What Does It Mean That The Higher Gifts are Faith, Hope and Love – And Love the Greatest?
The goal of every Christian in this life is to know, to love, and to serve God here on earth and by doing so, to be with him forever in heaven. How do we do this in the midst of this wild Vanity Fair through which we walk our pilgrimage? What is the most important virtue we must learn and practice in order to be able to call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ?
There are, of course, the practical virtues like: prudence, fortitude, courage, and justice. These are necessary, everyday virtues that we must develop as habits in our lives in order to be righteous in the sight of both God and our fellow human beings. These are the virtues that make us good citizens, that keep the peace among us, and that make us good neighbors to one another on a practical basis. There are also the theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. These are gifts from God to those whose hearts and minds and souls are given to him freely and openly. But of these, both the practical and the theological virtues, one is greater than all of the others, indeed it is the source of all the others. That is the virtue of Love.
Love is the first and the greatest of all the virtues as it is very nature of God.
The Apostle John reveals this divine truth to us in his First letter. “Dear Friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). This is why it is the source of all the other virtues. Augustine writes that: “Love is itself the fulfillment of all our works. There is the goal; that is why we run: we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest.” And, in another place he writes: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” It is in love, then, that is, in the very nature of God, that we will find our rest, both in this life and in the next. Our practice of any of the virtues is given life, meaning, and purposeful effect when that practice is animated by our love for God and for our neighbor.
There is an order to love that we come to know as Christians. Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you, abide in my love,” and then, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:9,12). The whole of Creation was an act of the Father’s Love. The Incarnation was the physical expression of Love in the person of Jesus Christ. And Jesus teaches us by both word and deed how we are to honor and share that love in joyful service to one another, even to the point of self-sacrifice, just as he did for each and every one of us personally. What does Charity look like for us, then? Paul gave us a perfect description in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
“Love is kind, love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in what is right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
This is a very high calling. And it is not something that we can do on our own, by the strength of our own will. It is a pure, freely given gift to us from God, that can only be received in an open heart emptied of all that is grasping and selfish. God showed his love for us by dying for us while we were still sinners, still enemies. Now, he asks us to do the same, even to our enemies, to make ourselves neighbors to all, to love the unwanted, the poor, the disenfranchised, the widow and the orphan and the alien amongst us, just as he loved us. It is this love, and this quality of love alone, that makes us Christians, true disciples of Christ. And the fruits of this love (Charity) are joy, peace, and mercy. Are these not the deepest desires of our hearts? “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love” (John 15:9-10).