On the Paradoxical Connection Between Love, Law, and Joy

In the Gospel today (Thursday of the 5th Week of Easter), Jesus cuts right through the modern Western tendency to set law in opposition to both love and joy. He joins all three concepts and summons us to a new attitude.

Jesus says, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.

To remain, to habitually abide in God’s love, has this effect: we keep the commandments. Love and law are connected as cause and effect. This is not our usual thinking. The best that Western culture will admit of law is that it is a necessary evil. While this is the best assessment of it, the more routine assessment is that law is somehow an unloving imposition by the powerful on the weak, the hierarchy on the laity, the (evil, oppressive, Pharisaical—you fill in the adjective) Church on decent people. Law is something that restrains, not something through which we experience love or joy.

Whereas the modern world disconnects law from love, Jesus links them. Jesus says that we both experience love and show it by keeping the commandments. The keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love! Jesus sets forth a vision whereby we, having experienced God’s love, desire and rejoice in His commands.

As we love God, we begin to love what and whom He loves. We love justice and mercy, generosity, chastity, and truth. We love our neighbor and even our enemy. We do this as the fruit of love. Having experienced God’s love, we see our hearts change; our desires and priorities become more like God’s and less like those of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Our obedience and joyful adherence to His commands comes from remaining or abiding in God’s love. It also points back to it, because our obedience is an act of love for the Lord.

The “loving” God, according to the world, has few or no rules; He affirms, encourages, accepts, and includes—or so goes the thinking. The real Jesus, however, is far more complex. He is surely loving, especially of sinners. He encourages; He includes the outcast; but He also speaks of sin and rebukes it. He embraces the sinner but directs him to “Sin no more.” He sets forth a demanding moral vision, even as He shows mercy. In this Gospel, Jesus joins love and the law, and then adds that the law brings joy!

Of this, I am a witness. God’s law gives joy to my heart. As a priest, I live as a celibate (like Jesus) and my life is very fulfilling. I have been faithful to my celibate commitment without fail. I have not strayed from proper boundaries. I stay away from pornography. I am not in any way sexually active with women or anyone else. In all this I do not feel “repressed.” I am not sad or lonely. In fact, my life is joyful. I am fulfilled and see my celibacy as a gift.

To those who cannot marry, whether because they are too young, have not met the right person, or have same-sex attraction, I say that God can and still does bless you. Living celibately is fulfilling and joyful for those who are temporarily and/or permanently called to it.

The Church cannot and will not affirm or call good what God calls sin, whether it is greed, violence, illicit heterosexual acts, or (more controversially) homosexual acts. In so doing we are not any more unloving, repressed, or sad than Jesus is—and He is none of these things. Neither can we affirm any other acts or attitudes that the Bible calls sinful. These things are all taught in love and they bring joy to those who will accept them.

The Lord is no liar and He promises that love, joy, and His commandments are all interrelated. I am a witness that this is true.

The law is an expression of God’s love, not some terrible imposition. If we have been loved by God, we will keep his law by that very love. Our obedience itself is love, not grudging fear. And oh, the joy of living in God’s truth and experiencing the effects of His love as we see sins put to death and our very desires increasingly transformed!

Beware of those who would say that a loving God doesn’t mind what we do. Of course He does! He knows what sin does to us and how it harms us and others. Therefore, in His love, He commands. If we know His love and remain in it, we will keep the commandments joyfully, because we want to, not merely because we have to.

Law, love, and joy are connected. We ought not to separate what God has joined. We will hear more about this in Sunday’s Gospel.

Consider this song as directed to God, and see that His love changes everything:

Unbelief in Our Culture Is More Serious Than Most Imagine – A Reflection on the First Commandment

blog9-28-2015We live in times when many people make light of the fact that others do not believe in God. Many have relegated faith to a purely personal and largely irrelevant aspect of one’s life. This attitude even exists among many Catholics who, though believers themselves, don’t seem to be overly concerned that many others do not believe. The assessment of others seems to be a rather vague evaluation of whether they are “nice” or not. Once most people, Catholics included, decide that a person is “nice,” little else seems to matter.

But, frankly, all of us should be concerned at the rise of unbelief in our culture, whether it is atheism, agnosticism, indifference, or the rampant secularism that relegates God to a marginal place. We should be concerned because unbelief on a wide scale (as we are seeing today) is not only unhealthy for a culture, it is dangerous to it.

This danger is fairly obvious when one considers that, in the end, unbelievers think they answer to no one. When one no longer acknowledges that God exists and that He sees everything, when one doesn’t understand that he will ultimately have to answer to God for what he has done or failed to do, important aspects of the moral life can easily be ignored.

Realizing that we will one day answer to God is an important reminder that we are not a law unto ourselves. Knowing that we will not ultimately escape if we treat others with contempt, engage in serious injustice, live unchastely, or indulge greed is an important curb on sin, or at least a call to repentance.

This observation does not mean that every atheist lives a reprobate life. There are atheists who live exemplary lives, who exhibit natural virtues, whether they do so because it is to their benefit or simply because they have some ethical sense which comports with the right reason.

But, other things being equal, having large numbers of unbelievers who do not think they are ultimately accountable for what they do or fail to do is never healthy to good order, morals, or virtue.

Further, when belief is lost by many, so too is a common moral reference point. The Judeo-Christian moral view formed the basis for modern law, justice, constitutional rights, and ethics. While sectarian differences obviously existed in the country for 200 years before this rise of unbelief, there was a basic, biblical worldview that agreed on the essential moral issues. But with the rise of unbelief, this moral consensus has broken down. In its place there has arisen a tyranny of relativism, in which numbers matter more than reason; the one who wins is the one with the loudest megaphone, the most power, and the greatest influence.

This, too, is dangerous to a culture. Without a shared cultus, there can be no real culture. The word cultus refers to a reference point (God and His revelation) that is above and outside a culture, that is bigger and more lasting. Without that shared cultus, that devotion to someone higher, there can be no culture.

When we cannot even agree on what makes a marriage or even on something as obvious as whether one is male or female, the tyranny starts to resemble anarchy and nihilism. No culture can withstand such a basic undermining. Problems of this sort are civilization killers.

Thus, belief is important; it is critical. And we cannot go on relegating such a matter to the space of the purely personal and largely irrelevant. Being “nice” is not enough. We must be accountable to God and see Him as authoritative in our life. If we are to survive we must do this, both individually and collectively.

The First Commandment says, I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2). This is not some egocentric God demanding worship and that He have no rivals. This is our loving Father, who knows what unbelief does to us. When we reject Him and/or turn to other gods we are harmed immeasurably. We lose our way and inherit a lawless and confused world in which the tyranny of relativism holds sway and no one thinks or acts as if he is accountable and will one day answer for what he has and has not done.

Do not make light of the rampant unbelief in our world today. It is far more serious than most imagine. God commands the most serious things for our well-being. The First Commandment is that we believe and that we call others to do the same. It’s Commandment number one for a reason!

The Love of the Law and the Law of Love – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

The LawToday’s readings teach a proper understanding of the Law and its relationship to our hearts. The readings go a long way toward addressing the false dichotomy that many set up between love and law, as though the two were opposed; they are not. For if we love God, we want what He wants and love what He loves. And the Law goes a long way toward describing what God wants and loves. Indeed, the Law is letting love have its way.

God is Love and His Law (no matter how averse we are to “rules”) is ultimately an expression of His love. In all of the readings today God asks (even as He commands it) that we let love have its way. Let’s look at four teachings on the relationship of Law to God, who is Love.

I. The PROTECTION of the Law – Note that the text from today’s first reading frames the Law, and the obedient hearing of it, in terms of a promise of God, seeing the Law as a doorway to the loving blessings and promises of God. The text says, Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”

So the Law comes with a promise. It is the basis of life and the doorway to the further blessings of the land. Many today see God’s Law as prison walls, as a limitation on our freedom to “do as we please.” But the walls are not prison walls; they are defending walls.

Every ancient city had walls, not to imprison its citizens, but to protect them from the enemy. Within the walls there was security and the promise of protection. Outside the walls lurked danger; there were no promises of safety.

It is like this with God’s Laws. For those who keep them, they are a great source of protection and also contain the promise of ultimate victory. But outside this protective wall there is every danger and no promise of victory.

In his famous book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote,

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground … We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased. [1]

God didn’t give the Law to take away our fun, but that we might find life and happiness. The devil, of course, is a liar; he tells us that we’ll be happier if we sin, that God is limiting our freedom by hemming us in with His Law. But sin does not make us free. Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Indeed, how much suffering and pain would vanish if we all just kept the commandments? Most of our wounds are self-inflicted, by insisting on journeying outside the walls of God’s loving and protecting commandments.

Moses reminds us that our decision for or against the Law brings either blessing or curse:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut 30:15-20).

II. The PRECISION of the Law – Regarding the Law of God, Moses says, In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.

Here we might the Law to be like a set of directions to a destination. If you give me directions to get to your house, I am probably not going to get there if I only follow half of the directions. The compliance must be complete to bring me to the right place. And so we are directed the follow the Law of God wholly. Scripture says elsewhere,

  • Instruct me O Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them (Ps 119:33).
  • I intend in my heart to fulfill your statutes always to the letter. I have no love for half-hearted men, my love is for your law (Ps 119:112-113).
  • For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).

Here we must see God as a healer who is not exacting and precise for His sake, but for ours. Imagine a man who goes to a doctor with two broken legs and the doctor says, “We’re gonna aim for 50% here. I’ll set one leg but leave the other one broken. But don’t worry about the broken leg; that’s why God gave you two!” We would surely hold such a doctor in contempt. God, who is our healer, points to full health, not crippled or partial health.

When Jesus says, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48), He is indicating the kind of healing He offers. And St. Paul adds, [God who] began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).

Thus the precision of the Law is taught to indicate the healing power of God’s law with grace.

III. The PRIORITY of the Law – In today’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees saying, “[You] teach as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Now, as then, many set aside the priority of God’s Law in favor of human thinking. Politics has become a pernicious influence in this regard. Many Catholics of both parties are more passionate about their political views than about God’s teachings as revealed through Scripture and Church teaching. And if there is a conflict between what God teaches and the political party view, guess which gives way and which gets unexamined allegiance?

Be it questions of abortion, immigration, or same-sex “marriage,” all too easily Catholics will turn a deaf ear to what God teaches, never rebuking their own party when correction is needed, and even cheering as their political leaders champion positions contrary to God’s Law. Too many Catholics place political priorities and popularity, human traditions and agenda, over God’s Law.

The Lord Jesus goes on to say, Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. He says elsewhere, [you] make void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do (Mk 7:13).

Be very careful; the pernicious effects of partisan political thinking, worldviews, and mere cultural preferences have caused too many Catholics to cease to be the leaven, the prophetic voice they are supposed to be in this world. All of the political parties, most worldviews, and many cultural trends need purification. A Catholic must be a Catholic before he is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Libertarian; before he is a fan of a Hollywood star or musician; before he touts the latest trend or raves about the most recent bestselling book. None of these things usually stand blameless before God, and the unquestioning, unqualified, and silent allegiance from Catholics and other Christians toward such worldly things is a huge problem today. We are too easily compromised and have often elevated human teachings and movements above God’s Law.

To all of this, the Lord gives rebuke and reminds us that His Law must the standard by which every other thing is judged. A Christian should see everything by the Light of God’s Law, exposing error and evil, approving goodness and truth wherever they are found. Nothing has priority over what God teaches.

In the end it is a question of what and whom we love more: God and His Law, or this world and its ways of sin and compromise.

IV. The PLACE of the Law – The Lord goes on to indicate that our fundamental problem can be that the Law of God is not in our heart. He warns that the heart, since it is the locus of human decision and action, must be the place of His Law for us. The Lord says, Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.

Hence there is the need to have God’s law in our heart. It is not enough to have a cursory and intellectual awareness of God’s Law. The Law must drop the 15 inches from the intellect to the heart.

And what is the human heart? While there ambiguities in the biblical text distinguishing mind and heart, this much is clear: the heart is the deepest part of the human person, the place where we are alone with our thoughts and deliberations. The heart is the place where we discern, ponder, and ultimately decide. The heart is “where we live.” It is in this deepest part of ourselves that the Law of God must find a home.

Jesus makes it clear that it is from the deep heart of the individual that come forth the behaviors that determine our character and our destiny. It is here that the Law of God must find a home. And it will only find a deep home here through prayer and meditation; through the careful, persistent, and thoughtful reading of God’s revealed truth, coupled with gratitude and love of God.

It is no mistake that the summary of God’s Law is simply, “Love the Lord the your God with all your heart and your neighbor as your very self.” For it is only love that unlocks the door of our heart. And in loving God we begin to love what and whom He loves. To love God is to love His Law. Scripture says,

  • My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times (Ps 119:20).
  • Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors (Ps 119:24 24).
  • The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (Ps 119:72).
  • For I love your commands more than gold, however fine (Ps 119:127).
  • I open my mouth and sigh, longing for your commands (Ps 119:131).

Yes, in the end, the Law comes from Love, the God of Love, who is Love. And thus it is love that unlocks the Law, love that makes us realize that the Law is a gift of God’s love. He gives us His law in order to protect us, precisely guide us, and heal us. Thus He asks us to make His Law a wholehearted priority.

Love the Law and come to experience the Love that the Law is.

This song says,

We need to hear from you
We need a word from you
If we don’t hear from you
What will we do?
Wanting you more each day
Show us your perfect way
There is no other way
That we can live

Destruction is now is now in view
Seems the world has forgotten all about you
Children are crying and people are dying
They’re lost without you, so lost without you
But you said if we seek
Lord if we seek your face
And turn from our wicked, our wicked ways
You promised to heal our land
Father you can!