How can God Love us as Spouse?
Idealizations of human love run deeply within the human imagination. While contemporary romantics search longingly for their soulmates, the ancient Greeks spoke of seeking their other half. If human beings were made for intimate love, then it seems that human lovers must be two halves of one whole. Neither is fulfilled in themselves, but each needs the other for completeness. If we represent this model as an image, we might think of a circle (the whole) bisected right down the center creating the two lovers (the halves) united in love. But this image would suggest that any man and any woman are equally compatible marital choices to any other, because any two half circles of the same diameter could create a whole. Our experience with love, however, tells us otherwise.
Some love relationships are much harder to sustain than others. We accordingly tend to gauge love relationships by how much the traits that each party brings to the table work together to achieve long term love unity. We recognize, in other words, that people are sufficiently different from one another in traits and talents that some couples are far more likely to succeed than others. If we were to represent this insight into our circle image, we’d have to replace the bisecting line down the center of the circle with a few teeth, so that where the right half projects into the left, the left gives way, and vice versa. If we then imagine that people’s toothed halves differed from one another, we’d have an image suggesting that compatibility in love is indeed a challenge. Not all teeth fit together very well.
But that insight gives way to a deeper one, when we consider just how many potential points of compatibility or incompatibility between lovers there really are. In contemporary American youth culture, the first points of compatibility that generate interest are “chemistry” (sexual and romantic attraction) and “communication.” However, history suggests that these are far from indicative of long-term marital success, and our divorce rate tends to confirm what history tells us. If we reach back to the novels of Jane Austen, by contrast, we find many more factors taken into account for forming a good love match, factors of compatible intellect, humor, economics, geographical interest, artistic interest, familial planning interest, etc., as well as the vital moral factors. In fact, if we looked closely at successful long-term love relationships, we’d probably find hundreds of such compatibilities, so that our toothed circle image just doesn’t at all capture how complex the compatibility ratios really are. Perhaps a better representation of the dividing line between the two halves would be a graphic representation of an audio track, with ups and downs by the dozens. But this model presents so complex a trait and talent compatibility requirement that young lovers would likely despair at ever finding someone so perfect for them. And perhaps that’s the key issue: perfection. Perfection emerges as the fulfilling goal of love rather than being present at its inception. What we seek in the beginning is the potential for deep lasting love. The audio track dividing line image better represents the end state of how two people who have merged their lives together for fifty years of successful marriage might look.
Marriage is a human institution, not a merely spiritual one that depends solely on the will for its success.
We have to speak, then, of potential compatibilities based on existing traits and talents that jointly could effect a successful marital unity. To represent the compatibility potentialities in younger love, we need to replace our audio track bisected circle image with its many points of actual contact (the mature, “perfected” model) with a circle bisected by a much fuzzier or hazier line reflecting potential contacts, what likely could be if the two parties actualize those potencies. Because these potential compatibilities are mostly potential, the age-old rule that successful marriages take “lots of work” arises, for merging lovers’ traits, interests, and talents for the good of the marital whole requires significant self-giving investment. But without many such potential compatibilities, successful unity can be almost impossible even with great moral commitment. For marriage is a human institution, not a merely spiritual one that depends solely on the will for its success. Because human beings are composites of spirit and matter, both the factors that we choose (the spiritual) and the factors that we bring to the relationship outside our control (the material) impact marital success. Since human beings are both constituted and constituting, marital unities are likewise both constituted and constituting. If we don’t invest heavily in constituting our marriages through daily self-giving love, then we will surely fail, regardless of how compatible we deemed ourselves at the outset. But at the same time, if we lack the myriad of potential compatibilities of disposition, education, genetics, economics, et al, then our choice of love may simply lack the material to work toward a successful marriage.
Now, the Church tells us that marriage is a sacramental participation in God’s love for us, that the deepest, most successful marital loves are pictures of how God does now and will ultimately love us in the Beatific Vision. I think we sometimes picture God’s love for us as pretty much the same for everyone, just this overwhelming but undifferentiated commitment toward our common human good. We don’t tend to think of our love relationships with God along the lines of the compatibility model that we’ve just seen best characterizes our successful human love relationships. But this is a mistake, for God means to fulfill each one of us uniquely and fully. Nevertheless, we find it difficult to conceive of God as a unique lover for each one of us for at least two reasons. First, we tend to think of God as too big to function as a perfect compatible half circle, and second, we tend to think of ourselves as so puny and inconsequential that we ignore the fact that God actually created each one of us differently from every other person. Let’s explore these two inhibitions on our seeing God’s love as it actually is.
God’s infinite love means that whatever he gives of himself to you takes nothing away from what he gives to me.
God’s immensity can seem remote and impersonal to us. Since we can only maritally love one person at a time, our marital imagery might seem too fragile to handle the notion that God is a potential husband to every single human person. Our human experience would activate jealousy at this notion because our love relationships require nearly complete and daily self-giving. Bigamy cannot effect the most highly sought after human love relationships. But God’s very immensity solves this problem, because God’s infinity means that whatever he gives of himself to you takes nothing away from what he gives to me. God can infinitely at one and the same time fully satisfy every single one of his finite creatures in a wholly non-competitive way, so that far from being remote and impersonal, God’s love for us is deeply personal. Remember that audio track line circle image of mature marital love that we spoke of earlier? Even the best human love relationships have some points of incompatibility, don’t they? But with God’s infinity, he lacks nothing whatsoever by way of what we need for completeness. Thus, God is the single most perfect and compatible lover for every human being. And that is one of the reasons why the marital imagery was chosen. The best, most successful, most lasting, and most rewarding human love relationships can at best only point to the far richer, much more intense, and wholly satisfying love that will be ours with God in divine beatitude.
Let’s lastly address that other point of difficulty, namely that we think of ourselves as too puny and inconsequential for God’s love to be so finely distributed and differentiated as to satisfy us. We matter to God. Remember the parable of the lost sheep? For just a single sheep, the shepherd heads out into the stormy night. God values us infinitely and intends himself for us, to give himself for us, not just on the cross, not just in the Eucharist, but as much and as completely as we could possibly handle in the divine marriage of the Beatific Vision. It follows that every single person’s relationship with God differs from every other person’s—just as every couple’s love-life together differs from every other one’s. No two are ever exactly alike. In the same way, your love for and by God reflects who and what you were made to be differently from who I am and was made to be. And God perfectly matches himself to every single nook and cranny of those differences between us, so completely does he love all those nooks and crannies that he created in the first place! So, are we puny compared to God? Well, yes, we are. Every creature—being finite—is puny compared to the infinite God. Does it follow, though, that we are inconsequential to God? No, on the contrary, every one of us matters infinitely to God. God knows just who we are and precisely what we need for fulfillment in his love. He is our best possible lover, molding his infinite self to satisfy exactly what each one of us need.