God’s love might seem like a no-brainer, something so evident to us that it needs no further explanation. Or, it might seem like such an enigma that it’s impossible to know any more about it. But both of these things are false. God’s love is deep and wide and varied and infinite, but it is knowable, tangible, and constant. In his book Knowing God’s Love, Dr. John D. LaBarbara outlines and then explains in detail eight truths about God’s love that every Catholic should know. Here’s betting you’ve never thought about some of these as aspects of God’s love before or that he explains known truths in a fresh way.
1. God is Love
This one might seem like the absolute most obvious to us. “Duh,” you’re probably rolling your eyes, “We know this one. Vacation Bible School 101, dude.” You’re right, of course. This is the first and most evident truth about God’s love and one that is constantly reinforced in our lives and study of our Faith. But do you know why God is love, or what that truly centers on? God isn’t a him, he’s a we. That’s right, the essential aspect of knowing God is love revolves around his Divine Persons, the Holy Trinity.
Labarbara writes, “Before anything else in all of creation existed, before the universe was made, before the stars gave their first light, before the planets came into being, before galaxies, before the angels, even before the creation of time itself, there existed an eternal ‘We.’ Thus, it is not too much to say that the ultimate, foundational truth of the universe—that which precedes all else, and on which everything else is dependent—is relationship. God is a God of relationship. And…everything else in all of creation originates from this original truth.”
2. Man is created in God’s image
Ok, so maybe this is one you know pretty well, too. After all, the Bible explicitly says this in the very first chapter of Genesis! “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). But this has farther reaching implications than we sometimes see. It means that man is not a solitary “I” but a communal “they”. This means that we, as persons, are meant to live in communion with each other, as God in his three persons lives in communion, either in marriage or friendship. So the next step is how we live in communion with each other. The first command God actually gave us was to be fruitful and multiply AKA: he said that sex was good.
“So the first command that God gave us is to make love– that’s what this commandment means, right? And let’s ace it: it comes as quite a surprise to many non-Christians (and, sadly, even to some Christians). Maybe that’s because of the media’s frequent portrayal of Christianity as having a prudish, suppressed, even negative view of human sexuality. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. God could have chosen any method for the procreation of the human race…But he created sexual relations– between a husband and wife– as the means for generating new life because they best image what he wanted us to know about his nature, which is: self-giving love, that causes joy, and can lead to new life,” Labarbara tells us.
3. God desires us
Now we’re starting to get into the not so explicit stuff. Did you know that God desires you? Even though he is perfect in himself and has no need of our love or of us, he created us anyway. Take a moment to let that sink in. You are desired for no other reason than that you are you. God created you for himself even though you are not necessary. You have infinite worth because of this desire of God. In this way, Jesus told the apostles that they were his friends, and we are also his friends. God isn’t a hall monitor just watching our every move, he is a person and wants to be in relationship with us.
Labarbara expands on this: “God’s love for us is so great that he wants to be our friend, to have a personal, intimate relationship with us, so much so that as Jesus was preparing to undergo his Passion and death, one of the last things he told the apostles was that he had chosen them to be his friends (see John 15:15). He said this to the same apostles who he knew were about to deny and abandon him in the hour of his greatest need. Even as Judas led the soldiers into the garden to betray him (echoes both of the Garden of Eden and the story of the prodigal son), Jesus continued to call him his friend (Matt. 26:50).”
4. To work is to share in God’s creation
In the first place, God commanded us to live in communion like him, by being fruitful and multiplying. But he also works and thus calls us to work. Genesis 2:15 tells us that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till and keep it” (note here that “man” means both man and woman). We see right after this that God not only gave man physical work to do, but also the intellectual work of naming the animals and all of creation. Thus, physical and intellectual work are equal in dignity and value, as God has ordained them both. But we also must do and use work in the right way: does it benefit others and is that my intention in undertaking it?
Labarbara explains this further: “After married life, work is a primary way in which we are called to find our self through making a sincere gift of our self…our work– our part– is absolutely indispensable. If we don’t contribute, God’s doesn’t do the rest. The dignity he has given us includes the fact that our choices matter– that our actions, or inaction, can and do make a difference. The second thing that each of these examples demonstrates is that our efforts, by themselves, are totally insufficient…God’s love for us is so great that he has called us into a genuine partnership with him. As his children, we are not meant to be passive observers in this life. Through our work, we are called to be active participants in God’s ongoing work of creation.”
5. Charity is required to love God and man
This chapter opens with a quote from Pope Benedict XVI from Caritas in Veritate: “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it.” This can and has been twisted so much throughout history and in our present age. We see this twisted version when we say or hear things like, “Just forgive him and move on,” or “It shouldn’t hurt you that much,” or “If you loved me, you’d do this.” These are not charity. These are not love. These kinds of statements and the actions that flow from them or because of them are selfish, not self-giving. Likewise, the other extreme is also dangerous. “Tough love” has come to mean telling the “truth” (whatever a person may perceive that to be) roughly, bluntly, and without compassion for the fuller situation at hand or the person whom it involves. Certainly, there is a time and place for blunt statement of facts or straight up telling someone they are wrong and there is a time and place for forgiveness and moving on, but these moments come at great discernment and a life of virtue and holiness first.
“Our neighbor is created in the image of God, just as we are. Thus, our charity towards him must be consistent with that image. As noted earlier, that image includes both relationship and work. So, in order to fully develop as a human being, our neighbor needs the opportunity to work…[However] leaving people dependent on society is not loving them. It harms their humanity and denies the image of God within them because it fails to value the unique contributions that only they can make…In order to apply the Church’s teaching on charity with regard to the unemployed, therefore, we must take action that: assists in meeting their immediate, short-term needs, gradually frees them from the need for that assistance, leads them to assume responsibility for themselves and their families, enables them to become self-sufficient. Anything that stops short of this is not true charity…From these directive we can see that God values our humanity– made in his image– far more than he values our productivity, our comfort, or our material success,” surmises Labarbara.
6. Catholic Social Teaching is rooted in truth
So, we see that we must help those who are poor—for whatever reason—as this is true charity, which is required of us to love our fellow man and also God. Catholic Social Teaching is then what guides us in this. Catholic social teaching covers every aspect of life from work to physical life to spiritual life, from living wage to the value of work and the role of government. Really, it leaves no stone unturned. But what Catholic social teaching does at its core is to move us beyond addressing the issue of poverty but to uncovering and conquering the root cause of poverty. Every teaching contained within it has this as its center.
Labarbara goes on in this chapter to distinguish between first-world and third-world poverties and different causes of and solutions for each: “All poverty is not the same, so there can be no one-size-fits-all solution. This is another reason for the frequent confusion and dissension over this issue among well-meaning people. For example, whereas obesity and obesity-related diseases are the number-one health problem among the poor within the United States, starvation, malnutrition, and their related maladies are the primary health problems for those living in poverty within the third world. Unfortunately, not recognizing the truth of these very different realities can lead well-meaning people and organizations to take actions that– as Pope Benedict warned– can be ineffective at best, and arbitrary, distorted and the opposite of love at worst.” What he tells us is that Catholic social teaching helps us get to the root causes of poverty in all situations and enables us to take effective, truly charitable actions that benefit peoples of all stations in life.
7. Governing requires prudence
To understand this, we need to first understand the primary tasks of a government or State, which Labarbara says are “To provide security (law and order and national defense) and, to create conditions that ensure job opportunities so that workers can enjoy the fruits of their labor an be encouraged to work more efficiently and honestly.” We know this isn’t always accomplished well or even at all and so, of course, charities are set up to help in these areas. However, charity must be voluntary as we have free will and agency and must also have the means to take care of ourselves and those in our care. Thus government, while it must provide for and protect its people, cannot make charitable acts as it has no self of which to give from. So what can and should government do? It must be centered on the common good, for starters.
LaBarbara writes on this, “Thus, in considering the proper role of government we remember the words of Paul VI: ‘The political community exists…for the…common good…which [is] its full justification and significance, and the source of its…legitimacy.’ Any good political system, then, that does not bring about the common good– the good of its citizens– has lost its justification and legitimacy…Nothing that is emphatically unjust, that distorts the function of the State and thus causes evil, can serve the common good. These states suppress the rights of those who live under them, including economic rights…Thus, Catholics are to support economic and political systems that promote economic initiative, because the alternative– leaving down in the name of equality– further hurts those it claims to help.”
8. We are responsible for reflecting God’s love in public life
“When we experience how complicated, messy, and frustrating participation in politics and civil society can be, it’s tempting to withdraw from them altogether. Jesus himself said that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). And the apostles frequently reminded us that this world is not our permanent home and warned us against becoming polluted by it (Her. 3:14; 1 Pet. 2:11-12; James 1:27). But Jesus also told us to be salt and light in the world, to be in the world, although not of it, and to act as leaven within it (Matt. 5:13-16; Jon 17:14; Matt. 13:33). That is, we are to have both a preserving and leavening influence within society. Thus, for all but cloistered religious, withdrawal from the world is not a valid option,” LaBarbara opens this chapter.
We must be active participants in our society and work through our personal lives and our active lives to bring about the fullness of God’s love. As the song says, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” The little light that we have is God’s love and we must let that shine in us for all the world to see. Some ways we can accomplish this are by voting, using prudential and right judgment in our actions and decisions, giving of our time and talents charitably, and patriotism. St. Josemaría Escrivá sheds some more light on patriotism: “Love your own country: it is a Christian virtue to be patriotic. But if patriotism becomes nationalism, which leads you to look at other people, at other countries, with indifference, with scorn, without Christian charity and justice, then it is a sin.”
For more on each of these eight truths about God’s love, pick up a copy of John D. LaBarbara’s book Knowing God’s Love: 8 Essential Truths Every Catholic Should Know.