The Preparation for the Revelation of Love

Life is the school of character. We are placed here to be formed for eternity. We come unformed and plastic into the midst of surroundings that have a singular power over us for good or evil. Each of us has latent gifts and powers and tendencies, and the forces of life act upon us, moulding and shaping us by their strain and pressure. And so sensitively are we constituted that everything around us affects us, the air we breathe, the special place on earth we occupy, the people we come in contact with. You can tell something of a man's characteristics by his geographical position, whether he lives in the north or south, in the mountains or plains. The climate in which he lives, the character of the land in which he dwells, all have something to say as to the kind of man he is. We are sensitive to all, plastic to the touch of everything in this wonderful world in which we are placed for our discipline and training.

And as, wherever we go on earth, above us are ever the overarching Heavens, whose influences affect everything we see, mingling with all, colouring all, making all Nature smile or frown or weep as they will, so the Heaven of God's Presence ever bends over us and affects our whole view of life.

And we should probably be surprised to find that of all the influences that help to form us, none is so great as our conception of the character of God. We read in the Gospel of one whose whole life was spoilt, haunted and paralysed, by the idea that God was not just, that He expected him to do what He did not give him the power to do. "I know thee, that thou art an hard man, thou reapest where thou hast not sown, and gatherest where thou hadst not strewed, and I was afraid and went and hid thy talent in the earth". The stem and uncompromising strength of the old Puritans, rigid and unmellowed by love, was no doubt the outcome of their wrong conception of predestination; and much of the lack of moral fibre in our own day can be traced to the prevalent conception of the love of God, too weak to hate sin or to punish the sinner. Many amongst us have cast aside their faith with its inspirations and restraints, because they thought it committed them to the worship of a God whom they could not even respect, and yet how often we have noticed the bitterness and cynicism which even this effort to get rid of God engenders.

Thus some false idea of the character of God may mar a noble life, and to know God in His truth as He has revealed Himself, has been the inspiration and support of the Saints. It is not only a command of our Lord, but an instinct of our human heart which bids us be God-like. "Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," said our Lord, as He revealed to us the perfections of God; and in whatever our idea of God fails, our own character is certain to fail also.

Now, the last and the final revelation which God has given us of Himself is the revelation of His Love. It was not given merely through the lips of Prophet or Psalmist, it was given in the Person of our Lord. Words may be misunderstood or explained away; not so a Life. In the Life of our Lord, in His actions and His words, there is revealed to us a Person who radiates forth from His Presence a Love which nothing can change or destroy. It shines in every act, it throbs and vibrates through every word He utters. He does not tell us about Himself. We behold Himself. In Jesus Christ we see what manner of being God is, that the hatred and scorn of men cannot change Him, that their sins do but move Him to pity and to help. He assumes our nature, that we may see and know Him, and never again doubt Him.

He does not merely tell us that He loves us, but He shows us how immense His love is by laying aside His glory, entering into all our troubled life, placing Himself under the same conditions under which we live, seeing and feeling all things from our point of view, and laying down His Life for us. "We saw His glory, the glory as it were of the Only Begotten of the Father full of grace and truth."

In Jesus Christ we see, we know, we feel the presence of a Person, and that Person is the Eternal God. We see His infinite compassion for us: "the bruised reed He shall not break, and the smoking flax He shall not quench". We watch His gentleness towards those whom life's cruelty had crushed. His eager love reaching out towards those in whom the first movements of penitence had begun. How He impressed on all who came near Him His hatred of sin and His love for the sinner. Those who had nothing to hope from man gained hope from Him; they felt how His heart went out towards them, they knew He was the friend of sinners. His words pierced through the fog of self-deceit and sin that enshrouded many a soul, like a beam of light, and touched their hearts and warmed them and brought them to His Feet.

The life of Christ has thus shown the world what manner of being God is. Before, men had heard about God; now they knew Him, and henceforth men's thoughts of God have been revolutionised. That vision in the Gospels lives on, and will ever live to interpret God's dealings with the world, and to keep those who turn to it from being hardened and embittered by life.

And yet we must remember that the Incarnation revealed - it did not change - God's attitude to man. God has not loved mankind any more since or any less before the Incarnation. The world was old when Christ came down into it, and yet, except some rare souls here and there, how many knew that God was Love?

There was God from the beginning, reigning from His Throne, ruling mankind as He rules today, in perfect and changeless love, and the world did not know it. To the open eye of the Christian the love of God is seen in all His acts; there are countless multitudes all the world over praising Him, thanking Him, clinging to Him in suffering and sorrow and bitter trials, knowings and feeling that all is sent to them in love, for the discipline and perfecting of their souls. Yet in the ages of the past men did not know that these trials were sent by a loving hand. What multitudes throughout Christendom find their whole lives satisfied by the thought of God's love, and see the whole world radiant with His love! Yet His love is no greater today than it was from the first. The same love was there, shining as the sun shines in the heavens, but, except by a very few, it was unseen, unrecognised.

Love is the most difficult of all human characteristics to conceal; it radiates as heat radiates from a fire. If there be one loving person in a household his presence warms the whole house. Try as you will you will find it hard, almost impossible, to conceal your love for a friend. If a sovereign loves his people, the whole country knows it. Yet from the beginning God loved the whole world with that same love which was revealed in the Incarnation and on the Cross, and the world knew it not.

We may well ask, why and how was this?

I think it is owing to the fact that for sinful man to be able to understand the love of the All-holy God he needs an education. Love is the commonest and most universal of all human characteristics. There is scarcely any one that is not capable of loving. Yet when we come to examine it we find that it is very different in different people. The love of any individual will be very largely the product of the whole character. The love of a child for its parent is a very different thing from the love of that same child for his parent when he has grown to man's estate. The child's love for his mother is full of the idea of dependence and protection; as he becomes a man it gradually changes, and he becomes the protector, and the idea of dependence passes into her love for him. The young spendthrift's idea of his father's love is measured by his power of giving; when his father will give no more he believes it is because he has ceased to love him. The love of the sensualist gradually ceases to be anything but physical. In a faulty and corrupt character love is a poor and corrupt thing. The idea of love, in fact, rises or sinks according to the character in which it grows. In a savage tribe it will be a very different thing from what it is amongst a cultivated and civilised people. In a person or in a people in a low state of moral development it is a poorer and a lower thing than it will be in that same person or that same people in a higher moral state. As we rise, so does our idea of love rise. "With the pure it is pure, with the holy it is holy, and with the perfect it is perfect."

Now we can only have our own ideas of love. We may intensify it in thinking of the love of another in whom it is stronger than in ourselves, but it is an intensifying of the same qualities. A selfish man will always find that the strongest ingredient in his conception of love is selfishness. It cannot be otherwise. We only know it as we experience it A jealous man cannot believe that another who has no jealousy can really love. I imagine that if there be a person who is wholly incapable of love he will be equally incapable of imagining it in another.

Now we know well by our own experience that there is nothing so disastrous as for a low and base character to have to deal with one of noble character who loves him. He takes advantage of it, plays upon it for his own benefit, makes his own use of it, makes it serve his own unworthy ends; it helps to drag him down and degrade him.

And thus if men had known from the first that God was love, they could have interpreted that love only by an exaggeration of their own conception of love. "Thou thoughtest wickedly," says the Psalmist, "that I am such an one as thyself." What else could they think? They have no scales in which to measure it but their own. If they thought of God as infinite, it would be but the qualities of their own love in an infinite degree. They would in fact have lost all power of knowing God as He is. The more they thought of God as loving, the more monstrous they would have made Him.

Indeed, is it not true, that in our own day many turn away from God because He does not correspond to their unworthy or imperfect conception of love? His love is too strong to yield to them and shape their lives according to their own desires. His love is too far-seeing to grant what would gratify them for the moment but would be to their eternal loss. "I would not deal with my child," cries a father, "as God deals with me; I would not put him to such suffering if I could relieve him." No, for it needs a stronger and a purer love to allow a moment's suffering that works a more exceeding weight of glory, than to spare it and cause an eternal loss.

It is not, therefore, so simple a thing as it may seem for God to reveal His love to men. They would grasp at the thought of His love as an attribute that it was the easiest of all His attributes for them to understand, and they would - they could not do otherwise than - transfer to the All-holy God that conception of love which they drew from the sickly and unhealthy growth in their own hearts, and measure His dealings with them by their own poor and faulty standard.

Therefore, before He revealed to them, before they were capable of understanding His love. He must reveal to them His Holiness. They must first learn to know Him as a God who is a lover of justice and a hater of iniquity. The first strain of the hymn which rises around His Throne from the glorified Saints in their ecstasy of grateful praise is "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus". The name we give to those who love God most on earth and live nearest to Him is the same - Saint. It is the Saint - the man most God-like in his holiness - who knows best His love. It is not that the love of God is less seen or less known by the saints on earth and in Heaven, but that it is known as the perfection and bloom of another attribute. Holiness is the flower, love the perfume that exhales from it; holiness is the sun, love its warmth and glow. To know God's love we must know His Holiness, and to know His Holiness we must be Holy.

But how is sinful and wayward man to know the Holiness of God? God has to take us as we are. Nay, even as we are now, we are the outcome of ages of discipline and training. How could God in the beginning prepare for Himself a people who would be able to realise His Holiness? We see how earthly His people were when He began to reveal Himself. He led them up out of Egypt with a mighty hand and stretched-out arm. He marched before them in their journeys and rested with them in the overshadowing cloud in their camp. He fed them with bread from Heaven and gave them water out of the stony rock to drink, and they became irreverently familiar and petulant at His delays. He holds aloof, and they turn from Him and make idols to themselves, and say, These be thy gods, O Israel, who led thee up out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage This intercourse with God, His loving-kindness to them, seems only to make any deeper and truer knowledge of Him impossible, for their familiarity is in very truth breeding contempt.

How then is He to awaken in them that reverence and awe which results from realising His Holiness? The vision of His awful Majesty on Sinai only frightened them; the impression wrought upon their minds soon passed away. They stood like children awed and terror-struck at the scenes on the mountain as the thunder roared and the lightnings flashed and the trumpet waxed louder and louder. Yet within forty days, before Moses came down to them, they were worshipping the golden calf. No; no mere manifestation of His Holiness, no impression made upon the mind, however striking, will act with lasting effect and waken them to a realisation of the Holiness of God. It can only be done by raising them. If they would know God they must themselves rise.

When He would reveal Himself therefore he places His people under a dispensation of commands and prohibitions - "Thou shalt," "Thou shalt not" - enforcing them by severe punishments, that so in this school of strict moral discipline the conception of Holiness might be developed within them by their own personal experience. How could they form any idea of the Holiness of God if their ideas of morality were crude and unformed; and what advantage would it be to them to know intellectually that God was Holy if they were unable themselves to rise to any moral standard?

He did not therefore come down to this ignorant and earthly minded people and tell them of His Holiness. He did not even at this stage send Prophets to them to speak to them of the Holy One of Israel. Such language they were not capable of understanding as yet. But He points out to them the pathway; He gave them the Law, the Ten Commandments, and said to them, "Obey this and in time you'll learn to know Me."

It was only, no doubt, by degrees, in the effort to obey it, in the struggles with their own sinful nature, that there would grow up in the mind of Israel the realisation that the Law was itself a revelation of God's character. As the moral standard which the Law set before them became clearer to them, they would gain, in the purer atmosphere of their own lives, the dim outlines of the Lawgiver, and they would know that He who forbade evil and demanded goodness was Himself Holy. Instead of a Being who would deliver them from their Egyptian slavery and feed them in the wilderness and give them what they needed, instead of One to whom they could turn merely to have their needs supplied, they were beginning to know the "Holy One of Israel".

Thus the first stage out of a careless and self-governed life to any knowledge of God that does not harm us, is the placing ourselves under a stem moral discipline. For a mere intellectual knowledge of God and of holy things robs the soul of all spiritual power. We may know a great deal about God, but to know Him we must rise.

For the barriers between God and man are not of God's making, nor are they in the nature of God, but of man. We have not to fight our way through barriers which God has set round Himself, that we may at last draw near and behold Him. No, whatever keeps us back from Him is within ourselves. The clouds and darkness that seem round about Him enwrap our own souls, not Him; the struggle to attain to the knowledge of God is a struggle with ourselves, not with a reluctant God that does not wish to be known. The conditions of gaining this knowledge are no arbitrary conditions. They are above all things reasonable. Strive to rise, to love goodness, so far as you can to be good, to put away those things that bind the soul to earth, to understand in your own life what holiness is, and the vision of God will break upon your soul in ever-growing splendour.

Thus to Israel of old God's first great proclamation of Himself came in the form of the Moral Law. He gave them a moral standard which they were commanded to strive after. They no doubt had little knowledge at first of what it meant; if they broke the Law He punished them. The punishment may have seemed to them arbitrary and severe. We, as we look back, can see that such punishments were the utmost mercy. They drove the people back into the path that led to God, they kept them in the school in which they were being educated in the knowledge of God and prepared for greater and still greater revelations. When Nadab and Abiu were struck dead, when the earth opened and swallowed up Core and his company, when Moses was commanded to put to death the man that broke the Sabbath, these were to keep the stragglers within bounds, to warn the people back, to hold them - if no other way would do - then by fear, in the grasp of the Law, till it had fulfilled its work, laid deep within them the strong foundations of moral discipline upon which alone the edifice of the spiritual life could be built and they could be brought into close communion with God.

And as the law worked in them and raised them, so their idea of God would rise almost unconsciously, and gradually become transformed. For the Law was, within its limits, making them God-like. And as they rose step by step in their conception of goodness, in conformity with the Mind of God, they got clearer and ever clearer visions of the Holiness of the Law-giver. "The Law" says Saint Paul, "is holy," it taught an ignorant and degraded people what Holiness was. God ceased to be to them merely the supplier of their needs. The petulance of the wilderness yielded to a spirit of reverence and awe; such cries as they had uttered in the wilderness - "Give us water or we die," "Hast thou brought us out of Egypt that we might perish in the wilderness?" gave way to the deep spiritual utterances of the Psalms. A few hundred years of the discipline of the Law changed the irreverent familiarity of their peevish complaints into the deep penitence of the Miserere or the spiritual yearning of the forty-first Psalm.

And as they grew more disciplined and more spiritual, so of necessity would their idea of love undergo a vast change, and consequently, in so far as they gained any conception of the love of God, it would be less unworthy of Him. For their knowledge of God as the Holy One of Israel was now true, so far as it went, imperfect indeed, but not as before untrue. And that knowledge would develop and unfold as they held communion with Him. In their intercourse with the All-holy God, filled as they were with the spirit of reverence, gradually their hearts would bum within them, the consuming Fire of His Divine Presence would be felt They could not gain any personal knowledge of Him who, though they knew it not as yet in the fulness of revelation, was Love, without gaining some knowledge of that Love through communion with Him. In the burning Fire of His Holiness they would begin to see the outlines of that other attribute which was to be the subject of another revelation. They were being prepared, they were preparing the world, for that revelation. It could not have been given earlier. They would not have understood it Their minds were not prepared for it. To know Him as Love without first knowing Him as Holy, would only have led them astray and unfitted them for ever knowing Him. The moral training must come first They must advance and rise before they are fit to know or capable of understanding that God is Love. Those long years of stem discipline wrestling with the Law written on tables of Stone, cold, stern, uncompromising, that would not yield, but merely condemned them if they did not obey, did its work; it gave them the moral education which fitted them for the deeper spiritual knowledge It was in very truth the Pedagogue to bring them to the revelation in Christ.

And as before the sun rises the dawn spreads upon the mountains, so, long before Christ had come, those who stood upon the mountains, who had climbed to the heights to which the Law led them, caught the first foretastes of the Love which was revealed in its fullness in Christ.

- text taken from Self-Knowledge and Self-Discipline, by Father Basil William Maturin