Reflections on Loving God is a series about understanding love, seeing how God loves you, and learning how to love God more. God has loved you before you were born. Take the first step today to loving him back. You won’t regret it!
Definitions of Love
I. There are two roles in relationships: lover and beloved.
In any expression of love, one person is the giver of love and the other person is the receiver of love. The lover is the one who loves. They are the giver of love. The beloved is the one who is loved. They are the receiver of love. In modern culture these terms are used most often in the context of romance, but they really apply to all relationships. The kind of love may be different, but the roles are the same.
In a parent-child relationship, the parent makes dinner for the child. The parent gives love (making dinner) and the child receives love (eats dinner). The parent is the lover and the child is the beloved. Say the child thanks the parent for the meal. Now the child is the lover (giving thanks) and the parent is the beloved (accepting thanks).
For an example in a friendship, think of a person who invites a friend to see a movie with them. The person who invited is the lover and the friend is the beloved. Maybe later on, the friend invites the first person to go to Bible study together. Now the friend is the lover and the first person is the beloved.
The obvious examples are in dating and marriage relationships. Maybe the husband offers to do an extra chore for the wife. The husband is the lover and the wife is the beloved. Later the wife makes the husband’s favorite dish for dinner. The wife has taken on the role of lover and the husband the role of beloved.
Relationship with God begins with God as lover and you as beloved. This is because he loved you before you knew him (Jer 1:5). Since you didn’t know him, you could benefit from his love but couldn’t really receive it into your heart. It is only with faith that the love of God can be received. At that point, God invites you to imitate him, to become the lover, see him as the beloved, and love him back starting with Baptism. This is really God’s entire plan for you.
God is hoping you will accept his love and begin a relationship which will have no end. Your love for God will never be as great as his love for you because his love is infinite, but God has made your heart to never be truly satisfied except in relationship with him. Regardless of how insignificant your little acts of love towards God are, they ultimately lead to eternal happiness.
II. Giving love is performing an action for the good of another.
Giving love begins in the heart. The lover wills in their heart to give love to the beloved. They then perform some action that benefits the beloved. The love itself is invisible, so the action becomes a sign of their love. At the same time, the action is also an instrument of their love. In performing the action, love is able to move from their heart to the heart of the person they are doing good for. This action can be called an expression of love, act of love, or offering of love.
Actually, to give love is to open some or all of the heart to the beloved. When love is given and then received, the hearts of the two are joined by the love between them. They have a bond of love however weak it maybe. For the lover, there can be some hesitation in this because they are opening at least some of their heart to the beloved. How will the beloved respond to their love? Will they ignore their love, leaving their heart feeling empty?Will they respond with hate, wounding their heart? Or will they respond with love of their own? This is the risk that everyone must take to love another human. There is hope the beloved will respond with love, but the lover never knows beforehand.
The beauty of relationship with God is that God will never ignore your love or wound your heart. God can only love because he is love itself (1 Jn 4:8). When you love God, you only ever get love back from him. Relationship with God is a place of trust and security, which can be the launchpad for taking the risk of loving fellow humans. Others may hurt you, but you can always retreat into the heart of God whenever you need. God’s chief commandment is to love others even when they do not love you, something very difficult to do consistently without God’s constant, unfailing support.
Those well-versed in theology may see some familiar words here. The seven sacraments are a sign and instrument of God’s grace (CCC 774, 1127-1128). The sacraments are ways Jesus gave his people to receive specific graces from God. If the signs are performed, they become an instrument for one of God’s specific graces. For example, Jesus told the disciples to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). The specific graces given were forgiveness of sins and adoption into the divine family (Acts 2:38). However, God’s grace, the miracles and blessings he gives his people, is really just the way God loves. Sign and instrument can then be generalized to giving love in general, not just giving love the way God does.
III. Receiving love is accepting the good action of another.
Once the lover gives love to the beloved through some action, the hope is that the beloved will receive that love and respond to it with love of their own. The beloved must do a couple things to receive that love. They have to be able to see or recognize that the lover did some good for them. If they don’t see the sign of the lover’s love, they may still benefit from the good that comes from it but won’t be able to receive that love into their heart.
In some cases, a lack of knowledge prevents a person from seeing a sign of love. Think of a person that passes out from a fire but is rescued by firefighters. The person benefitted from the rescue — they are still alive — but they were not conscious when it happened and could not receive the love given into their heart. Fortunately, once they gain that knowledge, they can receive that love, for love is not limited by time or space. It remains there to be received when the person is able and willing.
For relationship with God it is a case of lack of faith. A person may benefit from God’s blessings but can’t receive God’s love into their heart until they believe in him and begin to consent to his will.
Another case is an impediment to receiving love. Think of a newborn who benefits from the love of their parents but hasn’t developed enough to really open their heart to their parents’ love. Just like lack of knowledge though, they can receive that love when they get older and are able to understand what their parents did. A developmental disability such as autism would also be an impediment, which sadly might not be healed until they are reborn in glory with God in heaven.
Only after recognizing the sign of the lover’s love, can the beloved accept that good action. In accepting it, the beloved opens their heart, at least partially, to the lover’s heart, allowing their heart to receive the invisible love behind the action. A bond of love has formed between them.
Acceptance is not a given. People reject love all the time. Sometimes it is out of selfishness. Someone buys a gift for the beloved, but they don’t want it and reject it. Sometimes it’s for good reasons, for example, a woman turning down a man’s invitation to go on a date because she is already married. One of the main reasons love is rejected is due to lack of trust.
Because receiving love requires the opening the heart, the beloved can be just as hesitant as the lover. They are opening up this vulnerable part of themselves to hopefully be given something good, but the lover is maybe not a lover at all. Maybe they are just going to wound their heart. Sometimes a person has been hurt many times in the past and has difficulty opening their heart to others.
Acceptance is not all or nothing. If the beloved has a limited or partial trust of the lover, they can partially open their heart and receive part of the love given. As before, love is not limited to time or space. If they become more trusting in the future, they will be able to receive all of the love that was given before.
Just as in giving love, a good relationship with God will make receiving love much easier. God will never hurt you, so you can open your whole heart to his love, healing whatever damage someone else may have done to it. Even with God, however, building trust takes many years as a person slowly gives more control of their actions to God.
Accepting the love of others is part of God’s commandment to love. This does not mean you have to always accept. Just as loving others involves different acts of love depending on the type of relationship, the love you will accept from others depends on the type of relationship you have with them. A man probably shouldn’t accept a kiss from a woman he isn’t married to or dating, but a simple handshake is acceptable. A child should not accept a car ride from a stranger but should accept a hello from a stranger.
IV. Giving and receiving love can be reciprocal.
It’s clear from the examples above that after receiving love from the lover, the beloved has the option to respond with love of their own. This is the case in any relationship between two people. Love doesn’t just go in one direction, for example from Person A to Person B. Person B, the beloved, can later take on the role of lover and give love back to the original lover, Person A, making them the beloved in that moment. This reciprocal love is a cycle. This cycle is what builds relationships up, how the bond of love between people is strengthened. As they open more of their heart to each other, they become capable of loving each other that much more.
The cycle of giving and receiving love is really important to understand well, for all relationships are made up of people taking turns in these roles. Whether it be relationships with children, friends, or a spouse, to grow in love for each other requires you to continually give love to the other person and accept the love they give back. Because humans are sinners, they may ignore your love or even sin against you. You might love but they do not, the cycle doesn’t happen, the bond between you isn’t strengthened. Patience is required to continue loving even when they are not, with the hope that they will come around someday.
Because God does not sin, you never have to worry about God not loving you, but you do have to worry about yourself not loving God. Some obstacles are lack of faith and your own sin. Sometimes God will feel distant or missing in your life. You may be tempted to stop loving God. It takes faith to know that God is always there even when you don’t feel it. More clearly, it’s an issue of trust.
Over time with many small acts of trusting in God, you are able to open more of your heart to God, possibly even reaching union with God, where you and God have truly become one just like the Virgin Mary. As St. Paul wrote, “…it is no longer I that live but Christ (Gal 2:20).”
The other obstacle, sin, leads to unholiness. Since God is holy, relationship with him will always be hard when unholiness is present. Sin causes the soul to become unclean and need cleansing. God will do this work, but it takes time, slowing the growth of your relationship. In relationship with God, it is God who is hoping you will come around.
V. God is the giver of all love received.
Because God is love (1 Jn 4:8), everything he creates, being made in his image, is made to love. The whole universe, the plants & animals, and even humans are made to love. As a result, people receive love from God himself, all his creation (including the plants & animals), and also other people. When people use their free will to choose to love another, they are cooperating with God’s will. Therefore, whenever someone loves you in someway, you should see two things. First, that person is loving you through their own free will. Second, that God himself is loving you through that person’s cooperation with his will. In other words, you are being loved both by that person and by God simultaneously. This is a beautiful fact to remember.
VI. God is the receiver of all love given.
One of the interesting things Jesus said in the Bible is in the passage Matthew 25: 40-45. In this passage, Jesus exhorted his followers to serve the poor, not just because they were poor and needed help but also because whenever they served the poor, they served him. In other words, to love the poor was to love Jesus. Now, the poor are needy, so they obviously need love, but all people are needy in some way, so Jesus is with all people, not just the more obvious poor. Therefore, when you serve a person, which is to give them love, Jesus says you are giving him love as well. Since Jesus is God, you are giving God love. Just as God is the giver of all love, God is also the receiver of all love, and when you love a person you are both loving that person and God simultaneously.
This fits with Jesus’ statements about the greatest commandment. He made it clear the first commandment is to love God. Love of neighbor is only second in priority. Love of neighbor would be quite difficult if spending time loving God competed with spending time loving your neighbor. Instead, God enables you to do both simultaneously as long as you are conscious of God being present as well. Remembering statements V and VI will really enrich your life as God will be part of everything you do, allowing you to love him and receive his love in every moment.
Prayer to Imitate God in Relationships
Lord, help me to understand what it means to give and receive love. May I always understand my role in my relationships whether it be lover or beloved. Help me to never forget that I am your beloved and always will be, so that I will never question your mercy or stop loving you. Grant me the grace to imitate you in all my relationships. Amen.
Your friend in Christ,