Does God love some people more than others? On the surface it sort of seems like he does. Life is full of inequality, and it leaves us with a gut feeling that life is just unfair.
So is it God’s fault? Scholastic theology has a very interesting answer: God loves each of us with the same intensity of love, but he loves us each to a different degree.
That means that God’s love is the same for all people – it’s the same love which shone from the eyes of John Paul II and which little Johnny Fischer discovered at his First Communion in grade school. But it also means that God calls some people to a greater mission or greater degrees of intimacy, compared to, well… the rest of us.
St. Therese of Lisieux has a famous analogy to explain this: In heaven we will all be like cups – all of us different sizes, but full to the brim with God. This image, though, still allows us to compare our different sizes. So Therese offers another analogy: In this life we are all different flowers in God’s garden. We cannot compare ourselves for each of us is a different kind, making the garden glorious by such great variety. This passage earned Therese her nickname, the Little Flower, writing that she is happy to be the smallest of all God’s flowers.
I love Therese and her analogies, but sometimes it’s hard to think of myself as a cup or a flower. So I’ve tried to think up other analogies in which I can still stay human.
The first is Thanksgiving dinner and how it relates to heaven. As in the Gospel, a great feast is ready and all are invited, with more than enough food to go around. But none of us goes to a feast and spends the evening watching how much more everyone else is getting – we pay attention to the food! We are lost in the sight and smells of all the succulence before us, and we’re happy together, and we give thanks for the meal because each person (regardless the size of their appetite) gets their fill. Then, just like heaven, we “enter into our rest” as we find a couch to sleep on for the rest of the day – “Let the faithful exult in their glory, let them sing for joy on their couches” (Ps 149:5).
Another analogy is a football game. It’s a Saturday night face-off between two rivals. You’re cheering for the home team, the underdog, and the score is close, the atmosphere electric. To use sports rhetoric, both teams are “playing out of their minds” – which translates, they’re playing better than usual. Then in the final seconds, your team seals the deal with a final score. Everyone erupts, the joy is inarticulate – people are just screaming. That’s not exactly a moment where you turn and shout to your neighbor, “Gee, I wish I could enjoy this as much as you are!” Everyone is too busy celebrating – it’s contagious. But in fact, even though everyone is taken up in the joy of the moment, some fans are enjoying it more than others. Mr. Patrick Mansfield has followed the team avidly all year, but his wife Laura whom he brought along – even though she’s cheering too, and she really means it – isn’t “into” football as much as he is.
God’s love is something like that. We all share the same great feast, so no matter the different sizes of our appetites, we all end up happy and full, with no need to compare who got more. But it’s also like football, because even though we all watch the same touchdown and erupt together wild with joy, some fans are happier than others.
“Ok,” you might say, “Cool analogies about heaven, but what about this life?” And that’s a fair point. In life we’re surrounded by different people; we constantly compare ourselves with them. Now, not all comparisons are bad – they can even motivate us, or make us truly admire someone else. Michael Phelps is a faster swimmer than I am, and I’m ok with that. It makes me marvel at him. It also motivates me to exercise a bit more.
But even if we can see the positive side of it, the comparison game still seems to dominate us: we grow envious of other peoples’ accomplishments, their job, their beauty, clothing, intelligence, personality, social status, lucky breaks, just about anything thinkable! Even good things, like their patience or their kindness.
In this life, I only know of one “out” to the problem: Jesus. He is the “pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46). And that’s pearl, singular, for there is only one of him. Should we even compare ourselves to the saints, we receive no different version of him, no “less Jesus.” Because there is only the same Jesus, who says to each of us, “There is only one of me, and only one of you. You, come follow me.”
In this life we don’t know why some people are given better natural talents, are born into a better life situation, etc. These things will always be unequal. The only thing that can heal us, free us from a life of endless competition and constant comparison, is the love we find in Christ. We taste here something more valuable than everything else in life, so that we can let go of everything else in life – while two are left speaking, each to each.
Image: Norman Rockwell, Girls with Letters