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How to Grow in the Love of God

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

While there is probably no subject in the spiritual life about which we have heard and reflected more often than this one, nevertheless it is always worth more reflection, because it is infinitely deep and has implications that we can never exhaust.

The expression “love of God” has more than one meaning. Consequently, the practical question of how to grow in this love depends in no small measure on what meaning we attach to the expression. The love of God can mean, first, friendship with God in sanctifying grace; it can mean the service of God in doing His Will; it can finally mean affection for God in the acts of love by which we show our affection for Him.

Love of God Means Friendship with God in Sanctifying Grace

The love of God as divine friendship is, in a way, the fundamental meaning of love of God. It is not only theologically but doctrinally correct to speak of the love of God as our state of friendship with Him. Another name would be the state of grace, or, if you wish, the state of love. More than once in the New Testament we find this idea of divine love as the state or condition of those who are the friends of God. This means that everyone in the state of grace possesses God’s love in his soul. Essentially this refers to God’s love for us because when we say “love of God” we do not immediately say “whose love for whom?”; but there could be no love on our part for God unless He first loved us. So the primordial meaning of the love of God is His for us as the condition of our love for Him.

His presence in a soul is another name for that soul’s right to the Beatific Vision. God loves those in whom He dwells by His grace, so that if they die in this state of divine friendship, they are assured the Beatific Vision, which means the power of loving God for eternity. Consequently, already in infancy a child who has just been baptized not only is loved by God but possesses this love of God. It is also true of a child or an adult who does not have the use of reason, which means that they have no capacity for actually loving God here and now, but they are necessarily and already in the state of divine love.

How does a person grow in this, sometimes called “substantial” love of God? Everything which increases sanctifying grace also increases this love; in fact, a perfect theological synonym for the state of grace is the love of God, and whatever increases the state of that friendship, also increases God’s love for us and our capacity for loving Him. What do we mean by “everything” that increases sanctifying grace? It is everything that is meritorious in the eyes of God. Consequently, though baptized in infancy, we do not really grow in this substantial love of God until we can begin to merit. Another name for merit is that which increases the friendship of God in our souls. But to merit, we must have the use of reason or better, we must have the use of liberty. We merit only with our freedom, and we cannot be free until we have the use of our reason to give us options on the basis of which the will makes a choice.

The first and primary effect of supernatural merit is to increase this love of God. All other merit is secondary and consequential on this one. This is the main purpose of doing good works, in order that by our merit we can merit a greater friendship of God for us and the greater capacity of ours for Him. We must be in the state of grace to merit; but every good work in the state of grace, when we use our free will to cooperate with the inspirations that God sends us, is an infallible way of growing in His love.

Thus, every sacrament received, just by being received, increases God’s friendship for us and ours for Him. Every Holy Mass attended; every prayer said; every act of humility, charity, patience, obedience, trust, mercy, faith, or resignation is a divinely promised means of increasing the habitual grace we already have—otherwise we couldn’t even merit. This is what the words, “To those who have more will be given” mainly mean. Thereby we grow in God’s love for us, which is a precondition for our loving Him.

Love of God means the Service of God in Doing His Will

The love of God as the service of God is a different perspective. Often in the Gospels, but especially in the Gospel of John (the Evangelist of divine love), Christ made it very plain who it is that really loves Him. He said in one simple sentence, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” In other words, “If you don’t keep them, you don’t love me. If you do, you do.” We might call this the effective love of God. It is shown by deeds rather than by words. It consists in doing what we know to be the will of God; if we do what He wants, we show our love for Him. There can be no alibis with God.

How can we grow in the love of service? It is presumed that we can serve God either less or more generously, consequently, growth is a meaningful term. It implies a comparative degree. Growth in this effective love of God is not as subtle as it may seem. There are many things that it does not have to mean; it may, but it need not. We do not have to perform our actions with progressively greater perfection as we grow in age through the years. Maybe we will but maybe we will not. Only God knows. We can be growing in our loving service of God and yet not be able to prove to ourselves or to others (which generally is harder) that we are remarkably more patient, or more kind, or more given to prayerful contemplation than we used to be. This bears emphasis, because as we grow in age, and the more books we read about progress in the spiritual life, the more likely we are to get discouraged: “Here I am. I know I’m older. The calendar and my bones tell me. Yet look at me! What progress have I made? Sometimes I feel so far from progressing, I am regressing…”

We, of course, express the possibility and the hope that we are indeed more patient and prayerful and more of this and that, than when we first entered the religious life. But the unique standard of growth in the loving service of God is not the improved ethical practice of our behavior. There is such a thing as perseverance in doing the will of God day in and day out, in spite of dryness, or natural apathy, or perhaps without notable evidence of any ethical improvement. And there is nothing that to a sensitive soul can be more discouraging than the failure to see obvious behavioral progress. Yet the very absence of such evidence of ethical improvement may be the very means that God is using to have us grow in His loving service, because we trust that He knows; He checks our supernatural temperature and knows how healthy or strong we are, how much we have grown. And He may in His mercy spare us the evidence.

Consequently, there can be growth and great growth in love as service, where the word “growth” means endurance, regularity, persistence, and allegiance on our part. And God credits our constant efforts as progress in His love. It is His credit that counts, not ours.

Love of God Means Maturing in Our Affection for Him

There is still one more aspect of the love of God in which we can mature. “Maturing” is preferable to “growing”, because the term “growing” can have economic connotations. A corporation grows when its assets increase or the dividends improve. But we are speaking in terms of the spirit and you cannot count growth in spirit by size or number, but by intensity; and for that, a good synonym is maturity.

This aspect of the love of God in which we can mature is our affection for Him, or as we commonly say, maturing in our acts or active love of Him. In practice, of course, we cannot divorce this form of the love of God from the two preceding ones. Subdividing the mystery helps us to better understand what is with God a simple reality; for us, however, it is a very complex thing that has different perspectives. In fact, our affection for God is either spurious or sterile unless it fructifies in good works. So we do not divorce good works from this affective love of God.

Nevertheless, admitting that these three forms of the love of God are intertwined and inseparable, the affections for God are not as such the good works, or if you wish, it is only one of those good works. How can we grow in what we call acts of the perfect love of God? This phase of our love of God can be singled out for special consideration while not denying that an act of the perfect love of God is a good work.

How can we improve our acts of the love of love of God to make them more profound, more sincere, more meaningful, and what is most important, more pleasing to God? There are many methods recommended by the saints, but one of these is basic to all the rest. This is the method of ascent, beginning with grateful reflection on God’s blessings to an ever greater appreciation of His goodness, until we reach the capacity of loving Him for Himself alone. Why should this method be affective? It can be easily seen when compared with how we can become so enamored with a person that we can love that person for him or herself, which means, “not for myself”.

Love of Anyone

We may phrase this in steps, to show the relationship of one step to the next. First of all, to love anyone, we must first see that person with our minds as lovable. That is not a cliché, because only in the degree to which a person appears to us to be lovable, will we love them. A person may be ever so lovable, but if we don’t know it, we cannot love them. Second, we see that person as lovable (which means, capable of being loved) if we have come to somehow know him as good. And in the degree to which we know that he is good, we come to appreciate him as lovable. We can withhold our love; we are free. But we are speaking about capacity.

When do we recognize a person as good; what is good about a good person that enables us to see him as lovable and therefore that our affection can go out to him? We see a person as good if we come to recognize how generous he is. It may be that a person is not as good as we think he is, but that is not the point. If we see someone as generous, we see him as one who gives, and unless we see him in that capacity, we don’t know him on the level of his generosity. He may objectively be good, but he is not really good as far as we are concerned, not necessarily in our regard; but we must see him as one who is generous, who gives and who gives of himself. In step three, then, we come to realize how generous the person is, which is the condition for seeing him as good. The more we are aware of his generosity, the more aware we become of his goodness, and the more able we are to love him. There are degrees of our awareness of the person’s generosity—the more generous, we conclude, the more good he must be.

We speak this way in general about human beings, but that is not yet selfless love. It may be gratitude if a person has been good to us; or, if he has been good towards someone else, then we would recognize his generosity and feel appreciation and respect. But this is not yet love. We are dealing with a mystery, because at what point gratitude or appreciation suddenly becomes a love of that person for him or herself is untestable. There is no necessary connection with the length of time that we are in the company of a good person; it can come almost in a flash. In other cases it may take years, and in some cases it doesn’t happen at all and no matter how good the person has been to us, or how philanthropic or generous the person may be known to be, we may never come to giving ourselves to that person wholeheartedly, seeking nothing in return. There must be the precondition of our being predisposed to somehow recognizing his goodness, especially goodness to ourselves personally, as the way in which we come to love the person, not for ourselves, but for him.

Love of God

We may transfer this to the goodness of God towards us. Spiritual writers say that if we want to grow in the selfless love of God, we must constantly, feed our affections with reflection on God’s goodness, especially on His goodness to “me”. It is not that the more grateful we are to a person, the more we will necessarily love him selflessly—that doesn’t follow. We have the capacity, having received the supernatural grace, to love God for Himself. Formerly, we talked about what happens naturally, what we might call the “acquired selfless love”, whereas the virtue of charity is the infused selfless love, in this case, of God. Nevertheless, although we have infused within us the capacity to love God for Himself, this capacity must be nourished; the fire must be stoked; the ability must be constantly encouraged. And consequently unless we regularly, daily, and consciously reflect on God’s goodness not only in general but His goodness towards “me”, our selfless love for God may grow cold and eventually whither away.

How do we grow in this affective love for God? By regularly dwelling on God’s goodness to “me” and conversely, avoiding dwelling on our own lack of generosity towards Him. That does not mean that we should not periodically reflect on our sins. But unless we are deeply impressed with God’s goodness to “me”—and often in spite of our ingratitude—the risk is that we shall grow cold in our love for God because on our part, although it is an infused virtue, we need to do something that in the natural order increases one’s love for another person. And that means reflection on that person’s lovableness. Take a married couple. Unless that husband regularly shows affection for his wife and does things for her, she will begin to wonder if he really loves her. So we have to, as it were, remind ourselves of God’s love for us by reflecting on His goodness towards us.

Secondly, the more personal our appreciation of God’s goodness to us is, the more likely we are to grow in this affective love of God. Loving God on this level is a deeply personal and intimate thing. We can and should reflect on God’s goodness to us in such ways: except for God we would not exist; except for God we would not now enjoy the health, or for us the vocation, we have received. All of these are good and sound motives for stoking the love of God. On the other hand, in every person’s life, God makes sure that that person becomes aware of God’s special love for him in a way that cannot be said of other people. For example, each of us knows that we have offended God; we know what we deserve. The realization of His mercy to “me” is something that no one else can appreciate. Or again, we know what we have lacked, and what God in His goodness has supplied. This is one reason that converts, generally speaking, make such zealous Catholics; that is why the Church had to make a special law telling converts that they have to wait a few years before they are admitted to the religious life. They just want to give themselves to gratitude, and by that time it is often a very selfless love of God. Again, perhaps we have lost something and it is recovered, something that is very personal and dear to us. It may have been our health. It could have been something within our families, the conversion of a relative or a friend.

God makes sure that there are enough evidences of His special love for us to make us appreciate His goodness in a way in which no one else but we can, because no one else had the experience. Consequently, we grow in the love of God affectively as we experience His undeserved love for us. And the more undeserving we sense ourselves to be, the more we can grow in the love of God; we have to be very humble, dirt humble, gutter humble. The more humble we are the more we shall appreciate whatever He does because we know how “nothing” we deserve it. The experience of undeserved love of God for us is the surest way of growing in our own love for Him.

Conference transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Mother of Sorrows Recordings, Inc.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Cor Jesu Monastery
P.O. Box 90
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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