You are fearfully and wonderfully made
As she reflects on the love of God, Sr Eileen O'Connell OP offers two challenges to consider during 2020
"WHOEVER says, 'I know God,' but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person."
These words from St John may seem discouraging, even a little intimidating. Perhaps they cause us to doubt, to question whether we really are what we claim to be - believers in God, followers of Christ - or to wonder if we are in fact deceiving ourselves. Are we the liars of which St John speaks?
But we can look at these words from another angle too - through the lens of love. While this might seem more reassuring - and might indeed sound warm and cosy - it is no less challenging.
What is John teaching here? Faith, discipleship, service, obedience to the commandments are all condensed into a few lines, and encapsulated in a single word: love.
To know God is to love. To love is to know God.
Whichever comes first, love and knowledge of God are two sides of the same coin, something John declares later in this letter: "Let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 John 4:7).
Jesus put it even more succinctly: love God and love others. It is that simple - and that difficult.
Discipleship is fundamentally straightforward and uncomplicated, but it is not for the faint-hearted.
In essence, it all boils down to love - as the Beatles sang: love is all you need.
Psalm 138 and 139 speak of God knowing us, an intimate knowledge rooted in love.
It teaches of God's love for each one of us, an eternal love that exists even before we are born, indeed from before our conception, from before our existence as we understand existence.
The psalmist describes how God knits us together and speaks of God creating us with great care and in a manner fitting to his plan.
Like all the Psalms, the words of this Psalm echo continually as a chorus of diverse voices scattered throughout the world reciting them in prayer - Jews and Christians, men and women, believers of all races, all ages, all levels of ability, both rich and poor, healthy and unwell.
Picturing these believers praying in the psalmist's words offers us a glimpse of the individual and unique beauty of each and every one of us.
Seen through and with God's eyes - a vision that is not rose-tinted but love-filled and coloured by love - all of God's creation is beautiful and purposeful and desired by God.
As Pope Benedict put it: "Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary."
Where human eyes may see mistakes, accidents, imperfections, Love sees things differently; God sees all that He has created as good.
As believers, our call and our challenge is to look and to see the world and all that is in it with eyes that are coloured by that divine love.
We are, each of us, as the psalmist declares "fearfully and wonderfully made".
Can you pray this and believe it: "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
Can you pray it with gratitude to God? Can you hear these words with your heart and accept their truth?
You are known by God. You are loved by God. Knowing you are loved, how will you respond? That's where the challenge lies.
How might you respond? Here is one thought to ponder and two challenges to consider.
If you remember just one thing, please let it be this: You are loved by God. Whatever is happening in your life, know, above all else, that God loves you.
Know that God's love for you never lessens. Even if you do not feel loved, even if you don't believe you deserve to be loved, God loves you insanely.
One of our Dominican saints, Catherine of Siena, describes God as a mad lover because she understood just how deep was God's love for her and for everyone around her.
Try to accept how much you are loved. Rest in God's love for you, even for just a moment. If you can do no more than that, it's a good start.
If you're ready to take a next step, I propose two challenges. One is easy, the other is more difficult. You might take on both.
The hard one first: Accepting how much God loves you, try to live from that love. When we live loved, we know we are God's.
We know God loved us into being and that God's love holds us in being. We know we are never not loved.
But this knowing is not inward-looking or self-centred. It means that we are able to love others. Indeed, discipleship demands no less of us.
Know that you are loved and live in that knowledge - by living this way, you can bring God to other people and bring them to God.
To live loved is a task that takes a lifetime but why not start now - because to borrow more songwriter's words: love changes everything.
Knowing God loves us as we are frees us. It allows us to be ourselves, to be who God intends us to be.
To draw on St Catherine again: be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire. That fire of which Catherine speaks is love.
The easier challenge: Pray Psalm 138 and 139. Make them your own. Read them slowly and attend to the words.
Note what stays with you, what sparks your imagination, what touches your heart.
Use it as a launch pad, if you need one, into further prayer with the Scriptures. Pray it with regards to yourself. Pray it with a mind to other people.
In particular, pray these words from Psalm 139: "Lord, I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
:: Sr Eileen O'Connell OP is a sister of the Dominican Congregation, Cabra and assistant chaplain at Queen's University Belfast