Chapter 10: Love and Self-Sacrifice

The Spirit and the Forms of Love
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 10: Love and Self-Sacrifice

‘It is only necessary to know that love is a direction and not a state of the soul. If one is unaware of this, one falls into despair at the first onslaught of affliction.’ (Simone Weil).

There is a familiar portrayal of Francis of Assisi in which the saint stands rapt in meditation, his eyes fixed upon the skull which he holds in his right hand. In his left hand he has a cross. He is absorbed in the contemplation of death, his own and that of Jesus. St. Francis accepted the drastic transformation of the self and its loves by the Gospel. ‘He who saveth his life will lose it; but he who loses his life for the sake of the Gospel will save it.’ But if the love of God and neighbour means complete self-giving, what becomes of all the loves which constitute human selfhood, and what becomes of the self? In this chapter we consider the meaning of self-sacrifice. God’s love must transform without destroying human desires, strivings, and search for selfhood. How is this possible? This is the central problem for every Christian interpretation of love, and it underlies all the special ethical questions such as those dealing with the sexual life, with the struggle for justice, and the intellectual life which we are to consider in later chapters.


Christianity has a double problem in attaining clarity about the meaning of self-sacrifice. Granted all the Christian premises, it is still difficult to see how the self can maintain its vitality as a growing, self-affirming free spirit, and yet be giving itself away. Many powerful critics of Christianity hold that the love it offers negates life.

It is easy to find texts which apparently support this view. St. John of the Cross says:

The soul that is to ascend this mount of perfection, to commune with God, must not only renounce all things and leave them below, but must not even allow the desires, which are the beasts, to pasture over against this mount — that is, upon other things which are not purely God, in whom every desire ceases: that is, in the state of perfection.

By this we are to understand that the love of God must never fail in the soul, so that the soul may be a worthy altar, and also that no other love must be mingled with it.1

Simone Weil, twentieth-century mystic, puts the radical demand:

We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves. . . .

May God grant that I become nothing.

In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me.2

Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings, one of the great examples of self-examination, is all the more striking as it comes from his life of public responsibility. Hammarskjold repeatedly contrasts self-seeking and self-sacrifice:

Your life is without a foundation, if, in any matter, you choose on your own behalf.

Of Jesus he says:

Assenting to his possibility — why? Does he sacrifice himself for others, yet for his own sake — in megalomania? Or does he realize himself for the sake of others? The difference is that between a monster and a man. ‘A new commandment I give unto you; that ye love one another.’3

Reinhold Niebuhr says that sacrificial love, the agape of the Gospel, must transcend mutual love. Agape is given freely for the sake of the other and is heedless of reward or response. Only agape leads to fulfilment, but the fulfilment must be the unintended result, otherwise love masks our self-seeking and then the goal is lost. Niebuhr argues that sacrificial love is the ‘impossible possibility’, and he has exposed in a masterly way the sin in our pretences of morality and brotherhood. It is grace alone, with the forgiveness it holds, which can release us to recognize and in some fragmentary way begin to live in self-giving love for God and neighbour.4

Many secular critics attack this view of love as self-sacrifice in all its Christian forms. They see it as a devaluation of man, a repression of the self’s vital impulses, and an unwillingness to affirm its creative power. It postpones self-realization to an eschatological future and thus draws energies away from the present tasks of history. Amos Wilder has put the critics’ point concisely:

The Christian has not made clear for himself the paradox of world denial and abundance of life. He has lodged in an otherworldliness that has seemed, whether to a Nietzsche or a Lawrence, a blasphemy against the natural creation, or in a compromise with life that has lost any creative appeal, and so deserved the apostasy of those thirsty for reality.5

Erich Fromm’s criticism of Christian ethics is fairly representative of the point of view of many who find the basis for a philosophy of self-realization in psychology. He says that the Christian faith in God has restrained freedom and repressed productive love, and his strictures are especially directed at the Protestant Reformers:

Luther’s relationship to God was one of complete submission. In psychological terms his concept of faith means: if you completely submit, if you accept your individual insignificance, then the all-powerful God may be willing to love you and save you. If you get rid of your individual self with all its shortcomings and doubts by utmost self-effacement, you free yourself from the feeling of your own nothingness and can participate in God’s glory.6

For Fromm, man’s only hope lies in the discovery within himself of the productive powers of love. He should achieve an ethical outlook based on human nature, and overcome the distortions and illusions which bind his spirit. He must become ‘man for himself’.

It is instructive that in Fromm’s recent book, The Heart of Man, its Genius for Good and Evil, he seeks to answer the criticism of his optimistic view of man.7 He traces all the sources of human evil to some factor in the developing life of the person which has become fixed, and blocks normal activity. The temptations of freedom itself, its anxieties and insecurities, and the possibility of the spirit’s self-corruption are never admitted by Fromm. Christianity, he believes, has missed the real key to human fulfilment. It has a false understanding of the roots of evil, and its ideal of life is incompatible with the free development of man.

Albert Camus is one of the most powerful of the contemporary critics of Christianity. His view differs sharply from Fromm’s, for Camus sees the tragic element in human existence. Man’s world holds untold suffering and evil. Human effort to roll the stone up the hill only results in a roll down again and the endless repetition of this heroic effort. Yet Camus has denied that his Myth of Sisyphus is pessimism. Man can recognize his limits. He can hear the human cry for help and respond to it. He can rebel against the evil in existence even if he cannot eliminate it.8

Christianity’s failure as Camus sees it, is that it avoids the human dilemma by promising fulfilment in another world, the hereafter. It conceals the tragedy of life with a pseudo-solution. Whatever fulfilment men can have, Camus believes, must be found in this life. This challenges man’s will, his decision, and his heroism, but these belong to his humanity, and he does not need the support of faith in God.9

Camus’s affirmation that humanity can get along without God in an ethical way of life defines the critical issue which a Christian doctrine of love must meet. Why is not the power man finds within himself enough? If man turns to the love of God for help, does he not inevitably become confused about human love? Why is the love which God gives so necessary to man?

The way to an answer leads through the mystery of self-giving and the paradox of the Gospel as we try to understand the relation of the love of God to the human loves. The crux is the meaning of self-renunciation in agape. How is it compatible with the loves which constitute human selfhood, and how may it transform them?

Self-denial has been interpreted in three ways. There is, first, the monastic way with its realistic facing of the problem of love in the world, and its heroic answer of renunciation. It may be described as the institutionalization of the Franciscan spirit. It begins with the conviction that the absolute way of love cannot be realized directly amid the involvements of family responsibility, political power, and economic acquisition. Some therefore are called by God to express the purity of love by separating themselves from worldly commitments. They take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and commit themselves to the way of love in a dedicated community as their sacrificial participation in the body of Christ and his service in the world. There is no claim to perfection, only the striving for it. There is obedience to the injunction to seek first the Kingdom of God, an obedience which is not possible without this drastic self-renunciation. Therefore the whole body of Christ, the Church, lives in partial dependence upon the merit achieved in the special vocation of the ‘religious’ orders.

Surely there is something permanently valid in this view of the Christian life. There are special calls to a way of life which breaks with established structures and privileges in society. Without renunciation the work of love would not get done in the world. The incarnation keeps this before us. The Son of Man ‘had no place to lay his head’. In fulfilling his vocation he refused the ties of marriage, the status and power of political responsibility. The imitation of Christ will always lead some to an analogous self-denial as the way of love.

A careful historical judgment of the monastic solution must be that it is not the sole answer. It has its own difficulties. Individual poverty became collective wealth. Personal self-denial of status and privilege may create collective power and prestige. There is no evidence whatever that renunciation of worldly loves and family ties controls the passions and perversions of eros in the soul. I side with the Protestant Reformers here and say that in spite of its authentic heroism the monastic way wins its victory over the world too easily. If love gives meaning to life it must create a valid way of life for all, not only those in especially constituted orders. Monasticism undoubtedly offers a way for some, but it is not the only way to the sacrificial life of love.

The Reformers’ alternative conception of the way of love in the world begins with the insight that the tendency of man is to seek self-justification and to think of ethical perfection as an achievement of human freedom. Against this the Reformers assert that the real significance of agape lies in forgiveness. The concern for moral self-justification before God always falsifies our situation. So long as we seek some ‘right pattern’ to express the way of love, we are seeking to prove ourselves righteous, and we shalt certainly fail. God’s love is his mercy toward us in spite of sin, and it remains mercy and forgiveness throughout the whole of life. It is this gracious love by which the justified man lives. Here Luther and Calvin try to put the ethical life on the bedrock of the New Testament estimate of our actual situation before God. The way of love involves repentance for what we are, not proof that we love as we should.

But to leave the matter there is not sufficient. There must be a way of life for the Christian. For Luther the Christian is one who, being released from self-righteousness, is ready to give himself to his neighbour. Thus a powerful tension appears in Luther’s description of the Christian life. The Christian needs no law for he lives in the spirit of love. To be sure, there are very few Christians, but Luther believes there are some. The spirit of Christianity is this:

I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbour, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.10

But the Christian lives in the world with its law, its needs, and its demands. Strictly speaking the law would not be necessary if all were Christian, but God gives it for the restraint of those whose hearts are not governed by the Holy Spirit, including those who are nominally Christian, but who do not live by faith and love. Hence the Christian strenuously gives himself to the needs of the common life and becomes obedient to law, for in this way he does what is necessary for service to the neighbour.11 Luther says:

That is what makes caring for the body a Christian work, that through its health and comfort we may be able to work, to acquire, and lay by funds with which to aid those who are in need.12

The Christian upholds the law of the state and supports its defence against others when justice is at stake. Again Luther:

[If a foreign government is your opponent, then you should first offer justice and peace, but if this is refused then defend yourself by force against force. . . .] And in such a war it is a Christian act and an act of love confidently to kill, rob, and pillage the enemy, and to do everything that can injure him until one has conquered him according to the methods of war.13

Much has been said in criticism of Luther’s doctrine here, and there are many issues concerning the later development of the Christian ethic in relation to war and social justice; but our immediate concern is to understand Luther’s faith that it is possible for the Christian to live the life of agape in the midst of the world’s affairs and conflicts. Luther believes, and Calvin agrees, that there is a right use of the things of this world, and that every man is called by God to respond in faith and love in the situation in which he finds himself.14 That is, everyone who knows the Word of God finds that he has a vocation to service in the world, a calling from God. One can live in the spirit of the Gospel in so far as he uses everything in the world as a means of preparation for and service to the neighbour.

We must ask, however, whether with all the realism of the Reformers in their doctrine of vocation, they solved the problem of self-sacrifice in the spirit of agape. It is especially interesting that Luther with his sense of the persistence of sin in the redeemed, and his absolute reliance on justification by faith, still makes a rather neat distinction between those who are truly Christian and those who are not. He says less than we would expect about the temptations, especially the new temptations, which come within the Christian life. While Calvin seems to see more clearly than Luther the need for reforming the orders of the world guided by love and justice, both Reformers see the organization of society in terms which we know are far too simple in the light of the later history of democratic forms of political life.

The Reformers’ great achievement was the insight that the way of agape can be actualized in secular existence with all its issues and decisions. The spirit of agape leads to action to meet the needs of men in the world as it is. But the radical terms of this actualization, with its persistent problems, have come more fully into view in later generations. We are somewhat more aware of the complexity of motives, especially those of the ‘good’. The unmasking of the soul in the modern concept of ideology has exposed the pretences of good people in a way which must enter into a critical understanding of religions. The task of actualizing justice is far more complex than the Reformers saw it. The involvements and dilemmas of social policy forbid any simple doctrine of the righteousness of the ways we take in the world, however honestly we take them in the name of love.

We should not be surprised, therefore, nor should it prompt us to cynicism, that ordinary Christian life and practice achieves a kind of common-sense acknowledgment of the realities of human motives along with the demand for self-sacrifice, and does not seek to inhibit too much the natural cravings and drives. The prudent soul makes a concordat between the many loves and the love of God. It acknowledges the demand for complete self-giving, and then makes allowances for ordinary motives, the needs of the flesh, the importance of not aiming too high, and the requirement for sensible self-protection in getting along. This, I hold, is a more honest settlement than one which makes only the pretence and admits no need of compromise. But it is a settlement which means the domestication of the soul and the eventual destruction of the spirit’s high calling. Is any other way possible ?

Soren Kierkegaard believes that it is possible to hold together the agape of the Gospel and the earthly loves. His way to this, whether we find it acceptable or not, should prove instructive to the modern spirit which has become acutely conscious of the false masks of piety. Kierkegaard’s Work of Love, along with many other writings, gives a marvellous example of spiritual surgery which penetrates the pretences of the self. Kierkegaard sees quite plainly that there can be a pseudo-self-denial:

A merely human self-denial thinks as follows: give up your selfish wishes, desires and plans — then you will be honoured and respected and loved as just and wise. It is easy to see that this sort of self-denial does not lay hold of God or the God-relationship, but remains on the worldly plane of a relationship between men. The Christian self-denial thinks: give up your selfish wishes and desires, give up your selfish plans and purposes in order to work for the good in true disinterestedness — and then prepare to find yourself, just on that account, hated, scorned and mocked, and even executed as a criminal; or rather, do not prepare to find yourself in this situation, for that may become necessary, but choose it of your own free will. For Christian self-denial knows beforehand that these things will happen, and chooses them freely.15

But Kierkegaard, for all his insight, has not taken the full measure of the problem of love. He comes precariously close to accepting an external and legalistic criterion for the presence of love. Unless love leads to a specific kind of rejection the spirit is not really loving, this is what he seems to hold. But is this so? This would make the life of love impossible within the established orders of the world. Kierkegaard, it should be remembered, rejected marriage responsibilities for himself. The decisive renunciation in his life is his breaking his engagement to Regina. It is never made very clear what went into this decision; but we can reflect upon it in the light of a passage in Works of Love:

The point at issue between the poet and Christianity can be quite accurately defined in this way: Earthly love and friendship are partiality and the passion of partiality; Christian love is self-denying love, therefore it vouches for this ‘shalt’. To exhaust these passions is bewildering. But the extreme passionate limits of partiality lie in exclusiveness, in loving only one; the extreme limits of self-denial lie in self-sacrifice, in not excluding a single one. He goes on indeed to say that Christianity does not reject sensuality or marriage. But he reiterates his theme:

Christianity harbours a suspicion about earthly love and friendship, because partiality in passion, or passionate partiality, is really another form of selfishness.16

Kierkegaard rightly identifies here the perplexity in the Christian view of love. To love every neighbour and yet to commit oneself to a beloved person makes abiding tensions and poses difficult decisions. Kierkegaard seems to allow his first answer of renunciation and the answer of the Reformers to stand side by side without any clear resolution of the two perspectives. In his meditation on ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour’ he writes in the spirit of the Reformers as he tells us not to give up love of wives and children but ‘preserve in your earthly love and friendship your love for your neighbour’.17 Certainly the suspicion about the earthly loves remains, and Kierkegaard rightly brings it into the open. But what he fails to see clearly is that earthly loves may themselves come into the service of God. Failure to love the neighbour may be born in the failure of love in the family. If Kierkegaard sees this he does not make it a part of his reconciliation of agape and the earthly loves. The point may be put another way. The sexual relationship and the family loves can become blocked and corroded when there is no outgoing love toward the neighbour. We should add this point to Kierkegaard’s word: ‘The concept of the neighbour is precisely the middle term of self-abnegation, which enters between the I and I of selfishness but also between the I and the other I of earthly love and friendship.’18 It is not only self-abnegation but also fulfilment which the outgoing love of agape offers to love as affection, and affection may be the first school of agape.

One other aspect of Kierkegaard’s view of love deserves special attention. His individualism is such that he overlooks how social structures separate men from one another. Kierkegaard lacked a social ethical doctrine of agape which is no less concerned to break through to the neighbour, but is less naive about how social orders corrupt human relationships. Kierkegaard sees that ‘purity of heart is to will one thing’, to use the title of one of his meditations; but he does not fully see that purity of heart requires responsible participation in the common life. He discusses the Gospel demand for equality, and he realistically knows that we must love the neighbour while allowing the earthly differences to continue’.19 But should all differences in the status quo continue? Kierkegaard says:

He who loves his neighbour is calm. He is calm through being satisfied with the conditions of earthly life assigned to him, be they those of distinction or of poverty, and for the rest, he allows every earthly distinction to retain its power, and to pass for what it is and ought to be here in this life.

To be fair to Kierkegaard, he acknowledges the good intentions of the social reformers’ drive toward equality, although ‘worldly equality, even if it were possible, is not Christian equality’.20 He criticizes the caste system.21 Despite these concessions to the need for social justice Kierkegaard’s doctrine remains inadequate. It must be said of his view what has been said of the monastic and the Reformers’ solution, that it solves the relationship of self-sacrifice to human loves too easily. Kierkegaard makes such a complete break between the purity of the love which wills only an eternal good, and the involvements of the common life that the real task of agape to come to terms with responsibility in the world never gets quite into focus. Surely the deepest work of love occurs just where it cannot remain ‘calmly untouched’ in the established orders, but is constrained to challenge, reform, or deny them. The tension between friendship and the universal love of neighbour is present in all love in a way which Kierkegaard saw but never fully resolved.

The love of the eternal is not a wholly different kind of love from love of the temporal. The real problem is that the jiu man loves and the love God has made present in Christ are together in the self which must find the way to eternal life in the struggles and passions of history. That is why there will always be Augustinian, Franciscan, and Evangelical forms of Christian living.

Whatever it has been in past centuries, love takes form in our century as participation in shaping a new world 0rder. Self-giving means to witness and labour where the lives of innumerable human beings are at stake. Life can be given for the sake of the Gospel in mass movements, in political revolution, in complex social strategies and cultural creativity. Sacrificial love requires a perception of the relation between the ultimate claims of agape and the complexity of human motives. Love can be humbly present in the passion, conflict and world-shaping creativity of life. The Incarnate Lord who bears the life of Everyman seems to touch history at a tangent; but the tangent intersects with the realities of collective existence. Jesus was not crucified for preaching a pure love unsullied by contact with social issues, but for relating the message of love to the critique of social privilege and power.

Simone Weil had much in common with Kierkegaard. She was a deeply introspective, lonely, agonizingly sensitive wrestler with God. But her search for the authentic way of love took her into the midst of the social struggle. Born in France in 1909, she was five years old when the First World War began. When she discovered that the French soldiers at the front had no sugar she refused to eat sugar at home. Trained as a teacher and possessing an exceptional intellect, she added to her teaching duties in a French manufacturing town an interest in the problems of workers and the unemployed. She walked in picket lines and shared her too scanty supply of food. In an attempt further to identify her life with factory workers, she worked in an automobile factory, a job which taxed her frail strength to the limit. She went to Spain during the civil war, determined to lend support to the Loyalists’ cause, though as part of her ethical commitment she refused to fire a gun.

During the Second World War strenuous work in the vineyards of Southern France caused another breakdown in health. After making her way to England, she prepared for the French Government an analysis of problems of reconstruction after the war, a report published under the title, The Need for Roots. It is filled with ripe wisdom. In the war days in England she refused to eat more food than was being allowed on the ration of her countrymen in France. The strain was too much for her frail constitution and she died in 1943 at the age of thirty-three.22

This is the outward story. The inner spiritual experience is that of the mystical discovery of God, and a movement toward the centre of Roman Catholic faith. She came into a close relationship to Catholic sacramental piety and yet never became a Catholic. Part of her stated reason for remaining outside the church was that she feared elements of demonic collective passion might be corrupting the widespread enthusiasm for the church, and she wanted to make clear that the love of Christ is something essentially different from the feeling of security which comes from belonging to a group. As her biographer says. ‘she remained crouching on the threshold of the church for the love of all of us who are not inside’.23

If we take such a life with its freight of personal psychological struggle and try to make it our example of what the love of God means, we only do violence to that life and make ourselves ridiculous in trying to imitate it. This was itself no repetition of the story of Christ. It exhibits the obvious relativities of human choices. There are some interesting examples of this. Simone Weil, late in life, confessed that one of her youthful demonstrations of solidarity with the poor (I think in this case the refusal to wear stockings) was really prompted by a desire to plague her mother. And one of her few friends, a person who admired her deeply, remarked that he had never once known her to yield a point in an argument! Every life has its ambiguities in the light of love.

While we cannot make a universal ethical pattern out of Simone Weil’s life, she does, like Kierkegaard, point to where the problem of the relation of love to self-realization lies. Nothing less than complete love to God and neighbour fulfils the self. In a life of such dedication, all neat theories of self-realization through social adjustment have their shallowness exposed. The only self fit for the community God intends is that which has learned to give itself away. But what is given away? And what happens to human loves in the giving? We have quoted what Simone Weil says of the need to ‘decreate our egos’. But surely the ego must also be re-created. Human existence is existence in desire, in the self-affirmation of life craving more life, and the aggressiveness of the spirit. Selflessness with no eros, no vital impulse, no love of life, is not real selfhood. Jesus saying, ‘He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10: 37) may suggest that human loves are not destroyed but transcended in the higher loyalty.

Is self-sacrifice an ultimate limit toward which the self may move, but which it can never quite reach, or is there a union of sacrificial love with the self’s growth into its full stature which can be realized, though certainly only through grace? It may be that this question brings us to the limit of analysis of self denial. Each one must live through to his answer as he is and where he is. Yet the matter is so critical for the Christian meaning of love that we should try to face the meaning of self-sacrifice as clearly as possible. We need to cut through our illusions and our pretences. A sense of reality about the love we know in Christ is easily lost or confused. If there are those who do not find it so, then this book must appear to them as pointless and irrelevant. But for the rest, it may be that the paradox of losing life and finding it may be seen in clearer light if we get a more adequate view of what the self is. Our sense of reality about love will be helped if we see the self not as a fixed object but as becoming, a career. In the final section of this chapter I will expand this suggestion in the outline of a theory of the self, not to dispose of the mystery of self-sacrifice, but, if possible, to bring its issues into clearer focus.


All the human loves: sexual love, comradely love, humanitarian love, and the religious love of the good and the beautiful, belong in the fulfilled self. They will be transformed in self-giving, yet they must live, for they constitute personal life. Our question is how the love of God, agape, with its absolute self-giving, can fulfil the human loves without destroying them.

The thesis I propose is that the human loves have two aspects which make them a preparation for agape. They have the power to open up the self, and thus to begin to show the requirement of self-giving. Second, they reach the limits of self-fulfilment, and thus prepare for the acknowledgment that only a love which transcends the human loves can fulfil the self.

This thesis specifically rejects the position that agape is a complete contradiction of human love. At the same time it does not identify agape with the form of any human love, and it does not expect human loves to move toward agape in a direct and simple way.

This thesis of the essential relatedness of all the loves can be defended only if we see the self as a becoming, not as a fixed entity. If the self is not a becoming, but a substance with a fixed structure, then those who separate agape completely from the human loves are surely right. Then agape hovers above the human loves on another plane, and it will come as an utterly foreign element into the natural life of the self. But if the self is a becoming, then the full meaning of selfhood lies in a personal history and not in a completed structure. To be a self is to move toward being, not simply to possess being in a certain way. In this understanding of the self we can ask how all the human loves and agape itself, enter into growth toward self-hood. There can be dynamic relationships which bring agape and the human loves into a genuine interaction. We must examine self-sacrifice with the time dimension in view.

There is, to be sure, no magic in the word ‘becoming’. The mystery of selfhood and of the work of agape remains. We are seeking the meaning of personal existence which has its corruption in sin and sickness. We know every love, including agape as it is refracted in the dark mirror of life. But it makes a great difference whether we look for love’s meaning in static formal structures, or as the spirit at work in a history where there is freedom, growth, and decision, and where new forms are created.

In the following discussion I use the term agape to refer to the self-giving and forgiving love which God has decisively expressed in the world in his redemptive activity in Jesus. I mean by ‘the human loves’ all our experiences of organic feeling and sympathetic attachment for things and persons in the world. This includes self-love.

There are three aspects of the growth of the self and its loves. First, there is the will to belong which is the core of selfhood. Second, there is the discovery that belonging requires self-giving as well as receiving and the consequent search for an adequate object of love. Finally, there is the dimension of hope which the self must find in its loves. We learn to love in history, and ‘it does not yet appear what we shall be’. In all three aspects, love as agape comes as the transforming fulfilment of the search in human love. It is not that we discover the meaning of agape by going into the depths of the self; but that we discover in the depths of the self a hunger born of the self’s own loves which only agape can satisfy.

The self is a will to belong. We have stated the doctrine of the imago dei as the will to communion. Here we are on the track of the meaning of self-sacrifice, and we need to analyse the will to belong more fully. I suggest the ‘will to belong’ as more fundamental than either the ‘will to power’ (Hocking) or ‘ultimate concern’, in Tillich’s sense of that which determines our being or non-being. The reason is that the ‘will to belong’ designates more precisely that psychic and organic craving which constitutes our humanity. Of course any conceptions of the nature of selfhood can be validated only by appeal to our fundamental intuitions. We have no absolute precision or dogmatic finality here. But the ‘will to belong’ does point to what we observe in human motives, cravings, sacrifices, satisfactions, and perversities.

When John Donne says ‘no man is an island’ he is not lecturing us to have consideration for others, but is stating the fact which constitutes our existence, that we are bound in one bundle of life. The self is thrown into an incomprehensibly vast creation, a world teeming with other creatures, and other selves. Each self tries to find where it fits in this immense and threatening confusion. The primordial sense of the need to belong appears. It is both physical and psychological. It is the search for at-homeness, for knowing where we are and who we are as we grow in freedom to deal with the environment. The power and stubbornness of the self to maintain its being against the onslaughts of an overpowering world is one of its most amazing characteristics. It will grasp at anything, use anything, defend anything in struggling to maintain its poise and strength. Some views of child development stress an early phase of self-centredness and narcissism as essential in the growth of the personality. Certainly this is one part of the story. But self-centredness is the centre of something more than the self; it is the centre of the world in which the self must get along. There is, therefore, in all self-assertion and self-centredness both the pole of autonomy, the affirmation of self-integrity and independence, and the pole of symbiosis, which requires conformity and relatedness to the other.

Both autonomy and symbiosis require communication and response. The autonomous self wants to be recognized as a self, and it seeks response in the other. Belonging involves communication and no self can exist without some fulfilment of this fundamental need.

There is, therefore, a kind of self-giving in the most elementary level of selfhood. It is the self-giving which offers communication to the other, and craves, waits for, and is rewarded by the response of another. We need not endow this ‘self-giving’ with ethical quality any more than we would the craving for food or warmth. The self must participate in being with its environment and thus begin to belong.

Primary evidence that this is a valid account of the self is found in what we recognize in many incipient illnesses of the personality. Excessive autonomy without regard for the other, and the lack of power to communicate are pathological, just as symbiosis in which the self no longer ‘belongs’ because it loses its identity in the other is pathological. The point we are making does not require a precise definition of ‘normal’ adjustment or balance between autonomy and symbiosis. Every self is unique. Creativity appears in extraordinary forms. Some imbalance in personal relationships may contribute to it. We can say that the limits within which sane selfhood must exist require the self’s participation in a real world and in a community of selves where there is communication in some form of speaking and hearing. In Martin Buber’s language, there can be no I without a Thou, though the forms of communication between I and Thou are indefinitely diverse and open to creativity.

As the self grows and emerges from this primordial self-relatedness a new aspect of self-giving appears. For the self can grow only by overcoming fixation at any point in its becoming. The self seeks integrity; but there can be no integrity without change. This is the hard lesson. It means that in every becoming there is some surrender of present satisfactions, defences and securities to a new demand. The past is not rejected. It remains a dynamic part of the personality, even when lost from conscious memory. But no past is sufficient for the new present, and no past form of the self’s being can be preserved unaltered. This may seem a commonplace, yet it is the source of the desperate battle of the self for life, and it is here that temptation enters. Change means risk, and risk is painful. We are willing to grow provided we know we can maintain or increase our present security, but this can never be absolutely known. We begin to ‘save our life’ by holding on to it as it is. It is the first manifestation of the Fall.

The objective self at a given moment is largely the deposit of experience as shaped by our self-understanding. This given self bears its freight of hurt and hope, its creativity and anxiety, its self-seeking, and its groping for love. We cling to this self as it is. We fear it is all we have. Even its sufferings are familiar and we clutch them because their very familiarity is comforting, and saves us from facing the deeper suffering hidden underneath. We usually would rather live with our present frustrations than risk acquiring new ones. Yet so long as we aim at the maintenance of this present self, as we now conceive it, we cannot enter the larger selfhood which is pressing for life. This natural resistance of the self to becoming is not in itself sin. It is a self-protective device of the human spirit; but when it becomes an invitation to use our freedom against the risk of becoming it is temptation to sin. The meaning of sin is usually not that we try to make ourselves the centre of everything. That may happen, but it is a monstrous perversion. We are usually more subtle. We make our present state of selfhood the meaning of existence, and thus refuse the deeper meaning which lies within and beyond this present. When that refusal becomes refusal to trust in the giver of life and the greater community he is creating it is sin. The good we cling to may be noble in itself. Whitehead’s comment is pertinent:

Good people of narrow sympathies are apt to be unfeeling and unprogressive, enjoying their egotistical goodness. Their case, on a higher level, is analogous to that of the man completely degraded to a hog. They have reached a state of stable goodness, so far as their own interior life is concerned. This type of moral correctitude is, on a larger view, so like evil that the distinction is trivial.24

Beyond this need to grow there is the third discovery in every love. It is the distinction between love and possession. We have already encountered this in our analysis of the categories of being. The freedom of the other to be and to respond is part of what love wills. We affirm the principle that all human loves bear the possibility of learning to ‘let go’. We must speak of possibility; for of all the lessons of love this is the most difficult. Here indeed sin enters every life and threatens destruction. Yet any authentic discovery of human love involves the will to affirm the other’s being whatever that may cost. The lover learns to let the other become himself. This is the farthest pole from indifference. It is the will to love, but only in the freedom of the spirit. Parents have to learn that love for children involves letting them be and grow in their way. This is true no matter how great the responsibility of parents to guide, discipline and educate. Love respects the margin of freedom in every self, and remains loyal even when rejected or misunderstood.

It may clarify and reinforce the point here to observe that a similar principle applies in other than interpersonal loves. The creative artist loves the work he does. He loves his tools, his materials, the aesthetic vision which he seeks to make present and make palpable. As artist he learns that love requires the self to discipline its desires and satisfactions for the sake of the objective truth and beauty which it seeks. Anders Nygren seems to me to describe the corruption of the aesthetic eros, not its positive nature, when he calls it self-centred. The aesthetic eros requires a man to live beyond self-gratification and to accept a realm of meaning with its organizing principles which imposes itself on the process of creativity.

An artist may remain a self-centred and self-seeking person, but he has learned something of self-giving so far as he experiences aesthetic creativity. This applies not only to ecstatic moments but also to the plodding discipline. The delight and the discipline in the aesthetic experience are nicely recorded by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, two of the greatest modern painters. Picasso says:

It is my misfortune — and probably my delight — to use things as my passions tell me. . . . How awful for a painter who loathes apples to have to use them all the time because they go so well with the cloth. I put all the things I like into my pictures. The things — so much the worse for them — they just have to put up with it.

And Braque:

Emotion should not be rendered by an excited trembling; it can neither be added on nor be imitated. It is the seed, the work is the flower. I like the rule that corrects the emotion.25

We should remember that ecstasy in its root meaning is ecstasis, being taken out of one’s place. Without the breaking of the shell of self-centredness there can be no real art. Love is not possession, but participation. Theology should not look down its nose at the realm of aesthetic creativity, but seek to understand that here also there can be preparation for the spirit of agape.

There is then a kind of self-giving which is inescapably present even when we resist it. I believe that Father D’Arcy is quite right in finding in the self both the love which seeks to grasp reality and the love which wants to give itself away. But I do not believe we need to invoke two different loves for this. The two movements are two aspects of what is essentially and existentially one, the growth of love through discovering its claims, its demands, and its fulfilment in the spirit of participation rather than possession.

The self-giving or self-sacrifice we have so far described, is not yet the self-giving which is claimed by the Gospel. We have found analogues to losing one’s life in order to save it, but only analogues. For every particular love contains an implicit question of which we become gradually aware, and which may come into sharp focus only in crisis: ‘where is the absolute and trustworthy fulfilment of the self’s will to belong?’ The will to belong cannot stop short of an absolute which fulfils it. William Ernest Hocking stated this truth in his Human Nature and Its Remaking.26 It is the decisive point in a theological anthropology. Karl Barth restricts the image of God in man to man’s community with his fellows. But man seeks community with the source of his being. It is the God relationship which makes a man a man. Man is linked with the whole of things, with eternity and time, with the open future as well as the past, with the source and end of his being as well as with his most intensely satisfying present loves. The self craves the completely trustworthy fulfilment of the will to belong. Only to whatever fulfils our being can we give ourselves without despair.

The Christian Gospel asserts the reality of such an absolute in the Kingdom of God. We are created to find ourselves in belonging, and we really belong to that which makes us lovers. The only commitment which can sustain an absolute trust is that which accepts what we are in all the conditions of finitude, and yet offers participation in the infinitely creative life which takes our present loves beyond themselves into the service of God. It is the trivial faiths and pseudo-religions which offer satisfaction to the self as it is, or as it ideally projects its wishes. The truth in the Gospel which cuts into all our loves is that every love must be offered up to the creative transformation which God is bringing about in the whole creation.

Henry Nelson Wieman’s important distinction between created good and creative good can help us state this crucial point.27 Every human love is a created good and is directed to some created good, that is, some structure of meaning, person, or value. The creative good is the present working of God, bringing new structures into existence. That working is terrible in its power to shatter old structures, it can be threatening and painful in what it demands of the self and its present forms of good. It breaks open every present form for the sake of a new, and more inclusive community of meaning. Now the creative good is itself ‘good’, but in a peculiar way. It is good not as objective form, but as the source of new structures of value. The love it commands is not directed toward a given object or structure; it is openness to the working of the creative spirit which is the source of all good. The ultimate issue in self-giving is ‘given for what?’ Men give themselves for all kinds of things, good and bad, creative and destructive, for fame, money, infatuation, homeland, religion, dogmas, prejudices. There is no limit to the kinds of self-giving of which we are capable. But the sacrifice of self in the love which is agape challenges every claim but one. It does not displace the human loves, but it transmutes them by giving them a new context. ‘He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.’

Agape thus challenges the claim to absoluteness of every other love since what it offers transcends every private satisfaction, desire, or value. Agape offers the reconstituting of life so that every human love participates in a love greater than itself.

We now see human loves in a new light. Agape is not another love which is added to the others. Neither is it their contradiction. It is the love which underlies all others, leads them toward the discovery of their limits, and releases a new possibility in the self which is created for communion.

God discloses himself as agape. We do not discover his love welling up within us. We discover it at the boundary of our existence, in the experience of crisis, and in the overwhelming goodness for which we give thanks, or at the abyss of despair toward which we plunge. Agape is the affirmation of life, the forgiveness of sin, the spirit in which the self can give itself away and yet be fulfilled.

In this way, then, we affirm the radical self-denial in agape while preserving the creative significance of human loves. The deepest mystery of love is not simply the power of self-denial but the capacity in every love to learn self-giving and thus within the vital impulses of creaturely existence to prepare for the claim of God upon the spirit. No human love can redirect itself by its own power toward the Kingdom of God; but no human love is without its potential service to the work of the Kingdom when it comes to full self-understanding.

This view may seem perfectionistic and too remote from the realities of passion, the narrowness and perversions of our loves. The reason is that we know human love only in its ambiguity. Every experience of love participates in the goodness of the creation, but also in the distorted life which results from sin. The darkness of evil lurks in all existence. Human loves can be constructive, releasing, and even innocent; but they can also be destructive, idolatrous, twisted with hatred, feeding our blinding and demonic rage. Even ‘acts of self-sacrifice’ can be nothing but vengeful attacks on others. More commonly we exhibit our ‘sacrificial’ spirit as a means of coercing or deluding others to do our will. ‘After all that I’ve done for you,’ we say in our tyrannous distortion of self-giving. There is no rational explanation for the depth of evil of which we are capable. The cruelties of history are beyond belief.

Our doctrine, then, makes no claim that we are really good and loving beings. But it does throw some light upon the dark side of the human story if we see human cruelties and destructiveness as corruptions of the power to love, and thus as belonging not to the norm of human nature but to its pathology. The need to belong, to be secure in relationship to the other, to find the self fulfilled and loved is so great that when it is blocked the power of love bursts into the demonic passion of fanaticism, self-worship, arrogance and superiority toward those who threaten our little securities. Paul Tillich has defined the demonic as the ‘form-destroying eruption of the creative basis of things’.28 In part, at least, the perversity of man exploits the good in his humanity. The need for the love which he cannot escape when unfilled, becomes his torment, his agony, the source of his self-destruction and his violence.

Where and how, then, does the hove of God move in the human loves? The answer is, everywhere, within the mystery of grace. ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth’, and no form can define the way in which the spirit of agape makes its way into our human pilgrimage. It comes when in living, loving and dying we are brought to the boundary of our existence. It may come in the ecstasy of rejoicing in human love, and it may come in the breaking of our self-confidence and our security when we reach our limits. Above all, it may come when the idolatry and self-centredness in the human loves are exposed and we discover the meaning of God’s forgiveness freely given, offering us acceptance and new life. The word of God which became flesh in Jesus Christ moves in human life, often secretly, often unrecognized, yet persistently becoming the luminous word through which we begin to understand what every love really is.


Agape transforms the hope in the self’s pilgrimage. We cannot fully know the meaning of love until it has done all its work. Without the eschatological dimension in love we do not see it as it is. It is the mark of love to be willing to await consummation, not to seize it. Agape indeed bears an assurance for every future. It overcomes the fear of death and defeat. ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God.’ Love never disappears. But what love may do and will do, what creative and redemptive work lies ahead, can only be known partially in the history of love until the ‘end’.

Here our theme that love has a history reaches its culmination and its limit. The decisive expression of agape has been given in the history of Jesus, and what God has begun in him is not finished (I Corinthians 15). God does not set aside the conditions of human existence. He works in history to reconstitute it, but that is a process, not a complete action.

From this vantage point we get a new perspective on self-sacrifice as the ultimate expression of agape. The self is constituted by its entire history. To be a self is to belong in the great society of being, and belonging is not destroyed by death. Hence the self can give itself away knowing that its being is not completed in a moment of time. We recall the temporal dimension of the Gospel paradox concerning self-sacrifice. ‘He that saveth his life will lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake and the Gospel will save it.’ The reference is not primarily to some future event, though it embraces an eschatological hope. The future for the self is the whole of its meaning in the everlasting life.

This is why we cannot define the limits of the work of agape. We may never be able to point to an act of self-sacrifice as the decisive moment in which the self is controlled by agape. We may experience no such moment in life, and perhaps in most lives there never is such a moment. But there is in faith the beginning of agape’s formation of the human spirit. There is the hope and prayer that it may be so. Since agape always includes forgiveness for what we are, there is a sense in which even to begin to discover its meaning is to be born again. But we are reborn to hope. All acts of ‘self-sacrifice’ have the poignant element of ‘not knowing’ the end. Love does not demand to know.

As St. Francis stands with the symbols of death and self-sacrifice in his hands, so stands every life of faith. This is no morbid theme, but the assurance of the Gospel that just as there is the ultimate demand of self-giving, so is there no real life or fulfilment without learning that he who loves can give himself up for God since God has given himself for us.



1. St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Works, Vol. 1, Eng. trans. (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1934), Bk. I, ch. 5, paragraphs 6-7.

2. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), p. 80.

3. Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, tr. by Leif Sjoberg and W. F. Auden (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964, pp. 93, 69; London: Faber & Faber, 1964).

4. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 1, pp. 287-95; Vol. 11, chap. 3.

5. Amos Wilder, The Spiritual Aspects of the New Poetry (New York: Harper& Brothers, 1940), p. 164.

6. Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1941), p. 81. For a more judicious estimate of Luther by a psychiatrist see Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther (New York: Norton, 1958; London: Faker & Faber, 1959).

7. Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man, its Genius for Good and Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

8. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, tr. by Justin O’Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955; New York: Knopf, 1955).

9. Albert Camus, The Rebel (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953; New York: Vintage Books, 1959, p. 303).

10. Martin Luther, Treatise on Christian Liberty, Anchor Books ed. by John Dillenberger (1961), p. 75.

11. Martin Luther, Secular Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed.

12. Martin Luther, Treatise, pp. 73-4.

13. Luther, Secular Authority, p. 398.

14. Calvin, Institutes, Bk. III, chap. 10, ‘The right use of the present life and its supports’.

15. S. Kierkegaard, Works of Love, tr. by D. F. and L. M. Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949, pp. 157-8; London: William Collins Sons & Co., 1962).

16. Ibid., pp. 43-4.

17. Ibid., p. 51.

18. Ibid., p. 45.

19. Ibid., p. 69.

20. Ibid., p. 60.

21. Ibid., p. 57.

22. Biographical sketch by Leslie Fiedler in his introduction to Waiting on God (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951; New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951).

23. Ibid., p. 28.

24. A. N. Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1927), p. 98.

25. Quoted in Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, Artists on Art, 2nd ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1947), pp. 419, 423.

26. William Ernest Hocking, Human Nature and its Remaking, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923), chaps. 27, 47.

27. Henry Nelson Wieman, The Source of Human Good (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), chap. 3.

28. Paul Tillich, The Interpretation of History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1936), p. 85.