Complacent Love


Our love, being imperfect, is always flitting from object to object, restless and unstable in its affection. And while it is easy to ridicule the lack of precision with which we use the term and the innumerable objects to which we attach it, there is a certain measure of truth to saying we love puppies and love God.

Love, after all, is a passion, and as such arises from the appetite in relation to the object or end of affection. There is a certain “adaptation to itself”, in St. Aquinas’ words, in which love finds itself moved towards the object of its desire as there is a quality they both possess. (Hence, a natural love is when something desires that which is natural to it.) It begins with a change affected in the appetite- love- which is a complacency, a pleasure in the good to which it is attracted in its appetite. There then arises desire, which brings about movement towards the object. Finally, joy comes as a result of the ‘rest’ found in that object possessed. In other words, “the movement ends where it began.” (ST, I, II, 26, 2.)

This ‘rest’ implies a sort or tranquility, in that the good which is desired is fully possessed, so much so that the object loved can be said to be in the lover himself, a mutual indwelling:

As the appetitive power, the object loved is said to be in the lover, inasmuch as it is in his affections, by a kind of complacency: causing him either to take pleasure in it, or in its good, when present; or, in the absence of the object loved, by his longing, to tend towards it with the love of concupiscence, or towards the good that he wills to the beloved, with the love of friendship: not indeed from any extrinsic cause (as when we desire one thing on account of another, or wish good to another on account of something else), but because the complacency in the beloved is rooted in the lover’s heart. (ST I, II, 28, 2)

Complacency here is not the sort of modern conception of laziness but rather of affective delight, to perceive in the object of love the good which one desires and to which one has an affinity. As an example, since we are endowed with reason it is a good to understand something; as we seek deeper into its mystery we are drawn in by that which is already within us. St. Aquinas even sees in this desire to have knowledge of everything pertaining to the beloved an analogy of the Holy Spirit’s Trinitarian relation to the Father and the Son:

This effect of mutual indwelling may be understood as referring both to the apprehensive and to the appetitive power. Because, as to the apprehensive power, the beloved is said to be in the lover, inasmuch as the beloved abides in the apprehension of the lover, according to Philippians 1:7, “For that I have you in my heart”: while the lover is said to be in the beloved, according to apprehension, inasmuch as the lover is not satisfied with a superficial apprehension of the beloved, but strives to gain an intimate knowledge of everything pertaining to the beloved, so as to penetrate into his very soul. Thus it is written concerning the Holy Ghost, Who is God’s Love, that He “searcheth all things, yea the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). (ibid.)

But whereas love is a passion in us, in God it is not, since passion implies change and imperfection. Now, many moderns are skeptical or even hostile to any notion of God that implies impassibility, with the result that we manage to come up with rather silly statements about how God’s heart breaks for the world or how our worship is going to touch or reach God’s heart, and on and on into absurdity.

Simultaneous with this are usual opprobriums about Greek philosophical categories being laid on top of supposedly more pristine and biblical statements about God’s immanence. Rather than the static God of the philosophers the Scriptures present a dynamic God, who seems to change his mind, has emotional reactions to persons and events, and so on.

However, the traditional Christian understanding of God as changeless and impassible has little to do with the divine being being static in a pejorative sense, as if the divine nature is a giant cosmic bug frozen in amber. It is more accurate to come at it from the other direction. While moderns tend to invest ‘dynamism’ with some sort of unquestioned virtue, there is often a failure to understand what the nature of dynamism really is and how it relates to uncreated and created being.

Any being with a derived being; that is, which is not the source of its own being, is subject to change and imperfection, since it does not possess the totality of being. To move from one state to another thus implies instability and impermanence, and as such entails that the being in question does not have within itself the power of its own existence.

For something to be dynamic entails that it contains in itself some sort of power (‘dynamic’ coming from the Greek ‘dynamis’power), yet this is precisely what changeable beings do not possess, at least not in its perfection. Thus, the term could only be applied to change (even towards a higher or more perfect state) in a remote manner. Any created being is characterized by moving from potency to act in any of its movements, including coming into existence. God is in fact the only being who has no potency not because he lacks anything but rather because he possesses everything by being pure act. Potency, in fact, is not a possession but a lack thereof.

In this sense, then, God’s ‘lack’ of emotions or movements or whatever else one might wish to attribute to him to avoid the dreaded impassibility is, at bottom, seeking to attribute imperfection to that which is, by definition, perfection itself and that whereby all other things derive any form of perfection.

God’s ‘stasis’ in being unchangeable is not because he is frozen in amber but is rather because, as being itself, he possesses absolutely everything. Nothing stands outside of his being, and since created beings participate to one degree or another in God’s being, the movements or ‘dynamism’ that they exhibit are really only moving from perfection to perfection as it already-always has existed in God. And since God is the source and power of his being, in the truest and most absolute sense of the word God’s changelessness and impassability is not to be static but is to be dynamic.

As it relates to love, God’s love is not a passion but is an act of the will. As St. Aquinas argues:

An act of love always tends towards two things; to the good that one wills, and to the person for whom one wills it: since to love a person is to wish that person good. (ST, I, 20, 1)

But in God, the only proper object of divine love in its fullness could be the divine being itself:

So love is called the unitive force, even in God, yet without implying composition; for the good that He wills for Himself, is no other than Himself, Who is good by His essence, as above shown. (ibid.)

The complacent love of God finds its object in himself, and since he possesses the fullness of being, God’s joy is always perfect and eternal, and thus his love is always at rest in himself. The passivity of this possession of the object of love is grounded in the very activity of divine being as it is in Himself as pure act and the source of the good he desires. In God the pursuit of love has always been completed, and it is the perfection of that love in that it can (and always has) rest in the good it possesses.

In our loves we find a complacency that draws us to a good we perceive, even it it doesn’t always turn out to be good. Very rarely do we come to the joy which is resting in the possession of that good, for either we fail to obtain it or we discover that it was not a good which could provide the rest needed. The changeableness of our loves thus enables the frustration and devastation which marks our loves and lack thereof, for only in the source of love and goodness could a true rest be finally found.

God’s love, being changeless and truly ‘dynamic,’ does not suffer from the lack of the attainment of its object, but is always eternally complete because its object is the divine being itself. As it relates to creation, which participates in God’s being, this eternal love is nothing less than an outflow or overflowing of that love which is eternally perfect and complete because it is its own object and thus its own rest; in other words, God just is love in the divine substance and thus God’s relation to that which he has made cannot help but be characterized by that same love. The changelesssness and impassability of God is therefore rightly understood not as a lack on God’s part but rather as a fullness; the divine love is so complete that it could never move from better to worse nor even from good to better.

For most of the history of Christian thought this fundamental notion of God’s relation to creation has formed the Christian hope, for God’s towards creation love is not based upon its own worthiness primarily, but rather because it participates to some extent in the ultimate object of God’s love. Thus, in contrast to the general failure of loves that form the majority of our experience, God’s love is solid and unfailing. The rest that God has within the possession of divine love is itself the wellspring of that gratuitous love that turns towards creation and sustains its existence.

In the end, the Beatific Vision is the apprehension of the Good, in which that affinity which forms our complacency towards all goods is brought to completion. What we really desire will be obtained, and we will finally find rest, as the movement ends where it began.

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