The Conversion of St. Paul. Zatletic/Adobe Stock

The Fullness of Love

When we study St. Paul’s theology of the cross, we are not afraid to let God’s love pierce our hearts

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Do you ever wish you could escape from love? Not all love, but the love that hurts.

We love people who disappoint, betray and abandon us. We love people who make poor choices and put themselves in danger. We love people who turn away from us and turn away from God. We love people who get sick and die. We love until it hurts, and when it hurts, we sometimes wish we could simply turn our love off, rise above the vulnerability in our love, reason ourselves out of love, find a way to insulate ourselves from the pain love can cause. We might even pray to God to ask God to help us escape this painful love.

The apostle Paul knew about painful love. He endured persecution, sickness, the dangers of travel, shipwrecks, lashings, sleepless nights and constant worry for the ragtag communities of people he gathered through preaching, teaching and living a life in imitation of Christ. We have a record of his painful love for these communities in the letters he wrote, letters that have shaped Christianity, letters that continue to teach that the path to God is not found by rising above our painful love but by entering more deeply into that love and allowing it to pierce our hearts.

When we follow love, particularly the dark side of love, the twisted path love often takes through a broken world, we find Christ, because Jesus emptied himself and joined us in the pain of our emptiness, loneliness, vulnerability, sin, sickness and death. Through the cross, he became permanently and irrevocably God-with-us. The word of the cross, the theology of the cross, the love of God revealed on the cross of Jesus Christ, is a sound that echoes throughout Paul’s letters and pulses beneath Paul’s words so that Paul can write, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). We experience the love of God when we let the cross of Christ be the source of all we know.

Paul most clearly articulates the theology of the cross in his first letter to the people of Corinth. The theology of the cross is a thread that weaves its way through 1 Corinthians informing every aspect of Paul’s teaching in the letter. As Paul articulates this theology, the theme of love winds its way through the letter, picking up the thread of the theology of the cross and drawing it toward the love of God that is both its source and identity. Paul’s articulation of the theology of the cross continually points to love because the cross is the fullest expression of love. The cross reveals most fully God’s love for us. When we let the cross be the source of all we know, we open ourselves to understand more deeply the nature of love, and we allow the revelation of God’s love on the cross of Christ to shape our way of living in the world and become the core of our identity.

Revelation of God’s Love

In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:22-24).

For Paul, the power and wisdom of God is made known in Christ crucified. Later, Paul asserts that it is not only God’s power and wisdom that is made known but also God’s righteousness, sanctification and redemption (cf. 1 Cor 1:30). God’s saving love is revealed on the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is not merely a means of salvation but is the primary way for Christians to know God. In “Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross” (Eerdmans, $35.99) Michael Gorman writes: “If on the cross, Christ conformed to God, then God ‘conforms’ to the cross. The cross is the interpretive, or hermeneutical lens through which God is seen; it is the means of grace by which God is known.”

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The Road to Damascus

Several artists’ renderings, especially Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the Way to Damascus,” often depict that St. Paul traveled by horse and was thrown from the horse. But in Acts 9:3-4, 22:6-7 and 26:12-14, Paul sees a light from heaven — a light that “flashed around him,” “a great light from the sky,” and “a light from the sky, brighter than the sun” — and Paul and his companions fall to the ground where Paul hears a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” There is no mention of a horse.

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The cross of Jesus Christ tells us the story of God’s love, a story told in the hymn Paul quotes in his Letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) and written in shorter form in his Letter to the Romans: “For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5:6-8).

The cross reveals a God who loves us so much he enters into what opposes him to redeem it. The God revealed on the cross is a God of self-emptying, sacrificial love.

The Nature of Love

When we describe the revelation of God’s love on the cross of Jesus Christ as self-emptying, sacrificial love, we mistakenly imply that it is a special form of love. The love God reveals on the cross is not a special form of love; it is the fullness of love. All love is self-emptying, all love is sacrificial, but most of our experiences of loving and being loved only hint at the fullness possible in love. God’s love on the cross reveals love’s fullness.

When, in 1 Corinthians, Paul shifts from his metaphorical description of Church as the Body of Christ (chapter 12) to a poetic expression of the love that should animate that community (chapter 13), he writes, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (13:7). We bear, believe, hope and endure painful experiences, experiences we cannot rise above, or escape through reason, experiences we do not control. When we love someone, we hand ourselves over to them, and in giving ourselves we lose control.

I remember the deep ambivalent emotion that swept over me when my first child was born. I was overwhelmed by the love I felt for him, overcome by gratitude for the gift of his being, but at the same time I encountered a deep vulnerability as I realized how thoroughly my life was now entwined with his. I could see that I would share not only his joys, his happiness, his discovery of the world, but also his sorrows, disappointments and injuries. Furthermore, my child would make his own choices, his own decisions, live his own life, and the freedom that he had to make those choices would impact my life for better or worse. Love respects the freedom of the other, and when the other is free, control is sacrificed. Love is vulnerable.

The freedom necessary for love is revealed on the cross of Jesus Christ. God does not override human freedom in order to save. God does not operate on us from the outside by either wiping away evil in the world or plucking us from its midst. Instead, out of love, God sends Christ, who though in the form of God empties himself and takes on flesh with all of its fragile vulnerability, becoming obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross (cf. Phil 2:6-8). Again, Paul tells us that God’s love does not insist on its own way, but instead “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Shaping Our Lives

Before telling them the story of God’s love for them in Christ, Paul says to the Philippians: “Each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:4-5). Paul urges the Corinthians to imitate him and insists that his life is cruciform, modeled on Christ’s sacrificial, self-emptying love.

Living a cruciform life, a life shaped by sacrificial, self-emptying love, a life that looks not to our own but to others’ interests, is essential for Christians. But, I think sometimes we jump too quickly into a life of sacrifice and miss the importance of first allowing the love of God to pierce and fill our hearts. We miss the contemplative moment, miss allowing the love of God to be poured into our hearts. When we too quickly pass over prayerfully experiencing God’s love for us, our actions in the world flow from our wounded needs instead of from the fruit that grows from the love of God deep within our souls.

Paul’s heart was pierced when he encountered the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He carries with him and remembers the way he once persecuted the followers of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 15:9; Phil 3:5-6; Gal 1:13-14). And yet, Paul’s encounter with his sin, with his misplaced zeal, with his lack of understanding, with his violence and mistreatment of others, is the very place he receives the unsurpassable gift of God’s forgiving and merciful love.

Though Paul talks about the universal condition of sin, he comes to his understanding of this through the experience of the ever-surprising love and mercy of God. Paul can take a hard look at sin because he knows that “the love of God has been poured into our hearts” (Rom 5:5), and “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

When we let the cross of Christ be the source of all we know, we are not afraid to let God’s love pierce our hearts. The cross teaches us that we don’t find God’s love by looking for it outside of our own wounds. We experience God’s love by praying our way through our deepest wounds; through our sadness, loneliness and alienation; through our feelings of disappointment, betrayal and loss. When we allow God to lead us into our deepest wounds and fears, we find Christ there with us, we find God permanently and irrevocably God-with-us.

The discovery of God’s exceeding love and mercy in the center of our wounded hearts frees us to find our way onto the path of faithful discipleship, frees us to live a life of self-emptying, sacrificial love in imitation of God. When we let the love of God revealed on the cross of Christ pierce our hearts, when we prayerfully dwell in the deep soil of God’s love for us, the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control will grow in us and overflow to others.

PATRICIA SHARBAUGH, Ph.D., is associate professor of theology at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. She specializes in the field of biblical theology.

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Parental Love

Dr. Patricia Sharbaugh explains that parental love provides an analogy that might help us to understand the freedom necessary for love.

As a mother helps her son to grow, she might control aspects of her son’s environment, shaping it to be a place of nurture, growth and discovery. For a short time, the mother controls some of the environment surrounding her son, but she never controls the growth. She makes the space safe for the growth to happen, but the child must freely choose his identity, freely choose the path in life he takes. The older her son grows, the more the mother will hear the wisdom of love insisting that she surrender control.

If the child freely decides to stray from a healthy path, the love the mother holds for her son will cause her pain. She might try to enter the space of danger and sadness in which he lives to strengthen him and help him to find his way out, but she cannot simply reach in and pull him out or force him to live the vision she has for him. She must wait, she must bear, believe, hope and endure. The fullness of her love for him is lived out in her self-emptying, sacrificial love.

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