By Kate Marsh

Before we got married, I remember asking Graham what he meant when he said that he loved me. Of course, I was partly fishing for compliments, but I also wanted to understand what the word meant to him.

We were driving to the Oregon coast from my parents’ house in the Willamette Valley. Our route traced the winding curve of a small stream, and thick light poked through a canopy of now green, now translucent leaves, spattering the windshield with little, luminescent flecks. It wasn’t an easy question to answer, it turns out. He said he liked spending time with me and that he was committed to me, and he named some things he loved about me. And then he said, “But it’s more than that. I just don’t know how to put it into words.”

When I thought about what I would say if the question were reversed, I realized that I would be equally flummoxed. There was a strange “something more” to it all that I couldn’t quite pin down — something intuitive and not quite within the domain of my will, something charged with an energy all its own that kept saying over and over again, like light passing through thickets of fear and doubt: yes.

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I believe now, as I’d hoped then, that the “something more” of our early love was God’s gentle nudging, his reassurance that he was actively blessing our love for one another — and that, in some ways, he was that love.

And yet, whatever the enigmas surrounding romantic love may be, they pale in comparison to the utter strangeness of loving God. At least I could see Graham — and see the effect of my actions on his life and hear him talk and ask him direct questions. The love of God, though it is the lode star orienting all of Christian life (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” Matt. 22:37-38), is so difficult that it has been supplanted throughout Christian history by adjacent, more palatable ideas: You shall have strong feelings about God; or You shall take up political causes that align with your sense of God’s justice; or You shall read a lot about God. None of which is bad, in and of itself — but neither is it love.

So what does it mean for a Christian to love God? The passage from Matthew gives a powerful clue: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” First, we are to love God with the totality of ourselves. We are to be unfractured selves — not made up of parts that love and parts that don’t, a feeling of love punctured through with intellectual doubt, or, on the flip side, intellectual assent to the doctrines of the Church unaccompanied by sweetness of feeling.. The command is to love utterly, completely, unambiguously.

But how can this be? The command is inhuman or suprahuman. Putting aside the idea that our hearts are frequently unruly children, reluctant to obey our wills, what human person is capable of willing anything consistently and totally? In other words, why does God seem to think that I am in charge of myself enough to fulfill such a command?

Such questions transport me to a garden in Milan,  some 1,600 years ago. There, our beloved St. Augustine, who was to become a taproot for all of Western Christianity, sweated and groaned and keened toward madness. He had pursued God with all his mind by reading and studying and had already assented to the reality of God intellectually. In this sense, he was already a believer.

But he was not satisfied, because his love was incomplete. Here, he records what he said to his bewildered and frightened friend, Alypius: “What is wrong with us? …The unlearned start up and ‘take’ heaven, and we, with our learning, but wanting heart, see where we wallow in flesh and blood!” Though Augustine bent his whole mind and will toward taking up heaven, he was unable. His heart did not rest in the one for whom he pined. He remained in sin and out of love, and this spiritual poverty tortured him.

It wasn’t until he heard the simple voice of a child say softly over the garden wall: “tolle lege,” take up and read, that the saint seems to have collapsed into the loving arms of God. His desire for God drove him to the very edge of madness, but it wasn’t until he submitted in humble obedience to the grace-filled voice of a child, relinquishing the active force of his will, that he fulfilled Scripture’s command to love God.

How strange! What kind of command is this? It seems God would demand that we strive after something he knows is impossible for us. And only at the final moment, once we have exhausted all our resources trying to know and obey and supplicate and kiss the one we desire, only on the verge of madness or despair, does God reveal himself — simply and clearly — completing, healing, uniting in us what was previously fractured. Giving to us, in other words, what we never had on our own: the ability to love him.

What does it mean for a Christian to love God? What Augustine shows us is that we must strive after God, as though Christ were indeed the only water, the only bread, that could satisfy us. Augustine also shows us that, of ourselves, we are utterly incapable of loving God — that the fulfillment of his great command depends on us eventually ceasing to strive. In the end, we receive the miracle, the grace, the joy of his love, which completes our love. We must, in other words, receive the love of our Lord in order to love the Lord. But the striving is indispensable.

I’m reminded, here, of German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who perhaps ought to be made a saint. He was born in Germany in the early 20th century. Because he was such a talented theologian, he was invited to lecture all across Europe and the United States. During the Second World War, he opposed Hitler and, despite the pleading and warning of his friends, returned to Germany to join the resistance. He reasoned that he could not honestly contribute to the healing of his country if he had not suffered with her. In the end, he was imprisoned and shot. A martyr, according to many. He was a man whose ideas and actions were unified. What he believed, he did, and this at great cost.

One of his most important books, The Cost of Discipleship, raises an important point for our discussion of love. Bonhoeffer points out that many modern forms of Christianity have a feeble notion of what Christian love and discipleship mean because they have developed a peculiar notion of grace. Bonhoeffer describes what he calls “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.

For many believers, reassurance of God’s love must entail easy access to consolation and absolute certainty of salvation. We have lost sight of the great commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Having consigned perfect love (or even difficult, disciplined, or laborious love) to the realm of the impossible, we make do with lukewarm desire and half-hearted prayers.

Consider the ease with which we confess our general failings during liturgy— obliquely, unreflectively, to no one in particular; how we receive the absolution with the same regularity that we receive the chiming of the church bells; how we fail to repent. And though we may lament our lack of spiritual fervor and emotional distance from God, we pine for cheap grace because it seems the only kind we can afford.

And yet imagine how Augustine’s Confessions would read if God had provided the saint with complete satisfaction when he first cried out for it; if God’s grace intervened before Augustine’s desire had developed — at a point when the saint still thought that intellectual assent was the same thing as love. Most likely, he would have attributed his satisfaction, at least in some measure, to himself! He had not yet realized the total weakness of his will. God would have given Augustine relief or satisfaction without healing. God would be like the kind of parent who yields to his child’s every desire. Grace would cease to be a function of love.

In contrast, Bonhoeffer describes costly grace as that grace which, though by no means earned, is not to be sought cheaply: “It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

Elsewhere, he writes: “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.”

Though grace abounds, I must actively strive after God. I must leave nets, sell goods, and knock and knock. And not just through quiet prayer. Knocking and seeking also mean trying to draw closer to the reality of God’s kingdom, “in myriad petty little unsexy ways every day,” in the words of the late David Foster Wallace. Clean the dishes, apologize, answer the phone when I’d rather keep reading, confess my embarrassing resentments and jealousies, forgive. I must labor to empty myself of myself, so that Christ might fill me.

We cannot love God from a position of independent power or satisfaction or fullness, because without him we have none of those things. We are utterly and completely dependent creatures. The less attentive we are to our sins, to our frailty, to our weakness, the less we understand about who we are in relation to God. I think this has something to do with what St. Catherine of Sienna meant when she said that humility is the root of all virtue.

Of course, it is painful to see oneself as one is. It is a kind of suffering, even a kind of death. But it is only from death that Christ can raise us, and it is only if we are sick that he can heal us, and it is only if he has done these things that we can cry aloud with Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Or, as St. Porphyrios wrote in Wounded by Love, “When you love Christ, in spite of all your weaknesses and your consciousness of them, you have certainty that you have overcome death, because you are in communion with the love of Christ.”

But and this is the last thing I’ll say, the story of Christian love for God is not only one of striving and suffering and death, just as marriage between a man and a woman is not just about duty and self-sacrifice. The whole path, from start to finish, is littered with bright, dappled light. The sweetness of God’s love is impressed upon every one of his precepts, drawing us along the path like ants to honey. The world is ablaze with beauty and gentle reminders of God’s goodness toward us. As we climb the ladder of divine ascent, God places wings on our heels, “For his yoke is easy and his burden in light.” He feeds us manna in the desert. He lights our path with himself, as pillars of fire in the night. We are never outside his love — only outside of accepting his love, of loving him.

God desires that we not just bear his image but assume his likeness, that we become like God in our capacity for love, which means we must strive with Augustine after the fullness of joy and not content ourselves with cheap substitutes. We are able to love God when we meet the end of ourselves and relent, allowing the King of all to fill us and give us life.

Kathleen Marsh is a poet and essayist living in Oklahoma City with her husband, Fr. Graham Marsh, and sons. Her work has appeared in Image, Tin House, Salon, and elsewhere.

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Mary Barrett
1 month ago

That was very well expressed and written. Thank you.