Arts and Culture

Thinking About God As a Pure Self-Gift

I wonder if readers of this column grew up with the same understanding of the Old and New Testaments that I grew up with, which was really a misunderstanding. I thought of the God of the Old Testament as a God of anger and the God of the New Testament as a God of love.

There are some sections of the Old Testament that might contribute to that misunderstanding but the God who was Israel’s God was a God of love. The Jewish people thought of Him as a Father and compared a mother’s love for her children to his love for them. He was a God who would wipe every tear from their eyes. They would be his people and he would be their God. The Old Testament is about God’s love for his people.

The main difference between the two Testaments is that the New Testament God is the Son of God who became human, suffered, died and rose from the dead and lives as the Head of the Mystical Body which is made up of those believers who through Baptism and the Eucharist have committed their lives to loving and serving Him.

These thoughts have been on my mind for several weeks because I have been thinking about an image of God that I learned from a Catholic theologian. The theologian is Father Michael Himes whom I greatly admire. I met Michael when I was 25 years old, newly ordained and Michael was fourteen, fresh out of grammar school.

In his wonderful book “Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships and Service” Michael presents an image of God that I find extremely appealing. Pointing out that all ways of speaking about God are inadequate because our limited minds cannot understand completely an Infinite being, Michael writes the following:

“But acknowledging that there is no final and fully correct way of imagining or speaking about God, is there any way less hopelessly inadequate than every other way? The great western religious traditions have at their cores claims about how one might least wrongly think and speak about God. And so of course, has Christianity.

What the Christian tradition maintains is the least inadequate expression for God finds its clearest, sharpest, simplest statement in one of the last-written documents of early Christian documents which we call the New Testament, the first letter of John. There we read that ‘God is love.’ (1 Jn 4:8 and 10). But the love which is offered as the least wrong way to think or speak about God is of a very peculiar sort: agape. Agape is a Greek word meaning love which is purely other, love which seeks no return, love which does not want anything back. Perhaps, so as to not confuse it with the many other meanings we attach to the word ‘love’ in English, we might translate agape as ‘pure self-gift.’ ” (pp.9-10)

I have found thinking about God as a pure self-gift very helpful in my attempts to be a follower of Christ. I think that the two very important attitudes we should have toward God are recognizing that God loves us beyond our capacity to understand and respond to that love with gratitude. If we believe that God loves us beyond our capacity to understand fully that love then I think the proper response to God is gratitude.

Many people are loving and perform acts of love. But God is Love. If God is pure self-gift and constantly showering love on us then gratitude on our part seems essential. If God is all “Yes” in relation to us then we should be “Thank You” in relation to God. Thinking of God as pure self-gift can remind us that we do not win or merit or earn God’s love. It is all a gift. God does not love us because we are lovable. Rather we are lovable because God loves us. God’s love is creative. It makes us lovable.

Reflecting on what I have written in this column, I am reminded of how central the Eucharist should be in the life of a Catholic. In a Eucharistic celebration, we are called to recognize God’s love. We are also called to believe more deeply that the Son of God redeemed us by dying on a cross, freely choosing to suffer for us.

I don’t think we can ever think about that too often. It tells us who God is and who we should be. A Eucharistic celebration helps us to deepen our identity. The Eucharistic celebration is the most wonderful “Thank you” that we can offer God. At a Eucharistic celebration, we join ourselves with Christ’s offering to His Father A Eucharistic celebration tells us who Christ is and it also can help us in our relationship with one another.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.