Love Is More than a Fuzzy Feeling
By Audrey Stallsmith
Christmas makes me sick. No, I don't mean I dislike it. I mean that I usually manage to avoid winter illnesses until after the holiday. But then, bam! As predictable as the post-yuletide sales is the cold or flu that hits me at the end of December or beginning of January. This year was no exception, and I greeted the dawn of 2010 with swollen tonsils and a sore throat.
I could blame that on the excess of sugar, whether literal or figurative, associated with the season. But I suspect it is actually the Christmas Eve gathering that does it. When you have close to thirty people--half of them children--crowded into one small house, the chances of somebody having a contagious virus are pretty high!
So it is, you might say, our family's love for each other that makes us all vulnerable to each other. But will we give up this assembling of ourselves together? No. I think we would all agree that the yearly gathering is worth whatever price we have to pay for it.
And, if the flu were the only distress ever caused us by our nearest and dearest, we would be getting off easy. But, as the ad points out, love (sometimes) hurts. All that closeness can allow for much stepping on toes and feelings as well.
Family love is not, of course, the only type of affection. C. S. Lewis lists three others: friendship, romantic love, and spiritual love. The fact that the last (agape) is frequently compared to the third (eros) tends to embarrass us. We find the metaphor somewhat sacrilegious, even blasphemous.
But, as spiritual love is such an intimate relationship, eros is about as close as we can come in comparison. Hence, scriptures like the Song of Solomon! Spiritual love is actually more intimate than eros, because people can and do indulge in erotic relationships with virtual strangers. So that these relationships go no further than bodily satisfaction, and fail to reach the spirit at all. Thus, there is no true intimacy involved.
Couples who are in love do, of course, touch each other much more deeply. But even a spouse can't understand you or live in you to the extent that God's spirit does. This is actually a good thing, because human relationships change like the seasons.
For instance, the initial freshness and variability of spring gives way to the more steady warmth and fruit-bearing of summer. Just as the ups and downs of two lovers' passionate getting-to-know-each-other relationship settle into the commitment of marriage and, perhaps, children. Although this actually proves the relationship is progressing, many find the change unsettling.
So, too often, love degenerates into a power struggle. A new wife, for example, may become alarmed when that spring-like honeymoon glow begins to wear off. Afraid that her husband's affection is declining, she can become demanding, jealous, and insecure. And may, in the process, actually drive him away from her. Or else he will use her insecurity to gain more control in the relationship than he should have.
The key to preserving our other loves is, strangely enough, deepening our relationship with God. If we are confident of His love, we won't become dependent on others to make us happy. Neediness is so unattractive that it frequently causes irritation, if not downright hostility, in those we smother with it. But such want is only natural since, as Keith Miller and Bruce Larson remind us in The Edge of Adventure, "We are meant for love and have an almost unlimited need."
Fortunately God understands the vacuum, the emptiness, in us, because He is the One Who put it there--and the only One who can fill it. As Elizabeth Rooney points out, "God doesn't want a Platonic friendship. He wants to become literally incarnate in each of us."
And God is love. As Don Francisco notes in his song "As It Was (So It Shall Be)," "It's love that gave us breath/ And it is love that gave us birth/ It's love that flung the stars/ And it is love that spins the earth." Once our emptiness is filled with His Spirit, instead of demanding love, we will be free to give from our surplus instead. Since we Christians are commanded to do that, and as some people simply aren't capable of loving us back, we are obviously going to have to quit requiring a return on our investment.
In fact, as Fulton Sheen points out, "Christ bids us to put love where we do not find it." This is, of course, much easier said than done. Some people just aren't lovable. (Though we often neglect to consider that they may have the same opinion of us!) But we are still required to do more than patronize them.
The Bible's famous chapter on love originally employed the word "charity" instead. It's not a word we are particularly fond of these days, as it implies the rich condescendingly tossing coins to peons they have quashed. In his poem "The Secret People" Chesterton writes of such "benefactors" that, "look at our labor and laughter/ As a tired man looks at flies/ And the load of their loveless pity/ Is worse than the ancient wrongs."
In Life Is Worth Living, Sheen contends that "Pity is an aristocratic virtue (it looks down)." And, although charity originally meant "goodwill toward or love of humanity," it is possible, as Chesterton points in his poem "The World State," "to love my fellow man and hate my next-door neighbor."
So our love has to be more than an amorphous benevolence that allows us to remain above and detached from those in need. Many see God as being like those despots, extending a condescending forgiveness, when "He made us like this to begin with." That, of course, is simply not true. But God had to prove that it wasn't by coming down here as one of us, rather than remaining forever out of our reach. "The loving man," Sheen writes in The Power of Love, "throws more than scraps of food to the needy. He throws even himself."
One of my pastor's relatives assembled a medical team and accompanied them to Haiti after the recent earthquake. While there, he contracted tropical diseases that eventually landed him in a coma. Fortunately, he does seem to be recovering now. But I think we can all agree that this man gave much more than those benefactors did who just sent money.
Love, to be believed, must be aimed at certain people in particular rather than humanity in general. And it must especially be directed towards the unlikeable ones. Christ had His share of those even among his disciples, let alone with the clamoring needy. In Adventures in Insight, Harold Kohn reminds us that "We have been loved by God when God has found us unlikeable."
So we need to extend that favor to others. Fortunately, as Sheen contends in Life is Worth Living, "Liking is in the emotion; loving is in the will. Liking is not subject completely to our control, but love can be commanded. Liking is a kind of reaction like a hiccough; loving is a decision or a resolution."
"Love one another," Jesus told his disciples, "as I have loved you." Those same disciples fell asleep on Jesus during his time of greatest anguish. Not to mention that they took to their heels as soon as danger threatened. And, although Peter and John came creeping back later, Peter only did so long enough to swear up and down that he didn't even know his Master. It's a good thing Jesus didn't say, "Love each other as you have loved Me." But He died for those fickle disciples anyway.
So He meant that we should continue to serve with our actions those who disappoint or even betray us. Charity also meant "leniency in judging others." And knowing what God has had to endure from us should allow us to understand and forgive others.
Although our love for God will--we hope--deepen as the relationship progresses, God Himself does not change. He has always, and will always, love us--no matter what.
In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes, ‘If God is love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked us and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense." Others may choose to stop extending their affection to us, or we to them. But it is impossible for God to stop loving His children.
Notice I say "choose to stop extending affection," as if it were a decision, because it is! Too often we forsake people to punish them, because they won't do what we want them to do.
But, as Helmut Thielicke cautions in Life Can Begin Again, "I must care about the other person himself, and stop thinking of myself as the only end which he must serve." Or, as Richard Foster advises in Celebration of Discipline, "We must come to the place in our lives where we lay down the everlasting burden of needing to manage others."
Once we feel secure in God's love, we won't need to employ emotional blackmail to make other people prove their affection for us. As God didn't force us to love Him, we will allow them to make their own decisions. And, if they choose not to love us back, we will accept that--without withdrawing our own affection.
In Life is Worth Living Sheen warns, "When love is breathed out to another human heart, it is never meant to be taken back. If it is taken back, it suffocates and poisons us." If we do manage to stop loving, it probably means that what we loved was never the other person at all--only his/her affection for us. And, if we stop loving God because He doesn't give us what we want, we never really loved Him either.