Christ said, “They will know you are Christians by your love.” As a child we used to sing a song with those lyrics and I wonder if my memory accurately represents my experience when it puts our singing of that song always in the context of witnessing.
If so, then it would seem that we were treating loving one another as a rhetorical activity. We were taking Jesus’ words to imply that we should love each other so we could be better witnesses.
It seems to me that we have minimized a crucially important principle or habit of Christian thought. I know I have to remind myself constantly to return to this principle. It’s what Cindy Rollins named one of my favorite blogs: Ordo Amoris: the order of affections.
I suspect most people would agree that our culture is not fond of hierarchy. As a result, our thinking has a tendency not to correspond to reality. It tends to put use above truth and to treat everything as equal.
In particular, we often fail to distinguish or rightly order duty and blessings. Naturally, we want the blessings. But blessings are Gods to give, not ours to take. If we disregard the intensity (for lack of a better word) or perpetual resoluteness of His love and wisdom, we come to fear whether we’ll see those blessings.
Duties, on the other hand, are treated like a bad thing. In actual fact, they are what make us human and enable us to attain blessedness. They are our deepest joy.
God commands us to do certain things, such as worship Him alone, honor our parents, don’t steal, etc. When we are young, or at least immature, these may be burdensome duties. Sometimes loving one’s spouse is a burdensome duty. Sometimes loving one’s children is a burdensome duty. Sometimes love is a burden. Sometimes love demands our complete self-surrender.
But when we accept the duty and put our appetites aside, we become human beings.
This bothers modern people because we want to feel good about our love. We think that loving freely arises from the happiness loving gives us. This is a deep practical and theological error.
Love to the Christian is not a product of his passions or appetites. The love by which “they will know you are Christians,” is a love that arises from, or at least involves, the will – regardless of the feelings. In fact, Christian love (agape) has been defined as “to will the other.”
The love of the Christian – the love of Christ – is the love that wills the blessedness of its object. Common love is driven by desire and “wills” the possession, or worse, the consumption or use, of its object.
That is why Jesus was able to say, “They will know you are Christians by your love.” The love that Christ planted in the human soul through His redemption is a unique love, especially in an age like ours that doesn’t believe in a will.
When a Christian looks at another person in a Christian way, he beholds before him the Image of the One he loves above all else. Because he loves Christ, he labors, as Paul put it in Galatians, “to see Christ formed in you.”
When Christ is formed in a person, that person has realized the full perfection of his own individual humanity and of his deep personhood. He has attained full manhood. He has attained perfect satisfaction, because we have within us a desire deeper than anything else to become what God made us to be. That is why we, like Adam and Eve, possess a sense of shame that inescapably permeates our feelings, thoughts, actions, and words. Love delivers us from that shame.
The love of Christ labors to bring the beloved to perfection, or what the Bible calls glory. Thus Paul speaks of “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” and says that when a man gazes on Christ he is “transformed from glory to glory,” and that “these momentary light afflictions” work in you “an eternal weight of glory.” Thus he prays that the Ephesians will experience “the power of His resurrection.”
The Christian, as Christian, has one supreme desire for the object of his love: to see it attain this state of blessedness, to see him flourish like a tree firmly planted by rivers of water, so that his leaf will not wither and everything that he does prospers (i.e. bears fruit), to attain to eternal glory “coram Deo.”
When the Christian mother raises her child, she nourishes and protects her child’s body, but even more she nourishes and protects its soul. She feeds it on truth, goodness, and loveliness. She, like Cinderella’s mother, calls the child to a pious and godly life. When the child misbehaves, she does not ask, “How can I get this child to cooperate with me?” and then, in frustration, “correct” from anger.
She asks, “How can I, right now, feed this child’s soul with tender mercies?” And she corrects with firmness and wisdom, not exasperation.
Her desire is not that the child will align its behavior with her will and convenience, both of which were surrendered when the child was born, but that the child will become like Christ. Every day, she offers the child to Christ to fill it with His Spirit so that He will live in the child as blood carries life to our bodies.
Christian love is not social engineering or behavior modification. It is not subjecting a child to the law for the sake of obedience. It has only one goal and that is the full realization of the perfections of the person loved. The others are lower goods, necessary, but far from sufficient, and not the ultimate purpose.
That is why Christ died for you and me. He will not rest until the travail of His soul is fulfilled in us!
Christian love is not a rhetorical love, it is an “ontological” love. Christ was not telling His disciples how to effectively witness when He said “They will know you are Christians by your love.” He was making a simple statement of fact.
Christians are disciples of Christ because they love in a different way. If they don’t they aren’t His disciples, or at least nobody will know they are.
They love because they see the Divine Image in the person and yearn to see it fulfilled, because they have the Spirit of Christ overflowing in their hearts and they become a fountain of life. They love with an abandon that arises from a ridiculous confidence in their Father’s love for them, so they would rather be defrauded by others than take them to court, they would rather be persecuted and insulted than harm a hair on the head of their adversary, they would rather lose their own goods than harm another’s soul.
The duty to which they abandon themselves is the blessedness of the other. The blessing they receive is the life of Christ transforming them into the very image of blessedness itself.
They give up their lives, they let go of their worlds, they forfeit their claims to everything, and they receive irrevocably from the hand of God Himself all things.
The faithful Christian has a distinct hierarchy in his soul. He has an ordo amoris or order of affections over which he sits cautious guard. He fulfills his duty of love because he wills the blessedness of his beloved, not because he desires something from him or her. He loves, not for utilitarian reasons like witnessing, but because the love of Christ has transformed his soul.
As a result, as in the first few centuries of the church, they are known to be Christians. If I want to be an authentic Christian, the only way I can attain that status is through that distinct supernatural activity that can arise only from faith: Christian love. And oh how the world today needs such witnesses.