If you went to Sunday School in the same era as I did, you saw at least a couple times a picture something like this:
Generally the word in the middle was “God” (not “Trinity”) with “is” pointing out from that center to each of the three points of the triangle: God is the Father, God is the Son, God is the Holy Spirit. And “is not” ran along each of the three sides: the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and so forth.
If we think of the picture with “loves” instead of “is not,” it seems to fit better with the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John. Even Jesus’ “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) makes better sense as referring to love rather than to is-ness or isn’t-ness. The relationships within the Trinity are thus characterized as love, agreement, and mutual action, rather than as “is not.” Anything that sounds like conflict or bargaining has no place in describing those relationships. And each instance of “love” connecting the points of this triangle is only strengthened by the other instances. Love all around.
Here is a similar triangle:
Here, you are, as you are with Mr. Rogers, my neighbor. Here also there is love all around, but now, it seems, one “love” might come into conflict with another. All the more so if we add more corners to the polygon by, for instance, considering that I have many neighbors, that I love myself as well, and that love of family and romantic love are both different from neighbor-love.
I say “it seems” that these various loves can come into conflict, because the reasons they might do so reflect not the strength of this or that love but the weakness and incompleteness of love. Each direction or kind of love should be united with and strengthened by each other direction of love. If a parent is distracted from prayer by children, the problem is not conflict between love for God and love for the kids but our inadequacy for the task of love. “He who loves his neighbor loves God; and he who loves God loves his own soul” (Anthony of Egypt).
Love in any of these directions is connected to love in each of the other directions and requires the others, whoever it is you are given to love, to be complete. There is no escaping from one love into another — from, for instance, the difficulties of love for my wife into a supposedly higher form of love, be it for God, another woman, or humanity. Each love strengthens and never weakens every other. Love for God and love for other people ride together, and neither can draw off energy from the other — in the same way that love within the Trinity is not diminished but strengthened by God’s love for us, even when the Father’s love for us sends Jesus to the cross.
But Jesus says that our loves do come into conflict:
Don’t think I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. I’ve come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A person’s enemies will be his own family-members. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-37; also Luke 14:26)
A man gave a great banquet and invited many. When it was time for the banquet, he sent his servant out to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is ready now.” But they all began to make excuses…. [One said] “I just got married, so I can’t come” [“I’m not about to interrupt my honeymoon!”]…. The master said … “… None of those people who I invited will get a taste of my banquet!” (Luke 14:16-24)
The sheer urgency of getting into the line of Jesus’ disciples and proclaimers runs smack up against love for family, including a man’s new bride. Jesus speaks bluntly: If you love any of them more than you love me, then you’re not good enough for me.
The problem is not Jesus, though perhaps he is somewhat given to hyperbole. The problem is also not my wife, or at least I hope not. I can read these words of Jesus and still not advocate anyone leaving his or her spouse to “go on mission,” but if I do both of those things together, the reading and the non-advocating, without some discomfort or nervousness about how seriously I’m taking Jesus’ words, then I’m not paying attention. Jesus does not make it easy (he didn’t come to bring that kind of peace either). Perhaps it is just in serious listening to such words of Jesus that we find out how much our love for each other is unlike a neighbor-love that fulfills the second great commandment in a way that does not conflict with fulfillment of the first great commandment (Matthew 22:36-39).
Anthony (“the Great”) was a third and fourth-century Christian hermit who became the founder of a monastery, perhaps the first Christian monastery. The quotation is from The Letters of Saint Anthony the Great, tr. Derwas Chitty (Fairacres: Sisters of the Love of God, 1975), 22. Cf. 1 John 4:20.
The connection of each direction of love to the others: I draw this suggestion from chapter 2, “Love,” of Roberta Bondi’s To Love as God Loves (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987). She has much more to say about this connectedness, and she also put me on to Anthony of Egypt.