(originally written for/printed in “The Bells of St. Mary” parish newsletter)
If questioned on what it means to call yourself a Christian, how might you respond? Do any of the responses that come to mind reach to the heart of what it means to live under the title of Christian?
Pope Benedict XVI looks to the disciple, John, for an answer: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). This, our pope states, is “a kind of summary of the Christian life.” Indeed, coming to this belief in God’s love is the “fundamental decision” of the Christian’s entire life. Caught up in the ways of the world and settling for rote prayers and surface-only principles, many men and women carry the title of Christian their whole lives without facing this decision. But for those who do face it, this decision brings transformation.
Faith and hope are made possible; perspective on this life in the context of eternity is gained; obedience to God’s commandments becomes an honor; worship provides nourishment of the soul; prayer holds the rich depths of personal conversation with the Holy Trinity. By this fundamental decision to believe in God’s unwavering, self-offering love, the grace gained in the soul at baptism is activated and all aspects of living as a Christian are infused with meaning.
This single fundamental decision can then be reaffirmed in each particular decision to love, serve, obey and worship. In the daily circumstances of family and work and play, all can be placed under the sovereignty of God. A person can then, with practice and maturity, love as a response to Love. Virtue will be preferred to vice not merely to avoid ill consequences but because the heart recognizes and honors the great, unmerited gift of God’s saving love.
For some, the fundamental decision to believe with the whole heart and mind in God’s love is met with hesitation. There are what might be dubbed “fundamental doubts.” (1) How is it possible, with me being me and God being God, that He could love me so completely? (2) Can I ever be sure in my belief? (3) Do I have the capacity to respond well enough if I dare admit the extent of God’s love for me?
To those struggling with the first doubt, Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of God’s love, points out that He did not come “to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Awareness of our unworthiness need not produce despair but rather humility and a determination to abandon that which would hold us back from the full acceptance of God’s transforming love. It is not in God’s nature to be inconstant or to love partially. Though we know we are undeserving, we need never entertain the question of whether God wholly loves us.
And to the second doubt is offered the response that faith can indeed be certain. Our world equates faith with superstition or unrealistic idealism but truly the faith of the Christian, when understood and experienced, does not fall into either category. Certainty can be gained in the heart as a gift of the Holy Spirit through prayer and self-surrender. Certainty can be gained in the mind by committed, ongoing growth in knowledge and understanding. When there is a question or an instance of confusion, face it and seek answers. A sincere search for truth will always find truth. The authors of Scripture, the writings and lives of the martyrs and the saints, the summary of the faith found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – all offer their insights for the sake of our edification in faith.
Thirdly, to the question of our capacity to love in response to God’s infinite love, God Himself answered at the dawn of creation: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Made in the image of God, we are created with the capacity to love as He loves. We can grow ever more faithful, generous, joyful, merciful and forgiving as He is all these things to the fullest degree. There is no limit to our capacity to image Him and therefore honor Him.
The fundamental decision to believe in God’s love is a matter of saying yes to who God is and who we are as our truest selves. It is carried out in simple, humble ways as we move through our days, relate to one another, and worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a decision, if reaffirmed unto the last hour, which will carry us into eternal life.