This is a good question because it looks for the truth behind words, recognising how even an apparently simple phrase must be understood correctly if the meaning behind it is to be properly grasped.
Q. You have talked about the love of God as the essential factor in spiritual development and, theoretically, that makes a lot of sense. But what I would like to know is what do you actually mean by it? How can you know that what you think is the love of God truly is that? It seems to me that many people claim to love God when what is really going on is that they have an attachment to their own idea of God.
A. That is an excellent question, if I may say so, and one I had not considered as I should, simply using the phrase and then moving on*. But you are right. Many people do have an image of God that is either of their own making or else derives from a religion that they follow. And then they claim that their attachment to that is love when really it is just a personal preference or emotional response to something that gives them comfort. So there are two things to take into account here. One is God and the other is love. If we say we have love for God, is it really love we have and is it really for God?
Well, this is something that only God can know for sure but from our perspective we can say that the difference between God and an idea about God is the difference between what is known in the heart and what comes from the mind. Where is our notion of God held, head or heart, in thought or through intuition and, if intuition, is that pure and free of egotistical input, prejudice, preconception and the host of lower impulses that the mind is subject to? In other words, is our connection to God just to an idea about God or is it to something real beyond ourself which we sense because we have started to look beyond ourself?
I would say that we can truly perceive something of God in three ways. One is through religion. If a particular revelation speaks to us then we can intuit something of God through that revelation. True, we may get caught up in the letter or form of that religion, its outer aspect, but, if our heart is pure, we will be able to see through the form to the inner truths behind it, and use the form without being bound by it.
Then we can understand something of the reality of God through seeing His signs in the outer world and in nature (remembering that God is in nature but always remains transcendent to it too). We can see His presence in the sun, the clear blue sky and so on. These are symbols that inform us about the metaphysical principles that lie behind them. And we can perceive God's laws, and through them see Him, operating through the way the world works. The beauty of nature also tells us about its Creator.
Finally, and most fully of all, we can know God in the heart. He is present in us as our very being and we are connected both to Him and to our being (since they are the same thing) in the heart. However to know this consciously requires a degree of purity that can only be acquired through hard spiritual effort. It requires a simplicity that is not afraid to seem foolish. And it requires humility. If you turn to God without having first turned away from yourself you will fall into illusion, and whatever you find (and you may well find something you imagine to be spiritual), it won't be God.
True awareness of God comes from seeing that there is something greater than you that is the source of all is that is good and beautiful and true. This awareness inspires a love that, in its turn, inspires complete dedication, the desire to serve and the ability to sacrifice. There is a perfect acceptance of God's will which means that we accept our experiences without resistance while, at the same time, looking for ways in which we might serve that will. It might be said that some of this could equally apply to the religious fanatic but the difference once again is between head and heart. The true lover of God does God's will in a spirit of acceptance and humble gratitude. The fanatic, obsessed with his idea of God, always use force of some kind.
God is within and God is without and God has been revealed through the great religions. However unless we know Him in our hearts there is the strong possibility that we will replace the reality with our own concept of it and so, in a sense, become an idol worshipper. Only through purification of heart and mind can we can start to disperse the clouds of self-centredness that block out God's light, and begin to perceive something of the living truth that lies beyond and behind all ideas about it. That very perception will bring love because it is of love.
*Note: Although I did actually write a post on this subject a couple of years ago and that can be read in conjunction with this one.