Last winter I collected some twigs on a nature walk with the kids. After a couple of weeks in water inside our balmy house, those twigs were fooled into thinking spring had sprung, and the tight buds opened up. Week after week the new growth inched out, spreading a cheery, leafy greeting that surprised us. Who would have thought that all of that potential for growth and new life had existed all along in what appeared to be just lifeless twigs? Stored away, deep inside, was hidden potential, lying dormant until the right conditions hit to coax it into action.
We are a bit like those dormant twigs, aren’t we? How many of us are really living life to our “full potential” like popular culture is always urging us to? What does that even mean? If you think about it, reaching your full potential would mean that there’s no potential left. It would all be fully realized, all that potential completely put into action. For my deceived twigs, it was all downhill at that point. Their potential exhausted, they eventually withered and made their way to our compost bin.
This illustration of “potential” and “action” helps me understand what the medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas meant when he talked about “potency” and “act.” He said that there is no potency at all in God. He is 100% act. There is no potential in God because that would mean He would be changing and changeable. But He isn’t. He just is Who He is. Fully. ALL.THE.TIME. Stuck in time and space and subject to change and decay as we are, it’s hard for us to even fathom that kind of existence, isn’t it?
When we describe ourselves, we are usually not content to simply recognize that we exist. We need to define who and what we are. We want to go beyond stating our existence and address our essence. What does it mean to be human? We like to categorize and point out all the differences and similarities between us and other creatures. What does it mean to be Erin? What makes me the same as you? What makes me unique? What is my hidden potential? What is your hidden potential? “Existence” simply says THAT we are; but “essence” says WHAT we are.
God doesn’t need those two descriptors like we do though. He is holy. He is in a league of His own. He is the source and perfection of all life. He is the immovable first mover. Aquinas actually taught that God’s existence IS His essence. Everything that God is is summed up in the simple fact THAT He is. Let that sink in for a minute. It will bring fresh meaning and power to God’s preferred name for Himself — I AM.
God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”Exodus 3:14 (CSB)
Hang with me here because I promise I am about to get practical! I just had to set the stage for the thoughts I was thinking as I read the following verse:
Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth.I John 3:18 (CSB)
When you consider that God is pure act with no potency, that means His love is always and fully in action. Can we even visualize such a love? As humans, we can say that we love (when maybe we don’t). We can intend to love, plan to love, put off our love, even forget to love. In other words, we have the “potential” to love but it’s not always put into action, is it? But God doesn’t love like that. In the very next chapter of this same letter, John tells us that God IS love!
And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.I John 4:16 (CSB)
He is always performing the act of love because He IS love! His essence is His existence, remember. Let that settle deep inside you today. Is it not the most comforting truth to meditate on? Seriously, close your eyes and take a deep breath as you think on that for a moment. You are loved! Not just off and on, or here and there. You are loved more vigilantly, more enthusiastically, more actively than you ever imagined!
And when we know and believe and live in that love, God lives in us. And that means the potential to love like He does lives in us — not just with words, but in action and in truth. So stop hiding your potential and go put some of that love into action today. Drawing on the eternal springs of God’s love means we’ll never reach our “full potential”. But in this case, that’s ok. Our love will never wither away because there will always be new heights to hit and depths to dredge in God’s action-packed, boundless love.
Love divine, all loves excelling, Joh of heav’n, to earth come down, Fix in us Thy humble dwelling, All Thy faithful mercies crown. Jesus, Thou art all compassion, Pure, unbounded love Thou art. Visit us with Thy salvation; Enter ev’ry trembling heart. (Charles Wesley)