The world offers many different expressions of love: “I love mint chocolate chip ice cream!” (Actually, that’s true.) “I love your new car!” “I love shopping!” Love can be humorous, as when Miss Piggy floats across a field of flowers, heart beating wildly, feeling weak in the knees, stomach all a-flutter, shrieking, “Ohhhhhh, Kermie!”
Worldly love can come with no expectations or commitments: “I used to love you when you were thin and had more hair!” or, “Well, I could have loved you, but your ex-wife got all your money, and, well, I have needs!” or, “You didn’t tell me I had to love your kids too!”
That kind of love can be found merely by seeking our own desires, which we believe no one has a right to deny us, and it’s just as rewarding to love things as people. But, unfortunately, that mentality devours childhood innocence, destroys relationships, shrugs off compassion, and muddies the pure waters of selfless love. As long as we seek love from the things of this world, we will always come up lost and empty for our efforts.
How do so many of us get it so wrong so often? Perhaps it’s because our meager understanding of love is based on our personal, human experiences. I often ask myself, “Self, what is your problem? Why do you struggle so much? Why can’t you let go of your past? Why is it so difficult for you to trust God, to accept his love and your inherent worth?” Perhaps my ego has been too big, my fear too overwhelming, and my God too small.
But by the grace of God, I am gradually seeing my failure to truly love and my fear of accepting love. God does not fit neatly into the image I created. He refuses to patronize me when I cry out, “Lord, Lord!” It’s as though he is saying, “Your cries are muted by your deafening indifference, Linda. Your faith is lukewarm, and, need I remind you, how I hate lukewarm?!” (Revelation 3:16)
Then, as so often happens, Richard Rohr puts it into perspective for me, “It is in doing it wrong, being rejected, and experiencing pain that we are led to total reliance upon God….God has let me do just about everything wrong, so I could fully experience how God can do everything so utterly right….If we expect or need things (including ourselves) to be perfect or even “to our liking,” we have created a certain plan for a miserable life.”
Phillip Newell tells us, “Within us – as a sheer gift of God – is the capacity to bring forth what has never been before, including what has never been imagined before. Deep within us are holy, natural longings for oneness….We may live in tragic exile from those longings, or we may have spent a whole lifetime not knowing how to truly satisfy them, but they are there at the heart of our being, waiting to be born afresh….When we love, we bring the very essence of our being into relationship with the essence of the other.” (The Rebirthing of God, p. x, xvi)
There are rare moments in my life when I experience a great and mysterious intensity. Perhaps that is the longing Newell speaks of. I recall someone else calling it those thin places where we feel God’s presence most profoundly. I can’t describe the emotions except that they are overwhelming, and somehow I know God is working in this messy heart of mine.
When I start to judge others, I sense God’s tug on my heart to “see” them as he sees them; to look beyond their actions to their hearts where He resides. The peace that it brings to my own heart is beyond words!
1 Corinthians 13:4-8 tells us, “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
There are some attributes of love I would like to focus on: “Love suffers long” and “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”.
Love suffers long
Okay. We’re already in trouble. We don’t want to suffer; we want the antidote! We want something to fix the problem. As human beings – even Christians – we really hate to suffer. Actually, many Christians believe God should protect them from suffering.
Scripture tells us of God’s deep longing for those who turn away from him. This is not a God who cannot wait to punish us for our sinfulness. Instead, he longs to lavish us with his love despite our sinfulness. Just as Jesus’ suffering and dying brought many sinners to salvation, and the apostles’ suffering and martyrdom brought others to God, our willingness to suffer well, whatever comes our way, is a witness to the power of God’s love in a broken world.
I have a friend whose marriage is terribly difficult. She has often threatened divorce. But God spoke to the depth of her heart that it was within her marriage that she would grow to be more like him. It’s easy to love a newborn baby, a tiny puppy, or the perfect mother you’ve been blessed with. But what about those imperfect people?
Do you find yourself glaring at that lump of a husband on your sofa – you know, the one who’s guzzling beer and belching show tunes – and wondering where you went wrong? Then there’s that snarky neighbor you secretly wish would fall off the face of the earth.
There always seems to be someone anxious to make messes in our lives. Can’t we do something to make him or her pay? Don’t we have the right? The answer is a simple but emphatic “No!” God will handle that person, not us. Definitely not us.
Love bears all things; believes all things; hopes all things; endures all things.
When your wife comes home drunk…again, when your child is arrested on drug charges, when your cancer returns, when your aging parents make continual demands on you, who do you turn to? When you can’t lift your head off the pillow to face another day – how do you bear up, believe, hope, and endure all things? How do you go on when you cry out to God in despair but receive no answer?
You have to believe, truly believe, that the God of mercy loves you immeasurably. Nothing you suffer is lost to God’s watchful, loving care. No part of your life is without purpose. In the book of Genesis, God called Abraham to slay his beloved son Isaac. Could I have trusted God that much? No anonymous tipster in this story whispers, “Pssst, Abe! Just go along with it. He’ll stop you at the last minute. Trust me.” Nope, it didn’t happen that way, but Abraham completely trusted God.
We can find incredible stories of people who have suffered persecution and abject loss throughout history. Yet, countless people have survived the unthinkable by believing in God’s promises and trusting in his love. From the darkness of despair comes the dawn of grace.
When we can’t see God or hear him in the midst of our pain, we need to believe that his love for us is at the core of our being. “Blessed are those who suffer well and hope for things unseen, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 13:13). In suffering, we are comforted by God and, in turn, learn to comfort others.
What if Jesus’ story had been different? What if he had gone to the cross, kicking and screaming? He certainly had the right. He was being persecuted relentlessly. He had done nothing but love his Father and humankind during his life, and for that flawless behavior, he was crucified. He could have retaliated with an army of angels, but he didn’t. Instead, he was stripped, spat upon, mocked, and killed. He could have cursed his enemies to Hell. Instead, he prayed for them.
The world repaid Jesus’ love with hatred in the form of a cross. But the nails didn’t hold him there; love held him there. He chose to forgive in his final act of mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus’ final hours speak volumes about my rejection of atonement theology. So many believe that Jesus had to die to atone for our sins. I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. I believe too many of us subscribe to the teaching that God’s anger over our sins required Jesus’ death. Doesn’t that create an image of a God bent on punishment who can’t wait for us to screw up? I keep imagining that Wack-A-Mole game. No thanks.
GOD IS LOVE…PERIOD. And because we were created in his image and loved beyond measure, we must also be that love to others. Jesus’ last command to us was to love. When did he tell us to hate, judge, and flip off that jerky neighbor? The last words out of Jesus’ mouth were to forgive, not to condemn.
My mother-in-law (God rest her beautiful soul) could offer you a perfect example of why God calls us to love. She bore the pain of losing a younger sister to cancer and the death of a beloved son. She struggled through a difficult marriage and other challenging relationships. And then I came along.
Forty-three years ago, I stood before her in a short skirt, a long wig, a seven-year-old daughter by my side, and a heathen attitude in my heart. I was self-centered and demanding. I resented the occasions when my husband would stop to see her after work. I was jealous.
For those and other reasons, she could have done what everyone else in my life had done – she could have rejected me or struck out at me. I would have understood that reaction; I was accustomed to it. But instead, she chose to love me despite my attitude. Soon I could feel myself being drawn to her. She had something I wanted, and I didn’t even know what it was. But after being in her company and experiencing her selfless love for others – and for me – I was hooked. That was the beginning of my long (still ongoing) journey of change.
If I hadn’t experienced her love first-hand, I would most likely still be self-absorbed and wearing those dreaded short skirts (probably not a good idea for a sixty-eight-year-old grandmother!). I can imagine her reunion with God, “Come on, give us a hug, Catherine! Thank you for so brilliantly dealing with that mess of a daughter-in-law of yours! Well done, my good and faithful servant…well done!” (Matthew 25:23)
The greatest of these is love.
Scripture tells us the value that God places on love: “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). love is a verb. It’s an action word. We can’t just give lip service to God’s commandment to love one another. If the action doesn’t match the words, it’s a lie. Jesus went beyond telling us that he loved us; he showed us and expects us to do the same.
How about 1 John 4:20 for a wake-up call? “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” Of course, we all know someone like that, but could we be accused of the same shortcoming?
God never promised us that his way would be easy. The Bible depicts a love unlike the worldly version: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friend” (John 15:13). How many people would you consider dying for? Hopefully, your children, your spouse, possibly other relatives (except crazy Uncle Bill), and most likely your dearest friends. Those friends would have to be your dearest ones, though! Fair-weather friends wouldn’t make the cut. How about an enemy? How about that crotchety neighbor you’ve had to contend with for years? How about that lying sneak of a co-worker who managed to get himself promoted to a job that was rightfully yours?
Although God’s love is freely given, it longs for a response. If fear holds us back, it masks who we really are. Fear clings to the old self, refuses to relinquish control, and attempts to tie the hands of the Holy Spirit.
And lest we forget, God’s sacrificial love infuses an inherent dignity in everyone! We, as Christians, have no monopoly on God. We don’t own him, and we don’t have exclusive rights to him. This isn’t a private club. We are to be instruments of his love or our response, and our faith is inadequate at best and sinful at worst.
I would like to end with a quote from a sermon on Job once given by Archibald MacLeish. He said, “Man depends on God for all things; God depends on man for one. Only man can prove that man loves God.”
So…what are you waiting for?