave us. Jesus said, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:29-31) St John in the first reiterates this when he wrote, “No one has ever seen God; but as long as we love one another God will live in us and his love will be complete in us.”
But the truth is that our love of God is imperfect. How many of us can say that we love God with all our heart, with all our mind and with every ounce of our strength? How many of us can say that God is the center of our lives, that everything we do is always in reference to Him and He is above everything and everyone else? The reality is that we have our daily preoccupations, our anxieties and responsibilities. At times, we are too distracted even to pay attention to what we are praying because of preoccupation with our problems, the temptations of the world, or we are too tired even to pray.
So too, our love for our neighour is imperfect. Whilst we all enjoy loving those who love us and appreciate our love, it is quite different loving those who are difficult to love, those who are demanding, those who are always opposing us, those who do not value us or even see us as their allies. Even loving our loved ones can be quite tiring because we are often taken for granted and some can be very demanding of our time and attention. This is why we get impatient, annoyed and angry with them even though we love them. We feel burnt out and unable to find the strength to continue loving them cheerfully or joyfully. Soon, it becomes an obligation that we carry out with resentment, anger and bitterness.
Finally, our love for ourselves is equally imperfect. Many of us cannot accept our imperfections, especially our failure to love God and our neighbour perfectly. We feel guilty that we often break His commandments and allow our human frailties to take control over us. We choose the sensual world of pleasure as an escape from the demands of life. And when we do that, we feel sad that we are not perfect in love. We cannot forgive ourselves for our selfishness, impatience with others, for allowing our anger and emotional outbursts to take the better of us. We feel worthless and useless. We think we do not deserve the love of God. We feel hypocritical at the same time, ashamed of ourselves.
Indeed, if we feel this way, then we are like the apostles and disciples of Jesus. Their love for the Lord too, was imperfect. They had ulterior motives for following Jesus: some for security, some for healing, some for material gains, like Judas. Others, like James and John, were hoping for power, wealth and glory. Others had political motives. They were ignorant of Jesus. As Mark remarked, “They were utterly and completely dumbfounded, because they had not seen what the miracle of the loaves meant; their minds were closed.”
What is it that we have failed to understand? Namely this: that we cannot love perfectly. We need to acknowledge that we are sinners and incapable of perfect love. We need to accept our own brokenness and limitations in loving God and our brothers and sisters perfectly. This is the first stage to perfecting our love for God and for others. Unless we accept our finite and imperfect love, we live in denial and this will lead us to self-hatred.
Acknowledgement and acceptance of our sinful condition is the doorway to accepting the love of God. We must accept the love of God for us, a love that is unconditional. We might not be worthy of His love but we are not worthless in His eyes. The incarnation of our Lord was to reveal to us this immense love of God for us, a love that is unconditional, total, without reservation. Indeed, God not only loves the world and gave us His only begotten Son but He gave us the life of His Son in His passion and death. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us.” (Rom 8:32) This is what St John urges us to put our faith in. “We ourselves saw and we testify that the Father sent his Son as saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him, and he in God. We ourselves have known and put our faith in God’s love towards ourselves.” It is this conviction of God’s love for us, not in spite but because we are sinners, that should really cause us to be dumbfounded and amazed!
Once we know that we are loved, not because we are perfect in love but in our imperfections, then we no longer have to worry about not loving God enough or be guilty when we fail Him in love. St John wrote, “Love will come to its perfection in us when we can face the day of Judgement without fear; because even in this world we have become as he is. In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love: because to fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid still is imperfect in love.” Fear is what causes us to lack love and acceptance of our sinful nature. We feel the need to prove and to show that we are perfect because we are often motivated by pride and egoism rather than love of God and neighbour.
When we believe that God loves us with all our imperfections, then we can start loving ourselves. Loving ourselves authentically does not mean that we just continue with our sinful life. Rather, we are now motivated to love ourselves even more authentically by allowing God’s love to shape and mould us. In truth, we want to love, not because we fear that we will be rejected by God but because we also want to share in God’s love and life that He has given to us. Loving ourselves and our neighbour is the way to share in His life. This is what John wrote, “No one has ever seen God; but as long as we love one another God will live in us and his love will be complete in us. We can know that we are living in him and he is living in us because he lets us share his Spirit.”
When we learn to love ourselves the way God loves us, then we too can accept the imperfect love of our neigbours. Our model of love is that of our Lord. St John said, “My dear people, since God has loved us so much, we too should love one another.” So even when our neighbours are imperfect in loving us or in responding to our love, we will continue to love them just the same, because that is how God loves us. He does not demand that we are good before He loves us. Nay, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) We too are now inspired to love the same way that the Lord has shown us how to love. In this way, we do not get angry or disillusioned or retaliate when those whom we love are ungrateful or take our love for granted. We continue to give them whatever love we can give, even if that love is also imperfect and limited. We should be thankful that we are able to love at all.
In the final analysis, the strength to love like the Lord comes from our intimacy with Him. In the gospel, Jesus shows us the finest example of how love of God and love of neigbour go together. The Lord Jesus, after sending the crowd away, tired out after a long day of preaching and ministering, and needing spiritual recharge, “went off into the hills to pray.” He was in deep intimacy with His Father. But being with the Father did not mean that He was away from His Church, symbolized by the boat the disciples were in. They, like the Church, were buffeted by the storms of life. And we read that the Lord “could see they were worn out with rowing, for the wind was against them.” He walked towards them and assured them of His presence, “‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them, and the wind dropped.” So we take heart that the Lord, even at prayer, is also with us.
Hence, we too must follow Jesus in the way of love, namely the love of God precedes the love of men. There is no dichotomy between intimacy with Christ and intimacy with the Church. The more we pray and spend time with the Lord, the more we will fall in love with His Church. If we lack love for the Church, it is because we lack love for Christ. When we make time for the Lord in prayer, we will become more active in loving our neighbours out of the love that we have received from Him. And the more we love our neighbours, the more we encounter God’s presence and love in and through them in our service. So together, the love of God, the love of neighbour and love of self make that triangle of love. In this way, our imperfect love is perfected through His grace.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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