Monday, June 24, 2019

Why our effort matters so much in our spiritual lives.

St Augustine is well known for many amazing quotes, and my personal favorite is this “God created us without us, but will not save us without us”, partly because it appeals to the theologian in me.

The depth and beauty of this quote conveys a truth about the utter generosity and grace of God’s love, and at the same time gives us a glimpse of the absolute freedom of this love.  

We need to be clear from the start that there was no necessity for God to create us, or even to create at all.  God, whom we call omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, was fully content and complete in himself.  He was, and always will be the unity of three divine persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The fullness of love between the three persons is so intrinsic that it is what undergirds all of existence as we know it.  Classical theology attempts to describe this unity or flow of love between the three persons of God as perichoresis, a Greek term which can best be described as a dance or movement.  Perhaps what should be the key question that needs to be asked about creation is “why?”. Why indeed did God create, especially if God didn’t need to.

It was not out of necessity that God created, but out of sheer love.  The love that God enjoyed in his three personhood has in itself a generativity and inclusivity about it.  Unlike our love, God’s love wants others to be included and to share in this love.  Not possessive in any way, this caused creation.  In simple terms, God’s love was too good to be just shared between the three persons, and creation had its being in order for this love to be experienced, enjoyed and included.  And as St Augustine so astutely surmised, God did not ask if creation wanted to be created, and so created without our participation in it.  It was, and needs to be seen as pure grace and pure gift.

But love cannot in any way be coerced or forced if it is to truly be love in its purest sense. The necessity of freedom to want to return the love given to the lover from the beloved is what makes the loving true and pure.  This is where God gives us, his beloved, the freedom to either love him back with all our heart, soul and mind (as in the first commandment), or to reject this and turn our backs on the love (i.e. to sin).  

Unless we understand this important aspect of love, we will always be stymied by why God allows so much suffering to happen, especially when suffering is the result of a deliberate choice to hurt, to be selfish and to be proud.  It is because God loves us so much that he allows us to choose not to return this love to him, the ultimate lover.  

It is into this mired world of sin that God made that unthinkable choice to become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ to save us from certain death.  But this salvation, because it is primarily based on love, still requires a response from us.  We need to want to be saved from sin.  Augustine saw this clearly enough to say therefore that God will not save us without us.  God will not force anyone into heaven’s embrace, because if it is forced, the embrace will only be seen as a strangulation and a restriction.  

In all this movement and dynamic, we are not simply left to fend for ourselves.  The Church has always been clear that there is the primacy of grace, where even in our wanting to return God’s love to him, we are first led by God’s grace, and never just because we made the move out of our own goodness.  Our lives need to be simply a loving response to this offer of grace.

Is it all as complex and as simple as that?  In effect, it truly is.  Yet, so many of us struggle to want to return this love to God because we are too full of ourselves and prideful in so many ways.  

This reflection is not just for the sake of some theological acrobatics.  A theologian reading this may scoff at its simplicity, but it was not written with theologians in mind.  It was written for those who cannot understand why God would create, and may have harboured the thought that with all the turmoil and suffering that exists, it would be better if God hadn’t created at all. Those who have such opinions have failed to understand that creation is itself an expression of how God is loving. 

If God were to save us without our effort and cooperation, God would not be loving at all, but a control freak, a dictator and an ogre, making heaven a hell.

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