Ideas are more precious than diamonds. The twelve most precious ideas I have ever discovered all concern the love of God.None of them is original. But every one is revolutionary. None of them came from me. But all of them came to me with sudden force and fire: the “aha!” experience, the “eureka!” experience. They were all realizations, not just beliefs.
1. There Is Only “One Thing Necessary.”
The first happened when I was about six or seven, I think. It was the first important conscious discovery I ever made, and I don’t think I have ever had a more mature or wiser thought than that one. I remember to this day exactly where I was when it hit me: riding north on Haledon Avenue between Sixth and Seventh Streets in Paterson, New Jersey after Sunday morning church with my parents. Isn’t it remarkable how we remember exactly where we were when great events happen that change our lives?
I had learned some things about God and Jesus, about heaven, and about good and evil in church and Sunday school. Like most children at that age, I was a bit confused and overwhelmed by it all, especially by what this great being called God expected of me. I felt a little insecure, I guess, about not knowing and a little guilty about not doing everything that I was supposed to be doing. Then all of a sudden the sun shone through the fog. I saw the one thing necessary that made sense and order out of everything else.
I checked out my insight with my father, my most reliable authority. He was an elder in the church and (much more important) a good and wise man. “Dad, everything they teach us in church and Sunday school, all the stuff we’re supposed to learn from the Bible—it all comes down to only one thing, doesn’t it? I mean, if we only remember the one most important thing all the time, then all the other things will be O.K., right?”
He was rightly skeptical. “What one thing? There are a lot of things that are important.”
“I mean, I should just always ask what God wants me to do and then do it. That’s all, isn’t it?”
Wise men know when they’ve lost an argument. “You know, I think you’re right, son. That’s it”
I had perceived—via God’s grace, not my own wit, surely- that since God is love, we must therefore love God and love whatever God loves. I now knew that if we turn to the divine conductor and follow his wise and loving baton-which is his will, his Word—then the music of our life will be a symphony.
2. The Way to Happiness Is Self-forgetful Love
A second realization follows closely upon this one. That is, it follows logically. But it did not follow closely in time for me. Instead, it took half a lifetime to appreciate, through a million experiments, every one of which proved the same result: that the way to happiness is self-forgetful love and the way to unhappiness is self-regard, self-worry, and the search for personal happiness. Our happiness comes to us only when we do not seek for it. It comes to us when we seek others’ happiness instead.
It is an embarrassingly common lesson to take so long to learn, but most of us are incredibly slow learners here. We constantly try other ways, thinking that perhaps the happiness that did not come to us the last time through selfishness will do so next time. It never does. The truth is blindingly clear, but we are clearly blind.
The secret of love is not hidden, for “God is love,” and God is not hidden. God said through his prophet Isaiah: “I did not speak in secret, / in a land of darkness; / I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, / ‘Seek me in chaos.’ / I the LORD speak the truth, / I declare what is right” (Is 45:19).
Of course God’s secret plans, which we do not need to know, are hidden. And God’s infinite nature, which finite minds cannot know, is hidden. But the thing that we need to know, God does not hide from us. He offers it to us publicly and freely. Jesus invited prospective disciples to “come and see” (In 1:39). We are told by the apostle Paul to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thes 5:21).
This lesson is so well known that even a pagan like Buddha knew it profoundly, or at least its negative half. His “second noble truth” is that the source of all unhappiness and suffering (dukkha) is selfishness (tanha). All who teach the opposite—that selfishness is the way to happiness—are unhappy souls. “By their fruits you shall know them,” as Jesus tells us. Who are the happiest people on earth? People like Mother Teresa and her nuns who have nothing, give everything, and “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4).
3. “In Everything God Works for Good with Those Who Love Him.”
A third shattering realization was that Romans 8:28 was literally true: “In everything God works for good with those who love him.” This is surely the most astonishing verse in the Bible, for it certainly doesn’t look as if all things work for good. What awful things our lives contain! But if God, the all-powerful Creator and Designer and Provider of our lives, is 100 percent love, then it necessarily follows, as the night the day, that everything in his world, from birth to death, from kisses to slaps, from candy to cancer, comes to us out of God’s active or permissive love.
It is incredibly simple and perfectly reasonable. It is only our adult complexity that makes it look murky. As G.K. Chesterton says, life is always complicated for someone without principles. Here is the shining simplicity: if God is total love, then everything he wills for me must come from his love and be for my good. For that what love is, the willing of the beloved’s good. And if this God of sheer love is also omnipotent and can do anything he wills, then it follows that all things must work together for my ultimate good.
Not necessarily for my immediate good, for short-range harm may be the necessary road to long-range good. And not necessarily for my apparent good, for appearances may be deceiving. Thus suffering does not seem good. But it can always work for my real and ultimate good. Even the bad things I and others do, though they do not come from God, are allowed by God because they are included in his plan. You can’t checkmate, corner, surprise, or beat him. “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” as the old gospel chorus tells us. And he’s got my whole life in his hands, too. He could take away any evil- natural, human, or demonic—like swatting a fly. He allows it only because it works out for our greater good in the end, just as it did with Job.
In fact, every atom in the universe moves exactly as it does only because omnipotent Love designed it so. Dante was right: it is “the love that moves the sun and all the stars.” This is not poetic fancy but sober, logical fact. Therefore, the most profound thing you can say really is this simple children’s grace for meals: “God is great and God is good; let us thank him for our food. Amen!” I had always believed in God’s love and God’s omnipotence. But once I put the two ideas together, saw the unavoidable logical conclusion (Rom 8:28), and applied this truth to my life, I could never again see the world the same way. If God is great (omnipotent) and God is good (loving), then everything that happens is our spiritual food; and we can and should thank him for it. Yet how often we fail to recognize and appreciate this simple but profound truth.
4. Everything Is a Gift from God
A fourth revolutionary insight follows closely upon the third: everything is a gift. Nature, people, things, events—all the things in our lives that we take for granted—are granted to us and given to us actively and deliberately by God the giver.
This gives us a whole new way of looking at things. We usually see them as only things. But they are signs. A sign is not only a thing, but it also has another level of meaning. For instance, a road sign on a metal post along the roadway is first of all a thing, but it is also a sign. As a thing, it is simply a flat metal surface with a painted design of some sort placed along the roadway. But as a sign, it means something else. It means what it points to. For instance, it might tell us New York City is forty miles away in a certain direction.
When we give a gift, it is not only a thing but also a sign of something: a sign of our love perhaps. We want the recipient of the gift not only to get a thing—like candy or flowers—but also “to get the message.” We communicate that we care about them enough to give them a gift.
All the things in this world are gifts and signs. As gifts, they point beyond themselves to the divine giver. As signs, they point beyond themselves to the God they signify and reveal, as a letter reveals the writer. And since God is love, the one thing everything signifies is God’s love to us. The whole world is a love letter from God.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a Doctor of the Church and a great lover of God, said that when he looked at a crucifix, the wounds of Christ seemed like lips speaking to him and saying, “I love you.” Everything is like that. Everything is God’s lips speaking love, God’s message to us. Everything has its meaning here between God and us, not in itself. Everything is relative to this absolute.
This way of looking at things, as gifts and signs rather than simply as things in themselves, is not our usual way of seeing. Try this new way for just one hour and see the difference it makes. See the sunrise not as a mindless, mechanical necessity but as God’s smile. See a wave not just as tons of cold salt water crashing down on the shore but as God’s playful action. See even death as not just a biological necessity but as God tucking us in at bedtime so that we can rise to new life in the morning.
This is not a trick we play on ourselves or a fantasy. This is what the world really is. It is just as true to say that every snowflake is a gift of God as it is true to say that every cent in a father’s inheritance is a gift to his children. It is just as true to say that every leaf on every tree is a work of art made by the divine artist with the intention that we see it, know it, love it, and rejoice in it, as it is true to say that every word in a lover’s letter to his beloved is meant to be seen, known, loved, and enjoyed. This is not fantasy. What is fantasy is the horrible habit the modern world has gotten itself into, the habit of thinking that what the world really is is only atoms and chance, only what the senses and science reveal, the view that everything else is mere subjective fancy.
5. God Did It All for Me Alone
The realization that God’s love for me is bigger and more cosmic than we can ever imagine was complemented by the realization that it is also more intimate and personal than we can ever imagine. This entire cosmic drama was, in God’s plan, there for me. And for every other member of his body, his family. Everything God ever did—the creation of the universe, amazing miracles, and the universal laws by which he moves history forward—the big bang, the incarnation, and the law of gravity—are there not for the universe or even for “humanity.” No, they are there for you and me.
If I had been the only one created, as one of the saints says, God would have done no less. He would have gone to all this trouble, even death on the cross, for me alone. In fact, it’s not just that he would have done it all for me alone, but that he did do it all for me alone. The cross has my name on it. His intention did not go out to an anonymous mass of humanity with me simply included as a member of the species. His love letter to me does not come addressed: “Dear Occupant.” He gathers his sheep one by one, calling each by name (Jn 10:1-3). A name is a “proper noun,” not a “common noun.” Your name is uniquely yours. He knows you by name because that is what love is: intimate, personal knowledge of the beloved. That is why Scripture uses the word know for the monogamous marriage relationship. That is why marriage is used to symbolize our relationship to God.
Jesus never loved the conceptual abstraction called humanity, nor did he ever tell us to. He told us to love our real neighbor, the person who is there beside us and who by being there makes real and inconvenient demands on us. Loving our neighbor means laying down our will for him or her, as God laid down his will for us.
6. We Will Be Perfectly and Uniquely Fulfilled by God’s Love in Heaven
Since love is always directed toward the individual person and since God’s love for me is unique, heaven—the perfection and consummation of this special love relationship—must be altogether unique for each person. Each of us in heaven will have our own “mansion” or suite of rooms into which God will enter in an absolutely unique way.
I am deeply moved by C.S. Lewis’ chapter on heaven in The Problem of Pain, especially by what he says about the scriptural symbol of the “white stone”:
All my life I search for this unique, individual self—my true self—and yet I never fully find it. Only God knows it fully, for he designed it. And only God can give it to me because he created it and is creating it right now, sculpting it with all the tools of heredity and environment that make up my life. None of us knows who we really are once we stop fooling ourselves. That knowledge and that destiny await us in our home. Our home is in heaven because our true identity as individuals is waiting for us there. The character’s identity is found in the author’s mind and nowhere else.
7. The Gift of Love Is Ours for the Taking
I am a Roman Catholic. But the most liberating idea I have ever heard I learned from Martin Luther. Pope John Paul II told the German Lutheran bishops that Luther was profoundly right about this idea. He said that Catholic teaching affirms it just as strongly and that there was no contradiction between Protestant and Catholic theology on this terribly important point that was the central issue of the Protestant Reformation. I speak, of course, about “justification by faith” and its consequence, which Luther called “Christian liberty” or “the liberty of a Christian” in his little gem of an essay by that name.
Let’s be careful to approach the point in the right way. I think most misunderstandings begin at this very first step. Let’s begin with a solid certainty: God is love. God is a lover. He is not a manager, businessman, accountant, owner, or puppet-master. What he wants from us first of all is not a technically correct performance but our heart. Protestants and Catholics alike need to relearn or re-emphasize that simple, liberating truth. ‘When I first read C.S. Lewis’ statement of it in Mere Christianity, I was a Protestant. But it liberated me just as it had the Catholic Augustinian monk Luther 450 years earlier. The crucial sentence for me was: “We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort.”
The point is amazingly simple, which is why so many of us just don’t get it. Heaven is free because love is free. It’s a gift for the taking. The taking is faith. “If you believe, you will be saved.” It’s really that simple. If I offer you a gift, you have it if and only if you have the faith to take it.
The primacy of faith does not discount or denigrate works, but liberates them. Our good works can now also be free—free from the worry and slavery and performance anxiety of having to buy heaven with them. Our good works can now flow from genuine love of neighbor, not fear of hell. Nobody wants to be loved merely as a means to build up the lover’s merit pile. That attempt is ridiculous logically as well as psychologically. How much does heaven cost? A thousand good works? Would 999 not do, then? The very question shows its own absurdity. That absurdity comes from forgetting that God is love.
God practices what he preaches. He loves the sinner and hates only the sin. The father of the prodigal son did not say to his repentant son: “You are welcome home, son, but of course you must now pay me back for all the harm you’ve done and all the money you’ve wasted.” He didn’t even say, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson.” He simply fell on his neck, kissed him, and wept.
The righteous older brother was scandalized by this injustice and justification of the sinner—just as the day-long laborers in another of Christ’s strange and wonderful parables were scandalized when the master of the vineyard gave the same wage he had given them to the late arrivals. So too the people who heard Jesus forgive the repentant thief on the cross were probably scandalized by the words: “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” They probably thought, “But what about all his past sins? What about justice? What about punishment?” The answer is found in 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment.
God cannot be outdone in loving us lavishly. No one can even imagine how loving God is: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor 2:9 KJV). The prodigal son did not find himself in the servants’ quarters but in the banquet hall. He had hoped his father might consent to take him back as one of his hired servants, but he was dressed in festal robes and fed the fatted calf.
The whole point of justification by faith is God’s scandalous, crazy, and wonderful gift of love.
8. Because of the Love of God, We Can Love Our Neighbor Freely
Another infinitely precious discovery came in the same package as the previous one. Flowing from the insight of justification by faith, which is about our vertical relationship with God, came this associated insight about our horizontal relationship with our neighbor: because we have received a new kind of love from God (agape), we can love our neighbor in a new way. We can love our neighbor freely without “performance anxiety,” without worrying about results. We can now love not for success or gratification or happiness or fulfillment, but from God’s love. We can love others not from need but from sheer bounty, just as we have been loved. We become channels of this new living water. We freely pass on this tremendous gift we have received.
When we love for some desired end, we are slaves to anxiety and worry about attainment. We “hanker after the fruits,” to quote Gandhi, and this hankering, even if not selfish, is anxious. Jesus offers a radically different way, as Gandhi found in the Gospels: “Be anxious for nothing” (Mt 6:25-34). Not even for whether our love works or not. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta says, “God does not call us to be successful, but to be faithful.” We are to love out of God and therefore out of success, rather than for success. We must live from our end and not just for it. For “it is finished.” The battle has already been won by God’s love. Our love is only the mop-up operation.
We need not worry about success because our love is guaranteed success, even if it does not move our neighbor to respond. For if we are one with Christ as members of his body, then our love is part of Christ’s love. It is not just an imitation from afar but a participation from within. And Christ’s love is guaranteed success, even though it was crucified and in us often continues to be crucified by the world. It is guaranteed success not because of its intentions or goals, but because of where it comes from: the Son’s perfect obedience to the Father.
The question keeps coming up in John’s Gospel: where does this man Jesus come from? Does he come from God or only from man? The question is the most basic one that can be asked about us and our love. Are we and our love born again from above, from God? Or are we and it only the product of human nature? The answer to this question makes an infinite difference, the difference between heaven and hell in the next life. It also makes the difference in this life between the holy happiness of living and loving from God’s fullness versus the agonizing anxiety of living and loving for fullness only as an ideal but out of a deep emptiness and need, for that is what we find in the fallen human heart.
The most liberating discovery is that since God has filled us with his own life, our loving can be like a tube open at both ends, with God’s love coming in one end and out the other, in by faith and out by works. The alternative is to be a tube open at only one end, the neighbor’s end. Then we try to squeeze our own toothpaste out of the tube. But we have only a finite amount of spiritual toothpaste to give. So we worry about squandering it, just as the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son did. But God’s supply is infinite. That’s why the saints love so recklessly. It’s not their love they love with but God’s.
9. God’s Love Is an Objective Reality that Makes a Real Difference
The foundation for understanding this infinite love of God, in turn, is another closely related big idea. It is an idea which I was amazed to discover most Christians today do not understand, though it has always been viewed as central to the Christian life in previous centuries. The truth put simply is that God’s love is not a mere feeling or attitude inside God. No, it is an objective reality that causes a real effect outside God and in us. Just as God’s Word (his Logos or mind) is not merely subjective in the Father but is another person altogether, the Son, so the love of the Father and the Son is not just a subjective reality in them but is another person, the Holy Spirit.
God’s love is as objective as light. Because the sun in a sense is light, or the source of light rather than being lit, it really gives its light to the earth. And because the earth really receives light from the sun, it is really transformed every morning from darkness to light. Just as objectively because God is love God really gives love to us. And because we receive real life. changing love from God, we are really transformed from darkness to light. It is not a mere change in subjective attitude but in our objective being. We are “born again.” We receive a new life, a kind of spiritual blood transfusion from God. It is not physical blood, but it is just as real. We receive life from God’s love, not just a lifestyle. “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).
Once again it was C.S. Lewis who taught me this. Outside the New Testament, I have never read any better summary of what it means to be a Christian than Lewis’ Mere Christianity, especially Part IV, where he talks about this objective reality of the new birth.
Repeatedly, I ask my students: “What is a Christian?” And repeatedly they answer only in terms of beliefs, feelings, or deeds. “A Christian is one who believes the teachings of Christ.” Ah, but “even the demons believe—and shudder” (Jas 2:19). “A Christian is someone who trusts Christ.” Then being a Christian depends on how trusting I feel toward God? “A Christian is someone who follows Christ’s lifestyle or tries to.” How many good deeds make you a Christian, then?
The answer is not only what a Christian believes or feels or does. A Christian is a different being, a new creature with a whole new nature. A Christian has been born again. Unfortunately, even this incomparably profound metaphor from the lips of Christ himself is often trivialized and subjectivized. It is reduced to mean a mere experience or feeling. But it is not first of all a feeling but a fact. When a baby is born, the birth occurs whether the baby feels like it or not.
It is God’s love that gives us our new birth, of course. God’s love is the cause. It is also the effect in us. For the effect of the new birth is that we now have a share in our Father’s nature, which is love.
Letting God into my soul by faith changes not just my attitudes but my being, as a wife’s acceptance of her husband’s sexual advances can change not just her attitude but her being: it can make her pregnant. Faith means choosing to say “yes” to God’s desire to impregnate our souls. Faith means being pregnant with God’s life, which is divine overflowing love. Thus God’s love is both the origin and the end, the cause and the effect, the Alpha and the Omega of our Christian life. That’s why that life in Scripture is repeatedly referred to as a spiritual marriage relationship with him.
10. We Were Made to Be United to God Forever
The next link in the chain of big ideas follows as closely as the previous ones. If faith is being pregnant with God’s love in this life, then heaven is like our spiritual birthday. As a man plants his seed in a woman, the new life is planted in our souls by grace. As the seed grows and takes shape in the womb as a baby, our Christian life on earth grows and takes shape through God’s grace in the womb of our souls. We are being prepared for glory. And as physical birth is like the full flowering of the “planted” baby, our heavenly life is the blossoming of this divine seed planted in our souls.
Or to use another metaphor, our faith on earth is a solemn engagement and heaven is the marriage. Our destiny is to be so intimately united with God that, as the mystics say, we not only see God’s face but see with God’s face. We share in God’s own consciousness and love. Here on earth, too, personal intimacy, whether in marriage or in a lasting friendship, means not just being close to the other person as an object but sharing his or her own thoughts and feelings, having a common outlook on life.
For this union the very stars were made. For this union God came an infinite distance from heaven to earth, from divine glory to humiliation, from holy purity and innocence to a criminal’s death on a cross, from perfect oneness with the Father to the hell of being forsaken by the Father-all this just to marry us. And for this marriage God brought us an infinite distance, too. First he brought us from nothing into being by creation and by providentially guiding every atom in the universe in a cosmic dance to bring us to birth. (For the universe is like a great mother.) Then he brought us another infinite distance, from flesh to spirit, from Adam to New Adam, from damnation to salvation, by the new birth. God took all this double trouble, this infinite trouble-for what?
For the consummation of his marriage with us. And why? Because God is love, and perfect union is the goal of love.
This is the ultimate reason for the creation of the universe. Whenever we love God, whenever we turn from self-will to God’s will, whenever we say “yes” to God’s love, the whole universe rejoices and is consummated. That is what “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together” about (Rom 8:22). We can fulfill or frustrate the deepest longing of the stars. We are the priests of the universe.
11. The Desire for Joy Points Us to the Love of God
This destiny explains another “big idea”: the mysterious longing that C.S. Lewis writes about so movingly and calls “Joy.” It is the most memorable and arresting theme in all his writing. Nothing ever moved him more. Any reader who has ever experienced it feels the same way: “No one who has ever experienced it would ever exchange it for all the happiness in the world” (Surprised by Joy).
“Joy,” says Lewis, “is a technical term” (thus he capitalizes it) “and must be distinguished from both pleasure and happiness.” “Joy” in Lewis’ sense is not a satisfaction but a desire. But he calls it “Joy” because though it is a dissatisfaction, it is more satisfyiing, more joyful, than any other satisfaction. This is one of its two distinctive qualities. The other is its mystery. Its object—the thing desired—is indefinable and unattainable, at least in this life.
Nevertheless that object must be real, Lewis argues, for the desire is innate and every innate desire corresponds to some reality. Where there is hunger, there is somewhere real food that can satisfy it. If there is thirst, there must be water. And if there is divine discontent with earth even at its best, there must be a heaven.
The explanation for this mysterious desire is Augustine’s great sentence: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and [therefore] our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (Confessions I, 1). The reason for our restless lover’s quarrel with the world is that we are engaged to God, not to the world. “He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man~s mind,” says Ecclesiastes (3:11). Our souls are God-shaped vacuums, and “this infinite abyss can only be filled with an infinite and eternal object, i.e., by God,” explains the French philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal in the Pensees. This desire is God’s footprint in the sands of the soul. This discontent with known earthly joy, this longing for an unknown joy more than earth can ever offer, is the most moving thing in our lives because it is really our longing for God, whether we know it or not.
12. Romantic Love Reveals the Beloved and Is Meant to Point Us toward Union with God
The only possible rival to joy for the title of the most moving and precious experience in our lives is romantic love. Indeed, to many people who have repressed or misunderstood their innate longing for God, romantic love is the only momentous and moving mystery they know. How else could a face ever launch a thousand ships!
Those who understand joy know why romantic love moves us: because it is an image of joy. It is joy horizontalized, with the earthly beloved standing for God in either of two very different ways: either it is substituted for God as an idol, or else it reflects and mediates the love of God, as in the Dante-Beatrice relationship in The Vita Nuova.
In the first case love is not only blind but blinding, like all idolatries and all addictions. It is mistaking a creature for God, treating it as an absolute, as absolutely necessary to my happiness. But in the second case love is not blind but perfectly accurate. In fact, the highest and most precise accuracy is found here. Love has found its true mark.
We see this reality reflected in Scripture. The bridegroom in Solomon’s Song of Songs is traditionally interpreted as God the lover of our souls. We are his bride. But this divine bridegroom says to the human bride: “You are all fair, my love” (4:7). God says this to us!
But how can it be true that we are “all fair” when we still struggle with sin? Is God blind? If not, then what he says is true. It is true as prophecy, a prophecy of our eternal identity and destiny. Christ refers to this when he says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
God speaks from eternity and sees us as we are eternally before him. To us this “all fair” perfection is only in the future. But to God everything is present. For that is what eternity is: not endless futures but all times actually present with no dead past or unborn future, no “no longer” or “not yet.”
Whether we understand this or not, whether we can conceive eternity or not, one thing is clear: God is love and God is not blind, which means that love is not blind. Not this kind of love, not agape.
Romantic love can be blind. It can be only eros. Or it can be a sharing in this agape kind of love. When it is the latter, it penetrates to the mysterious center of the beloved’s being and perceives—at least unconsciously—her incalculable worth because it sees her not as an object, but as a subject, as an I. Every object, every thing, has a finite value that can be calculated quantitatively or qualitatively. But the I is not an object. The value of the I is not calculable. That is because the human I is made in the image of God whose essential name is “I AM.”
Love sees this implicitly. Because love does not look from without but from within, it sees really and clearly. Love sees eye to eye because it sees I to I. “The heart has its reasons which the reason does not know,” says Pascal in the Pensees. This is not sentimentality: the heart has its reasons. The heart sees. Love sees. It is this new vision that excites and moves us so mysteriously in romantic love, not just blind animal desire. Love glimpses a new world.
Jesus knows this. That is why he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). As the nineteenth century Danish religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells us in the title of one of his books, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” It is to obey “the great and first commandment:” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37-38). Only when we have this purity of heart and love can we understand God. God is a person, and the only way to understand a person is by love, and the only way to perfect understanding is by perfect love.
We all know this principle innately. Whom do you trust to understand you best: one who loves you or one who does not? Who understands you best: someone with a large heart or someone with a large head? Is it the one who loves you deeply but is not terribly bright? Or is it the one who is terribly bright but does not love you? The genius may know more things about you, but only the lover knows you, for genius knows things but love knows persons.
Romantic love is love of one special, unique individual. This love is not a command or a duty like love of neighbor. It has no moral merit. We fall into it as into a hole. It is a gift and a glory. It is like heaven that way: heaven too is a gift and a glory, not a payment. All talk of merit and law and obedience-necessary as it is on earth-will disappear in heaven, except perhaps as a joke. Romantic love is God’s sample of heaven strewn along our earthly pilgrimage. Eros is the appetizer for agape.
These are, I think, the twelve most profound ideas I have ever had. However, there is one idea that I have heard that I think is even more profound. It is Karl Barth’s answer to the questioner who asked him, “Professor Barth, you have written dozens of great books, and many of us think you are the greatest theologian in the world. Of all your many ideas, what is the most profound thought you have ever had?” Without a second’s hesitation, the great theologian replied, “Jesus loves me.”