On the Law of God
The Unity of Love For God
and For Neighbor
Ascending from our most simple obligations to our highest, we rise to their apex - our obligations in relationship to God.
According to the clear, precise directions of the Holy Scripture, our main obligation to God is to love Him. This commandment was expressed in the Old Testament with the words, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ said of this command, “This is the first and greatest commandment.”
To this commandment of God’s law, our Saviour bound a second - love for neighbor. He said of this commandment that it is “like unto the first,” that is, love for neighbor is like love for God. The Holy Church, being founded on the words of the Lord, has always set forth the following order in the moral obligations of man: lowest of all are the obligations to oneself. Therefore, love for oneself must be sacrificed in the name of love for God and neighbor. Love for one’s neighbor takes precedence over love for oneself, but it is subject to the highest love - love for God Whom we must love most of all.
There is a contemporary theory that great love for God hinders one’s love for neighbors. The proponents of this theory claim that man must make the relationship with neighbors his primary concern. By this, they claim, one fulfils one’s obligation of love for God. People who advocate this theory are usually set against the struggles of the anchorite life. From their point of view, the anchorite’s mode of life is a manifestation of egoism and dislike for others. In their opinion, the anchorite is a person who is occupied exclusively with himself and the salvation of his own soul, and does not think about others at all.
No one will dispute the fact that in serving one’s neighbors, a Christian serves God. More than that, love for neighbor is the proof of love for God, as the Beloved Apostle says, “He who says: ‘I love God, but hate my brother,’ is a liar; for if one does not love one’s brother whom one sees, how can one love God Whom one does not see?” In serving our neighbors, we serve God, for we fulfill His law of love.
Nevertheless, it is even more certain that our love for God can never hinder our love for neighbors. God is love (1 Jn.8:16). By loving God, we lift ourselves up to a higher spiritual atmosphere, an atmosphere of love and a new “inspiration of life.” The heart of an Orthodox Christian is filled with such divine love and radiates it everywhere and upon everyone. Thus, contrary to the novel opinion cited above, love for God does not obstruct love for neighbors, but on the contrary, strengthens and deepens it.
An excellent clarification of this bond between love for God and neighbor is given by one of the great Orthodox strugglers, Abba Dorotheos. He gave the illustration that mankind is like the rim of a wheel. God is the hub, and each person is like a spoke. If we look at a wheel, we notice that the closer the spokes come to the hub, the closer they come to one another. But man can come close to God and neighbor only through love. It is clear that if one loves God, one will inevitably love one’s neighbors.
In the history of Orthodox asceticism, we repeatedly see how strugglers, enflamed with love for God, left the world with its temptations. They did this according to the instructions of the apostle of love, John the Theologian, who said, “Do not love the world or the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 Jn. 2:15). It is wrong to think that the ascetics renounced their love for people in the world. Not at all. They themselves constantly pointed out that they departed not from people, but from the sins available in the world, from the temptations of a sinful, worldly life. They love their brethren in this world incomparably more than those who have remained in this world and participated in its sins. It should not be forgotten that the solitude of these strugglers has always been filled with prayer - and Christian prayer is not merely about oneself, but also about others. History records for us the following incident in the life of St. Pachomios the Great, a native of Alexandria. Once, while living in the desert, he learned that the city of Alexandria was being ravaged by famine and epidemic. He spent several days in tears, not even eating the meager ration of food which he allowed himself. His novices begged him to eat and restore his strength but St. Pachomios replied, “How can I eat when my brethren do not have bread?” How far are even the best of us from such love and commiseration?
Such love for God is not only the summit of a Christian’s moral ascent, but it is also the basis of his spiritual existence. Without love there cannot be any spiritual life, struggle, virtue.
The highest service of Christian love is the pastor’s service, and it can be fulfilled only by one who can love Christ. This is the reason that our Saviour Himself, in calling Apostle Peter to pastorship, asked him, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” Orthodoxy is a religion of love. “By this they will recognize you that you are My disciples, if you have love amongst you,” said the Lord. Here, His words are about the mutual Christian love of people for one another, and also about filial love, and child-like devotion to Him Whom the Gospel constantly calls, “Our Heavenly Father.” Therefore, the basis of a truly Christian life is a heart which believes in God and is devoted to Him in a child-like manner, and penetrated by a sincere gravitation to Him, as to the loving and beloved Father.
Answer the following questions.
1. What is “apex”?
2. What is our main obligation to God?
3. What is the heart of an Orthodox Christian filled with?
4. Clarify the bond between love for God and neighbor.
5. What is missing without love?
6. What is the highest service of Christian love?
7. What is the basis of Christian life?
Translated by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo - used with permission - all rights reserved.
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