“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
And if I give away all my possessions to charity,
and if I surrender my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
“Love is patient, love is kind, it is not jealous; love does not brag, it is not arrogant.
It does not act disgracefully, it does not seek its own benefit;
it is not provoked, does not keep an account of a wrong suffered,
it does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth.
It keeps every confidence, it believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
– Jesus as channeled through the Apostle Paul, from 1 Corinthians 13
Coming up with a topic for our blog post each week is my Thomas’s task. He proposes our topic on the previous weekend, and then he lets me flounder with it until Friday, at which point he steps in and helps me finish and polish it. Late last Sunday afternoon he still hadn’t said anything, so as I was going through emails I said to him, “It’s time. What have you got for me?” I was opening Patheos.com’s daily email of articles. He said from behind my left shoulder, “Try that.”
The top article was about the Biblical definition of love. I said, “That? That’s boring. He said, “No. Define the word ‘love’.” And he was right. We talk about love all the time. But do we really all share one definition for the word “love”? Love as the Bible defines it is pretty much limited to Jesus’s loving us enough to die on a cross to save us from God’s judgment for our sins. Which, as we know now, is a nonsense idea. Jesus tells us right in the Gospel of John that God never judges us (JN 5:22-23). So Jesus didn’t need to die as a sacrifice to God. We have Jesus’s own thoughts about love as a Core Teaching on teachingsbyjesus.com, and we might consult that. But what do you and I mean by the word “love” when we use it in conversation? What really is love, anyway?
I have written about love here repeatedly, and I am embarrassed now to say that I have never satisfactorily defined the word. The Merriam & Webster’s dictionary definition is also unsatisfying, since it boils down to synonyms. “Love is a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” “Love is attraction based on sexual desire; affection and tenderness felt by lovers.” “Love is affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests.” So basically, love is a positive feeling, and you and I know it when we feel it? But what really is love, anyway?
Of course, what further complicates our question is the fact that A Course in Miracles would call all the personal loves in the paragraph above just “special loves.” The loves that we have for particular individuals are all special loves, and ACIM derisively tells us that special loves are as counterproductive spiritually as are “special hates.” Well, that’s a real downer!
As a first pass, at least we can say that love is a positive feeling for someone beyond oneself. But there are so many kinds of love! I am reminded of what my Thomas has told us about his brother six thousand years ago, the sweet teenage boy who in his next incarnation was going to be born from the Godhead as Jesus. That boy was so entranced with people that even while a war was going on and his tribesmen were finishing off the losing side, he went searching for people who might be hidden away, hoping to find and save some of them before the soldiers could get to them. And when he found a terrified mother with her children, he rescued them and kept them safe until he could find a man of his own victorious tribe who would take the woman for a second wife and would adopt her children. That was Jesus in the making.
Then when Jesus was born from the Godhead four thousand years later, He had some definitive things to say about love! When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, He didn’t name any of the Biblical Ten Commandments. Instead, He was all about love. He said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (MT 22:37-40). Ah, now we are getting somewhere! In shifting the base of the entire existing Hebrew religion to His new Law of Love, Jesus is telling us that love has become fundamental. Nothing is more important. Jesus has moved us from a transactional relationship with God, one in which the breaking of arbitrary rules once called for the payment of penalties in the form of pigeons or unblemished heifers, to one in which God now requires of us that we love with our whole heart, soul, and mind. In a way, this is letting us off easy. We do get to keep all our pigeons and heifers. But on the other hand, to give up your whole heart, soul, and mind to God might turn out to be an even greater burden. It all depends on what love means.
What A Course in Miracles is about fundamentally is forgiveness. An unwillingness to forgive is the ultimate barrier to being able to master perfect love. But forgiveness is much harder than it sounds! You and I are transactional by nature, just as were the ancient Hebrews. We carry around a scale in our minds. For us to be wronged and to forgive that wrong will set our mental scale out of balance, and will make our being able to freely love that much harder. In a way, a lot of what our lives on earth are about is learning to get rid of that mental scale so we can forgive easily and completely, even despite our having been wronged. This is especially true of forgiving God! I will occasionally get emails that are full of woe-is-me complaints about people’s lives, and right beneath the surface it is clear that really the senders are in a rage against God for the problems that they themselves had planned into their own lives as spiritual growth challenges. By far the greatest habit that any of us can learn is complete, automatic forgiveness of wrongs. But doing that goes against human nature, which is why ACIM is called A Course in Miracles. With a big emphasis on that last word! Personally, I have found that once I accepted the fact that I myself had designed into my life all my problems of this lifetime, and then I added the forgiveness-balls routine, automatic forgiveness became a snap.
So my mind goes back to that scrawny boy searching a battlefield for people to save. I don’t know what Jesus remembers of His final earth-lifetime before He ascended to the Godhead level. I never have presumed to ask Him that question. And Thomas recalls very little about it, but on the rare occasions when he has been willing to discuss it, he has dredged up and shared vague bits of memories that I find tantalizing for what they tell us about the titanic spirit that was Jesus in the making. Thomas has told me that some six thousand years ago in the fertile crescent there was some kind of blood-feud between two primitive walled cities, and he himself as the chieftain’s oldest son in one of them led an attack that breached the other side’s defenses. But he stresses to me that it was all primitive, mud walls and hovels, knives and spears. His younger brother should not have been there at all. In his vague memories, the princeling who would much later be born as Jesus was a sickly boy, and under orders never to leave their home city. Still, that boy snuck out to follow the army, and even while they still were fighting, he ventured into the enemy’s breached city that was littered with the dead and dying to try to rescue some woman, some child, some innocent victim from out of the carnage. But, who does something like that?
I try to put myself into that boy’s mind. All I can think is that he could not bear to sit safe at home, while knowing that there was even a chance that maybe there was someone in that city that his brother’s army was attacking that he might possibly save. He would have observed his side’s preparations after witnessing this battling between the two walled cities. First we attack them and then they attack us. Lots of yelling and throwing of stones and spears. But now he was hearing that his brother had a plan to breach the other city’s walls and obliterate it? Oh no! But what about the women and children? He had to get himself over there, so he snuck out and followed the army. The great danger to himself didn’t matter at all beside his thought that there might be someone he could save.
Thomas is looking over my shoulder at this point. He has a vague memory of receiving a report that his brother had been spotted in the ravaged city, so he had to assign soldiers to protect him while there still were enemy soldiers alive. But the boy kept slipping away from them. Brat. And how is this helping us to define love?
Jesus’s teaching that we must love our neighbors as ourselves might perhaps be one key. It is clear that Jesus saw things quite differently from His contemporaries, and surely the boy that He had been in His previouus earthly incarnation also had a unique perspective on things. All of us together are parts of a single consciousness; and amazingly, that means all nearly eight billion of us now. Even in this more sophisticated twenty-first century, that fact can feel difficult to get our minds around. And it is flat incredible that two thousand years ago, clearly Jesus already understood this concept! Love your neighbor as yourself. Because your neighbor is yourself. And even four thousand years before that, a sickly teenage princeling in the fertile crescent at the dawn of civilization seems also to have had some clue that the separations that are apparent between people are illusory. I can think of no other explanation for his behavior.
But can it really be so simple? Ultimately, love is a recognition that we are all one being? Some forty or fifty years ago there was a major famine in Africa, and a photographer was sent to document it for National Geographic. I recall this story only vaguely now, but I can never get this man and his photograph entirely out of my mind. The story was that he was allowed inside the famine zone to take pictures, but he must not intervene. Which was a rule that likely made sense to the authorities running the relief effort, since with a mass feeding program underway they could not have random do-gooders running around and getting in their way. So this fellow took an award-winning photograph of a toddler crawling alone across a gigantic African plain, while within the frame there were vultures waiting nearby. He did his job and took his photographs and won his award. But he never was able to learn the fate of that one particular child, and he gradually became inconsolable. He quit his photography job. Then he killed himself.
There is nowhere else that we can go but this: love is the recognition that all of us are one being. Love your neighbor as yourself because your neighbor is yourself. Jesus uses the analogy of the good shepherd who leaves his flock and searches until he finds the one he has lost. Humankind is unique among living creatures for the fact that we are all eternal aspects of the one consciousness which is all that exists, and which at its highest is the High God, and therefore we all are encompassed in the singular love that Jesus taught. The special loves and hates don’t matter. And learning to completely forgive is just a necessary step along the way toward achieving this fundamental realization. All those other details are just side-issues.
Love is the recognition that we are all one in God. All almost eight billion of us. And that is the true and eternal love that Jesus taught. It is steadfast, fundamental, and eternal, and whatever else is going on, it underlies and unites us all. It is the love that motivated Martin Luther King, Jr. and so very many others who could not turn away from evil, but in fighting that evil they loved the perpetrators as well as the victims. But how do we form this into a definition for the word? “Love is the irresistible certainty that I am eternally one with every human being on the face of the earth.” Perhaps for now that might do as a definition for the word. It is more complex than Jesus’s “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But for now, perhaps it is enough.
“Love never fails. But if there are gifts of prophecy, they will fail.
If there are tongues, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will be done away with.
For now we know in part and prophesy in part;
but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away with.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
When I became a man, I gave up all childish things.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face;
now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.
But now faith, hope, and love remain, these three;
but the greatest of these is love. “
– Jesus, as channeled through the Apostle Paul, from 1 Corinthians 13