Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sometimes love ...

It's been a while since I posted here. Lots of reasons for that -- busy-ness of new job and new home is by far the biggest one.

That said, I have certainly not stopped pondering. One of the recurring thoughts for me lately is the nature of love. I resurrected a song from many years ago by Chris Rice that includes the line, "Sometimes love has to drive a nail into its own hand" -- which is provocative on a number of levels. Along with that particular ponder, I've been continuing to chew on a read from last spring, N.T. Wright's excellent book, The Day The Revolution Began in which this amazing theologian tries to get a grip on what actually happened when Jesus died. Wright's conclusion (you should really read the book if you haven't) is that self-giving love is really about the only thing that has the power to change the world, and that's why Jesus' death does effect such a change.

So then I started thinking, why does he have to say "self-giving love"? Isn't love by its very nature self-giving?

Of course, we use the word love quite liberally and loosely, so it's hard to say that everyone would agree love is by nature "self-giving." If you say "I love blueberries," for example, you're hardly saying you will give yourself to blueberries, except by the most stretched definition. If you say, "I love the farm where I grew up," you might be making more of a commitment to give yourself, but it's not required by the statement of your love. You might just be saying you really enjoy the place.

If, however, you say, "I love you," all bets are off. Because in our cultural usages of the word "love," you might be saying, "I really enjoy you and feel a great sense of pleasure being in your company." That's a kind of self-indulgent, self-centered love. But very often what starts out like that, in pleasure, grows in depth and quality until you are really, actually willing to sacrifice -- to give up an amazing amount of time, money, energy, choice, and more, for the sake of your beloved. In its height and depth, this kind of love is a powerful engine for transformation, both in you and in the one you love. Because love changes things.

So what is the relationship between pleasurable desire and self-giving love? Many Christian traditions, teachers, and theologies would say these are completely different and separate. I'm not so sure, though. As I read the Bible, I think God's intention is that a pleasurable, desirous love should be at the heart of a staunch, committed love.

Is it too much to think that God is not only committed to acting for your best good -- a definition of love I used for many years -- but also that he has a real, pleasurable delight in you, a desire for you, a longing for more connection, more unity with you? We don't often picture God having that kind of desirous love. But it's biblical. Love throughout the Bible is one of those things that continually blurs lines. We think we have it all figured out, then we stumble on Song of Solomon. Then, when we integrate that lusty passion into our love-definition, we read Hosea. And now we're back to stalwart, staunch commitment again.

Yet the Bible unapologetically names "love" as the quality that most closely defines God. The closer we get to God's love, the more we are caught up in his passionate desire for us, his unyielding commitment to our good, the more we realize that all of our loves -- our love for peach ice cream to our love for our children -- is a broken, halfhearted, imitative kind of love that falls so far short of what it's modeled after.

And that's not something to beat ourselves up about, or to shame ourselves. Because we are broken people, and our love -- all our loves -- come out broken and partial, yet they still reflect the image of God like shards of a shattered mirror reflect the world.

Circling back a bit, is it possible for love not to be self-giving? How about this. Try an experiment, and maybe you've lived this experiment before. Give your heart completely to someone or something. Invest yourself. Then put yourself in circumstances where you are unable -- by distance or lack of contact or some other circumstance -- to give yourself to your beloved. I guarantee you this love, this "unrequited" love will become one of the most frustrating things you can imagine. If you have truly given your heart to the other, and you are suddenly unable to follow up your love with your self-sacrifice, you will find yourself frustrated and longing and heartsick at every turn. Guaranteed.

Because love by nature is self-giving. It reaches out to cross every boundary, to bridge every gulf. If he taught us nothing else, Jesus taught us that.