What we do does not come out of nowhere, it comes out of what is in our hearts. We typically think that what is there is our plans, our projects, our desires, because these drive our actions, but our heart is driven not just by what is there, but by who. We are not isolated monads, we are people built for relationship, and the most profound relationship is our relationship with God. God’s effect on our hearts is intense, even like burning: in the Gospels, the disciples encountering the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus described their “hearts burning” within them as Jesus talked with them on the road. [Luke 24:32] To understand this heart-relationship with God properly, we need more than just a sense of intensity, we need some sort of structure. Happily, we have one: the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
The adjective “theological” is a combination of two Greek words, “theos” (God) and “logos” (knowledge), and it means knowledge of God. The virtues of faith, hope and love are all about knowledge of God. This is not abstract knowledge, it is “up close and personal” knowledge: faith, hope and love all describe our living knowledge of who God is. This is knowledge that is not just an idea but a relationship: God with us and we with God. Faith, hope and love are all different aspects of this relationship.
Faith, the theological virtue of the past, is rooted in memory, our knowledge of who God is based on what God has shown and done. This is most fully the case in Jesus, God become a human being to show us what God is like and to do for us what he wanted done, to save us from an existence detached from God, to save us from death. The memory of faith may be our own, from our own experience, and it may be one shared with us by another, by the community of faith. Faith, lived out, is belief (from “be” and “live”). To live in faith is to think and act in a way that is fully consistent with God’s presence and his character, regardless of how visible or obvious God might be at a particular moment. To live communally in faith is to live and act as a community that is in full harmony with God’s presence and character. It is to act towards others and towards God in a way fully consistent with who God is and what he does.
Hope, the theological virtue of the future, is rooted in anticipation: our knowledge of what God is yet to do in his ongoing relationship with us. All living relationships are dynamic: they change, they are constantly becoming something more than what they were, and none so much as our relationship with God. The main reason for this is that our relationship with God is not a relationship of equals, it is a relationship of lesser with greater, a relationship made possible only because the greater, in order to be reached, became lesser. God became a human being like us, Jesus, to enter into a relationship with us. In this relationship, if we allow it, God draws us towards him, and he continually transforms us, making us simultaneously more and more like him and yet more and more ourselves. This may sound contradictory but it is not: God made us to be with him and to be like him, but not in every aspect, but in a way that is unique to each one of us specifically. As a ruby enhances a crown differently than a sapphire or a diamond, so each of us, in becoming who we are meant to be, become more truly ourselves. This happens not just individually but in community, too. God is not just making each of us more ourselves, he is making our community more what it is meant to be: the crown becomes more and more the crown it is meant to be as each gemstone in it becomes more brilliant in its unique way. This is why the Church, of all the various organizations that have risen and fallen in human history, is the oldest that remains. It survives not because people are good at maintaining communities, but because for all the flaws that may be in people in the Church, and there are many, God is present too, and despite our roadblocks and shortcomings, he is, bit by bit, making us into what he has in mind for us to be.
Love, the theological virtue of the present, is rooted in presence. God is with us, we are with him, and that presence requires a response. Love is that response. First, God loves us, by giving up of himself for our good, not abstractly, but concretely, by becoming a human being, Jesus, who loved us so much that he gave his life for us. We love him back, not because we have to (this is not the stuff of transaction and contract) but simply because it is the authentic response of our being to his love. God is present in the here and now and he loves us, here and now. We are present in the here and now, and we can love him back, right here, right now. In giving himself to us now, God invites us to give ourselves to him now, and when we do, we are living in love. This, too, has a communal dimension: God calls us to love not only him, but others, because he loves not only us, he loves others too. If we love God, we cannot hate those who God loves. This is why God wants us to love even our enemies, not because love is an innate response to enmity (it is not), but because to love those who God loves, solely because God loves them, is to love God himself.
Love, with faith and hope, is our heart-life in God, with God, for God. Love is about God. Faith is about God, Hope is about God. It is all about him. When we fix our hearts on God, everything we do comes out of our heart, where God is. This means our actions when God is present and working in our hearts are not things in themselves understood in isolation, having to do with only our own ideas and desires, they become symptoms of our heart-fever, our hearts burning with God. If we are on fire for God and God is on fire in us, we are filled with faith, hope and love, and everything we do shows it. Our hearts are revealed in what we do and how we live, and in that, God is visible.