We have been thinking about the role of love in the interpretation of the Gospel. It seems to us that the experience of love in the heart acts as a lens through which we perceive the lived experience of being Orthodox. Let us look carefully at this love. Diadochos of Photiki speaks of an intermediate stage where one has not attained to perfect love but one has an increase in love. This is a love given by the Holy Spirit. It is not a love of the flesh nor a natural (sentimental) love, although it may implicate elements of both.
Also, we are habitually praying with the mind in the heart, so this love is encountered in the heart consciously. So what we encounter is the experience of a partial love in a partially opened heart. Nothing is perfect. Much suffering has gone into the opening of the heart; there is no other way for the heart to open and without the heart being open this love cannot be lived. So we can consciously experience this love for others and for Christ. This experience acts as a spiritual lens through which we see the elements of the Gospel.
Let us look at some practical examples. Let us take the fundamental message of the Gospel: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” We all know the story. Adam and Eve in Paradise were created perfect but spiritually infant-like. Eve was tempted and fell; she gave the fruit to Adam; he accepted and fell. Original Sin. Guilt. “All fall short of the Glory of God.” This is very much an element of the Protestant, especially Calvinist, interpretation of the Bible. We are to acknowledge our sinfulness before God; he will save us.
Now the issue is not the core of the Gospel; it is what it is. The issue is how we understand the core of the Gospel. With the love we spoke of—or without. For viewing the Gospel through the lens of this love in the heart, we understand that God’s primary motivation is that he loves us and wants us to be happy. So yes it is true; we have sinned in Adam and by ourselves. But God’s ultimate intention in telling us this is not to punish us but to save us. It’s just a spiritual fact that we cannot be saved unless we confess our sins.
It is very very hard for a man to acknowledge his sins and in the hands of an unloving preacher a man can be destroyed at this point. The unloving preacher might turn the sinner into twice as much an authoritarian hater of man as himself. However, if a man have love in his heart then he recognizes that the confession of sins from the heart, from the inner core of one’s being, is not self-destruction but the door to life. And he also recognizes that the only possible way that he can receive the forgiveness of sins is if he himself forgives those who have sinned against him. So as we have said, it is not the core message of the Gospel that has changed but how that message is perceived and lived: with love or without.
Let us take another example. Someone is celebrating the Divine Liturgy. As everyone knows, the Orthodox liturgy is complex. Someone without love can see it as a set of external rigid rules to be obeyed and argued about. They might even think that the heart of Orthodoxy is the flawless external performance of the Liturgy. However, a celebrant with love in his heart sees the typikon as the structure of an encounter with God in love. He knows which mistakes in the performance of the liturgy are important and which can be overlooked and perhaps corrected at another time.
A priest or Elder is hearing confessions. Here of course the confessor or Elder with and without love is well known by his fruits. The priest or Elder with love in his heart is easily approachable and non-condemnatory—although again he knows what is an important part of the Gospel that must be obeyed and what is secondary; he knows the intentions of the heart. We are not in the least suggesting that this love in the heart relatives or “modernizes” Christianity so that what was sin is no longer sin. But again, the confessor knows that God’s intention is to save the wayward sheep in the wilderness not to kill and eat it.
In some respects this love in the heart changes our perception of the Gospel in the way that a performer changes the feel of a musical melody. The melody is the same but the interpretation of love gives a different feel to the music.
Let us take another example. A young person has been brought up badly. They have left school and family and are living on their own. This is not an ideal Christian life. They have made an effort to resume their education but spiritually they are among lost ones. Perhaps, however, less lost than many still in school. They have spiritual interests. However, the first obstacle to their conversion is the notion of sin.
Will they find someone with love in their heart to guide them to Christ? For let us look at such a young person’s encounter with the notion of personal sin. A young person sins—in this day and age, who knows how? But they have spiritual interests. In some way God is calling to them, to their heart. God is calling them to Life. But the first thing they hear is, “Repent!” In the hands of the unloving preacher this is the road to an authoritarian judgmental Christianity; in the hands of the loving Elder or confessor, this is the beginning of a conversion to an Orthodoxy that is not formalist but a mystagogy of Life and Truth.