Fr. Stephen Freeman
The most difficult aspect of love is the freedom it inherently requires. Love, in its ultimate and proper form, only exists between equals. There can be a sort of benevolence and nobility towards another who is not equal, but never love. This makes it difficult to understand the God-who-is-love.
It will quickly be said by most that God is not our equal, and that we can never be His equal. What we suggest by that is that He can never love us and we can never love Him. He can be kind and caring towards us, and we can be affectionate and respectful towards Him, but we can never love Him as our equal.
Against this denial is the blatant Christian teaching (constantly affirmed in the Orthodox Church) that God’s intention towards us is to raise us up as equals. We say that “God became man so that man could become God.” Often that statement is “fudged.” We quickly add that we do not mean that human beings will become “God” in the same manner that He is God. But what the Fathers say is that we will become, by grace, everything that God is by nature. This is to say that we will become what He is because it is His gift to us.
And in this gift, we can say that He loves us. He intends to raise us up as equals.
Christ says, “I no longer call you servants… but friends (Jn. 15:15). He has held nothing back from us.
The image that speaks of this most deeply for me is that of seeing God “face to face.” This is much more than an expression of closeness or visibility. It is also an expression of an encounter with an equal.
All of this, of course, is predicated on the fact that God wills Himself to be our equal. It is His condescension that makes it possible. He became “small” and “weak,” not only to enter into our world, but, in entering it, to come as our equal. He came as a man among men, not as a ruler or a lord. He washed feet with the suggestion that we should do the same.
And this is love. Love is only possible between equals. This is perhaps not obvious to us at first. We think of parent and child and do not consider them equal. But, properly, they are. Something which establishes our equality with one another is the nature of our “boundaries.” There is something inviolable and intrinsically deserving of regard and respect between equals. With my dog, such a boundary does not quite exist. He conforms to my will and, generally, gets no vote in matters that arise. A child is not a dog. Though a child requires more guidance and help from an adult, they have boundaries that remain. Those boundaries say to an adult, “You cannot trespass here, without doing harm.” The child’s boundaries become equal to the parent in that moment.
For that matter, even a dog has a certain form of equality: that of a fellow creature. We cannot do with them just anything. Cruelty is real and constitutes an unwarranted violation of an animal.
It is said by some that God has no boundaries regarding us, that He is God and may do with us (and to us) whatever He wills. This, of course, is true in an abstract sense. However, it is not true of God as He has made Himself known in Christ. Christ is a God who “asks.” He is the God who allows a freedom so great that it can kill Him.
The mystery of our freedom is found in the condescending love of God. The exercise of our freedom, particularly when used for evil ends, inevitably makes God appear weak or non-existent. We rarely consider the fact that it makes Him look like an equal, and an equal who loves us. Obviously, this allows for the tragedy of our evil actions. But, even there, God does not exempt Himself from that tragedy but embraces its consequences in His death on the Cross. It is fully within our freedom that He addresses us and rescues us from the consequences of our own evil (and the evil of others).
Of course, such a voluntarily weak God is deeply frustrating. He could do so much more. What we want Him to do is not love some in order to love others. If He ignores the freedom of the evil-doer in order to preserve the life of the innocent, we ask Him to violate His love (or negate it). This reality creates the paradox of love and freedom. That paradox is only solved in the mystery of Pascha itself. In His voluntary suffering and death, God takes upon Himself the suffering that love allowed to our freedom. Without violating that freedom, He nullifies the effects of its abuse in the resurrection of the dead (not just His own, but that of all).
All of this turns the usual arguments (and thoughts) about the so-called “problem of evil” on its head. Those arguments require a God whose power selectively loves and nowhere limits itself. When I have written that Pascha is at the heart of everything (and I believe this faithfully represents the teaching of the Church) this weakness born of love is its consequence. It is the love of God that surrounds us and calls us to be His friends. It seeks us, face to face, even searching for us when we hide. But it is a love that stands weakly at the border of our freedom, and waits for our invitation.