References to the Divine Love in the New Testament
by Charles Gourgey
When I was a student in college, I belonged to the Music Department Chorus. Every semester we would present a concert. The music was always challenging, but some works stood out in their beauty. One work was special: when we performed it, so many tears flowed that I was unable to sing. (How fortunate I was to have many able singers around me!) The work was Cantata #34 by J. S. Bach: O Ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe ("O Eternal Fire, O Wellspring of Love").
I was not raised a Christian, and Christianity always seemed to me a paradox. So much of what I saw in Christianity seemed driven by anger, by an aggressive attempt to force people to believe a certain way. And yet so much seemed motivated by a kind of love I barely understood and never felt anywhere else. I remember the first time I attended a church service. It was at Riverside Church in New York City, a cathedral so large that as I walked down the center of the nave the rows of seats seemed endless. Never having been inside a church before, I did not know what to expect. After a quiet prelude, huge waves of sound rose from the organ and washed over me, over all of us. It was the opening of the processional hymn. I felt some movement behind me, then saw the members of the choir as they filed past, down the center aisle, then up the chancel steps, turning row by row as they filled the seats. Once again tears came to my eyes as I saw the empty space of the chancel filling with these beings in angelic robes. I felt overwhelmed by a powerful, exalting, limitless love, as if the angels in front of me and the music all around me really did in that moment create a "new heaven and a new earth." It seemed nothing could be greater than this love, and after once beginning to sense it, I wondered how one could not wish to devote one's life to finding it and sharing it.
There is something about this love that distinguishes it from love as we usually describe it. The love that comes from human affection is two-sided, often carrying the presence of hate underneath, when those we love frustrate, disappoint, or betray us. The love that comes from the presence of God has no other side; it is pure, full; it possesses us completely. The love that comes from human affection is limited, usually to those we know intimately or who love us in return. The love that comes from God's presence is expansive, wanting to move beyond the familiar boundary of family and friends, to embrace even the total stranger in fellowship and mutual concern. God's own love is "non-self-interested," moving beyond the gratification we receive from loving those close to us, toward valuing the individuality of others as God's children.
I always had a vague sense that these two kinds of love were different. The Padgett writings have helped me understand that this difference is real and what this difference is. In those writings I have been learning about the natural love and the Divine Love, and that while both truly are love and highly to be valued, they represent two very different qualities.
The Padgett wrirtings also teach us that references to the Divine Love have been largely eliminated from the New Testament, so that we are left mainly with Jesus' teachings on morality and perfection in the natural love. This helped me see why I have felt a need to search for a source of spiritual guidance beyond the Bible, but up till now have found nothing satisfactory. I wish the Bible were more explicit, and that it had more to say about the Divine Love, what it is and how it is acquired. But it still seems to me that the Bible must contain at least some clues to this love, some hidden references--or else how could it have inspired Bach to express the Divine Love in his music? The love I felt in the church that morning I often feel when listening to Bach. The Christian references in his music are so explicit that it seems some traces of Jesus' most important teachings, about the Divine Love and our ability to receive it, must have survived, in order to be so beautifully expressed.
Where can we find these traces? There are at least a few, scattered in the Gospels. Consider the following, from the Gospel of John:
- I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35, RSV).
- This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12, RSV).
Note that Jesus says two things indicating this is not ordinary love. He is giving a "new" commandment, and his disciples are to love "as I have loved you." Clearly, Jesus means to speak about something new, a kind of love his disciples have not previously known. We hear a little more about this love not in John's Gospel, but in his first Letter:
- So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:16-19, RSV)
This passage speaks of a special kind of love, a love that has power even to banish fear. It is also a love that is part of the divine nature: "God is love." This is consistent with what we learn from the Padgett messages, that receiving the Divine Love is the path toward becoming not only the image but the substance of God. "As he is, so are we": if we receive this Divine Love, we partake of the substance of God. "We love because he first loved us": we receive this love from God through the work of the Holy Spirit. It does not originate with us, who by ourselves can progress no farther than the natural love of the perfect man.
The awareness of the special character of the Divine Love has therefore not disappeared entirely from the New Testament. Its origin in God's very nature is clearly stated in these passages. We are also given other clues:
- How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word of speech, but in truth and action (1 John 3:17-18, RSV)
Here we are told that love is not static, that love shows itself in the way we treat others. This could also be said of the natural love. The result in this case may be the same, but the experience is different. When through the natural love we come to the aid of people in need, people who are strangers, who lie outside the sphere of our affection for our friends and for our family, we do it from a sense that it is morally right and just. This is valid, an expression of true goodness. Nevertheless, when we work for the benefit of others through the Divine Love, we are motivated by very deep feeling for them, a response of the heart that may at times be as strong as our response to our own family, even though these people come to us as strangers. This is what the Divine Love does. It opens our hearts with the desire to pour out this love, to share it where it is most needed, without concern for the person's "natural" connection to us but only for his or her God-given individuality.
These references should make it clear that the Divine Love, while not mentioned explicitly, is not foreign to the New Testament. There is even a place in the Gospels where Jesus appears to be saying that the natural love is not enough, and he calls us to an even greater love:
- For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:46-48, RSV)
Jesus calls upon us to love not only those to whom we have a "natural" connection, but the stranger also, and even our enemy. What could be less "natural" than that! What does it mean to love our enemy? Not to feel for our enemies affection as though they were members of our family, but to become aware of their individuality, to understand them fully, so that we may desire God's blessings for them even if we cannot approve of what they do. Clearly, only the Divine Love can bring about such a transformation within us.
The Divine Love is therefore present within the New Testament and within Christianity; otherwise Christianity could not have become the great religion that it is, even with all its flaws. It is perhaps our task to make the Divine Love more explicit, in the teachings we preserve and in the lives we lead, asking always for the help of the Holy Spirit through the grace of God.
We cannot really know what is in the heart of another, but sometimes we can sense when someone is filled with the Divine Love. I have been fortunate to know several such people. A nurse I once worked with in hospice has been my teacher for several years. Through her gentle presence I learned how to understand the spiritual needs of patients who cannot speak clearly enough to tell me themselves. This nurse, through her great love, was so attuned to the souls of her patients that she was able to convey this understanding to me. I also see the Divine Love in the presence of one volunteer, whose soft voice and kind words carry a heartfelt love that lightens every room he enters. When I am in the presence of people like these I feel uplifted, I feel joy, as though God has reached me through their being, exposing me to God's own love through their willingness to bring it to others. To me, this love always seems to come through the quality of gentleness, a quality not highly valued in this world, but which God chooses to express this special love. When we are in the presence of a stranger who loves us in this manner, we may feel we are in the presence of the Christ itself.
As human beings we seem to be reaching God by successive approximations. The Hebrew prophets did the best with what they knew, preparing the way for God's love without yet understanding it explicitly. The writers of the Gospels preserved the truths they received as best they could comprehend them; the kernel is there, even though overlaid by many errors and distortions. Now we have been given the truth of what Jesus taught in a clearer and purer form. We can still appreciate its roots in the New Testament, while continuing to deepen our own understanding of it through both study and practice.