Let’s just say it bluntly; we’re obsessed with love.
Every television show, magazine, and song seems to focus in some way on “love”. And rightfully so … it’s like we were created to experience love and to give it to others.
When we love, we are most happy. We’re most at peace. We have more hope. We experience joy.
Love truly does make the world go round (both literally – God is love – and metaphorically) …
But what is love?
I mean, with something so important and always around us, surely we know what it is right?
So … define love. (I’ll wait)
I have a feeling that love is one of those things that has been destroyed by familiarity. I can say (with passion) that I love;
my favourite writing tool,
Lahave Bakery’s magnificent Cheese & Herb bread,
an invisible God,
my “much-in-need-of-renovations” house,
television shows, and
my fantastic wife
If I can say, quite confidently, that I love each of these things, something tells me I do not necessarily know exactly what I am saying.
This word has a personality disorder – it doesn’t know who it is.
Now this is not one of those posts where I try to convince you that you are using a word incorrectly – you’re not. In our English language, we can say we love each of the things on this list.
But there is something limiting to our current word “love”. It can be used to describe a large variety of feelings, actions or states of being.
And that has “cheapened” the word.
It has become something we throw around loosely, without considering what it says about our relationships with things we actually cherish and truly “love”.
When we use the same word to describe our commitment to our spouse as we do to our favourite brand of soda, it doesn’t elevate our relationship to the soda, it cheapens how we are speaking of our relationship to our spouse. (A marriage becomes equated with something we consume … and this could begin to cause us to view relationships as things we consume as well, even if we don’t intend for this to happen).
The word has exhausted its usefulness in many ways because words are only as good as the meaning(s) we attach to them — and, in this case, “love” means far too much and therefore far too little.
So, where should we start?
Most people start with a feeling or an emotion. They know they love something because of how it makes them feel.
When I am with this person, I feel good.
When I drink this beverage, I feel refreshed in ways other drinks don’t make me feel.
When I watch this sport, I feel excited and energized.
And the list goes on …
This is how “love” has grown to mean so many things. We are thinking of our emotions/feelings as “buffered selves”. (A buffered self is a way of describing how we make decisions as individuals without considering how what we do affects those around us). That means, we are thinking of “me” and how “x” makes “me feel”.
It is all about me!
And that is a very poor place to start a discussion about love. Moving on …
The next thing people are often told is that love is an action — it’s a verb — which means it is something you do. (In actuality, it is both a verb (action) and a noun (thing), but we’ll leave that for now).
OK, now we may be getting somewhere. In this way of defining love, love can only exist when something loving is done; when we act in a certain way.
But how do we know know we are acting in a way that is loving? What does love in action look like?
Read any book about “love languages” and you’ll get the basic answer — different people have different “languages” (e.g. acts of service, gift-giving, being complimentary) that make them feel loved. I may think buying a gift for my wife is showing love, but she might prefer I simply clean the kitchen after supper. And so she thinks my gift is simply a way to avoid doing the things she really wants. This is the reason for many marital issues as well as parent/child relationships and … well … any relationship really.
People do not always receive the action the same way it is intended when done/given.
Unfortunately, this gets us back to the feeling/emotion we were talking about earlier. We often “know” an action is loving because how it makes us feel. We do something for someone else to show them love and they receive it as something else much less amazing because it doesn’t make them feel the emotion they call love. (And our actions are often an attempt to make them feel just such an emotion).
Love, in the English language is just too tied to our emotions.
Read the definitions of love found in the Oxford Dictionary (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/love) and you’ll quickly notice they all remain at the emotional level – even the action is an expression of a feeling.
None of these things come close to describing what the bible means when it says “God is love”!
It’s very difficult to see how this modern English word bears any resemblance to the triune, self-giving love of God and what the early Christians called “agape”.
So, what does a Christian mean when we talk about love?
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” – 1 John 3:16
“My commandment is this – to love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends.” – John 15:12-13
“But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven” – Matthew 5:44-45
While you will never find this in any English dictionary, I would like to suggest a different definition for what Christians mean when they talk about love (Don’t get all excited, it’s not likely to be revolutionary as you may have guessed by reading the passages above).
When we speak of God being love, the key word I would like to focus on is “self-giving”.
Love is a commitment to act in a way that seeks the good of “the other”. Put more plainly; love is determining to only act in ways that result in someone else’s benefit.
And before anyone protests about needing to protect yourself, while this may be necessary in situations where the “mutuality” of a relationship has broken down (the relationship is one-sided), the Christian view of love destroys boundaries rather than erects them.
Christian love is the loss of self for the sake of the other.
True love can move us into need.
Arthur McGill puts it this way;
“The love which is proclaimed in many churches … carefully disregards the outcome of love. These churches speak of love helping others, but they ignore what helping others does to the person who loves. They ignore the fact that love is self-expenditure, a real expending, a real losing, a real deterioration of the self … they never go on to add ‘If you do this, you too will be driven into need.’ By not stating the outcome of love they give the childish impression that Christian love is some kind of cornucopia where we can meet everyone’s needs and problems and still have everything we need for ourselves! … Active love occurs within the fellowship of neediness … Too often we hear the lie that to love is to help others without this help having any effect upon ourselves.”
Christian love is always communal and self-giving. That is the model we find in the incarnation.
Jesus, who was fully God, made the decision to take on human flesh and mortality. He knew what the decision would mean, but he came anyway. He was willing to sacrifice his own self for our redemption. He took on all the limitations of a human body and set aside his “God-ness” to become a weak, helpless baby — the most vulnerable possible state.
This is what we speak of when we talk about love.
And this is how we are told to act as well — to love one another as Jesus has loved us.
Seriously? That’s what love is? Being willing to sacrifice our own needs for those of others?
It may sound impossible — and in many ways it is, but that brings us back to hope (see earlier posts).
We will not succeed at loving perfectly.
Our selfish interests will rear their heads.
Our “fright or flight” instincts will kick in and cause us to recoil into self-protection.
But Christian love is a love that refuses to lay down and let “nature” take its course. It’s making a decision to act in a way that sees other people as precious creations of immense value and then making the choice to treat them with the worth their creator sees in them.
This is not some fuzzy, everyone-should-be-able-to-do-as-they-feel kind of love that is tied to our emotions. It is a commitment to working for the good of others; to help them become the best versions of themselves; to become more like our Christ!
This means even people beyond the boundaries of our “tribe”.
This means even our enemies.
How to do this is hard, complicated work, but it is what we are created for. As N.T. Wright says in “Surprised by Hope”;
“Love is not our duty; it is our destiny. It is the language Jesus spoke, and we are called to speak it so that we can converse with him. It is the food they eat in God’s new world, and we must acquire the taste for it here and now. It is the music God has written for all his creatures to sing, and we are called to learn it and practice it now so as to be ready when the conductor brings down his baton. It is the resurrection life, and the resurrected Jesus calls us to begin living it with him and for him right now. Love is at the very heart of the surprise of hope: people who truly hope as the resurrection encourages us to hope will be people enabled to love in a new way. Conversely, people who are living by this rule of love will be people who are learning more deeply how to hope.”
We are invited to love the people around us because love is from God. Everyone who loves shows themselves to be a Child of God and obviously knows what God is like because God is love!
My hope is that I will see more of this “family” DNA in my life with each day.
I have peace knowing I will fail, fall and screw up … and that is OK because I am secure in my Father’s (God’s) love.
And this brings me Joy because I was made by love and for love.
Come Lord Jesus!