The Problem with Love
The final word I wish to speak about is unquestionably the most universally celebrated. We write countless novels, paint pictures, sing endless songs about it. Love. It is, in a sense, the motivating aspect of the previous four words we’ve discussed. When rightly pursued, a cry for justice, a word of truth, an act of faith, and an expression of happiness are all things done in love. But what what do we mean when we say this word, “love”? If I asked 50 people what love is, I would likely get 50 different answers. I’d probably hear some describe it like a complex version of emotion, others would liken it more to an action, some might have very specific stipulations, while other may be completely liberal with their definition, and still others might be skeptical that it’s anything more than a chemical reaction. So, instead of revamping my grouping system from the first to essays and giving you 50 different goofily-named groups to remember, I'll simply begin by taking a look at what the current dialogue of our culture is saying about how we define love.
Love vs Infatuation
Let’s begin by looking at the stories being told in our day. What are some of the themes that appear throughout our media? If we look at the lowest hanging fruit of movies and television, we’re likely to see love portrayed as purely emotional. Like some instantaneous, primal reaction, love is painted as this inescapable state that suddenly befalls an unsuspecting victim—and any attempt to fight it is seen as both unnatural and self deprecating. Love just “happens” and there’s nothing that can or should stand in between the one stricken and the object of their desire.
I’m sure you can feel my eyes rolling through your screen, but it’s not simply because I think this is a spectacularly shallow and selfish perspective on love; I don’t think they even got the word right. No, the thing all these movies, dramas, and sitcoms are describing is not love. What they are describing is infatuation.
Call it “falling head over heels” or “love at first sight,” but this intense desirous reaction to someone is actually more about oneself than it is about the other person. It’s a temporal state of “I want that,” and if it becomes the basis on which you form a relationship, it will leave you both reeling when that feeling dissipates. Infatuation has no chance of sustaining through the rigors of sacrifice and deep dedication that comes with loving someone.
Where infatuation finds its root in emotion, love is a matter of will. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t an emotional component to love. Emotions are a excellent motivator of loving actions, but emotions are by no means required. In fact, I’d argue that one is, in a sense, acting even more loving when they chose to love even in the absence of emotion.
However, selflessness isn’t sexy and commitment is boring, so our tv screens are filled with sensuality that’s marketed as “love.” They paint a picture of love as being this effortless thrill ride that you just both sit back and enjoy—the preverbal happily ever after—like marriage is some kind of finish line that you both reach and from there on out your relationship is in some sort of suspended state of marital bliss that never requires maintenance or effort. So, when the emotional aspect wares off and the relationship suddenly feels more like work than fun, then you assume you must have just “fallen out of love,” like it’s some unfortunate event you had no control over. And once this state befalls an individual, the perceived next logical step must be to find someone else who will bring back that thrill again.
Can we all agree that love goes much deeper and far beyond the short reach of emotion? Good, because I’m not really interested in talking about romance in this essay. Rather, I’d like to speak about love in how it pertains to our position towards all others—not just those we are sexually attracted to.
C.S. Lewis has defined loving someone as “a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” I feel like this is a pretty solid description of what the majority of us think of when we think of love. So, if there is in large part an agreement on what loving someone is, then why do we see such disagreement when it comes to enacting this love? Throughout the social and political realms, we see groups with distinctly different ideologies passionately warring over what (hopefully) would be the most loving action to take in a particular scenario. Yes, there are definitely those who couldn’t care less about love when weighing it against their own personal gain, but to those who truly have noble intentions, why is there such discord when all of you are wishing for that persons “ultimate good?" I don’t think the problem necessarily lies with how we define “love” but rather how we define “good.”
Here is where we see the roads diverge. What is good for a particular person? I assume all would agree that that person needs love, but how do we go about loving them? What action would do the most good?
Today’s culture would argue that an individual’s freedom to act as they please is the ultimate good. “Let them be. Live and let live,” they say—and to suggest another way is decried as ignorant and oppressive. However, this brings us to the same argument that has come up in previous essays. I know I sound like a broken record by now, but to suggest that all ways of living are valid and shouldn’t be criticized, is itself a criticism, and an attempt at invalidating those that do not think all ways of living are valid. Plus, like the “moral relativists" of the Justice Essay, I really don’t think there are many, if any, adherents to this “everyone’s right in their own way” mentality. We all have established a set of morals that we live by, and that we either consciously or unconsciously impose on others.
Besides, you almost never see this “live and let live” mantra played out in real relationships. In fact, the closer you are to someone, and the more invested in their life you become, the more willing you are to “violate” their freedom to choose for themselves. If you see a friend or family member making a decision that seems potentially harmful, you would rather offer your advice at the risk of offending them, than stay silent and risk their suffering. When you think about it, to “live and let live” is actually an attempt at avoiding relationship—essentially saying, “I don’t care enough about that person to invest in their situation, even if I see them heading toward destruction.”
So, if we all have morals by which we offer suggestion and correction in an attempt to love someone, who’s to say we are actually point them toward that “ultimate good,” rather than simply offering our own opinion? Here’s where that notion of a Moral Authority comes back to make people uncomfortable again. I’m telling you, get used to this whole faith thing. It’s the only way a person can act with any confidence outside of their own dim volition. "Good” cannot be left to the individual to define, because there would undoubtedly be as many contradictions as there are individuals. There must be definite parameters to deliniate what is indeed “good,” otherwise the concept would carry no weight and pursuing it would be pointless.
Love in Christianity
It’s this "defining good” part that frustrates so many people when it comes to Christianity. They don’t see it as a belief predicated on love, but rather a religion of do’s and don’t’s. They see Christians as the proverbial moral police who can’t wait to tell you what you’re doing wrong. And in many ways, that’s understandable, because oftentimes that is the experience. For some of you, when you hear the word evangelism, you cringe. It might conjure up images of red-faced, megaphone wielding, fire and brimstone slinging, street corner insult-preachers. You know the kind. From their soapbox doubling as an ivory tower, they dowse the unclean masses with their get-on-my-level-or-get-out-of-my-face brand of dogma.
But before you go labeling that sort of thing as “Christian,” let’s take a look what The Bible says about goodness and love. And let’s see if it sounds like anything you’ve heard coming from one of those megaphones before.
Before we dive in, I want to preface things a bit. When it comes to reading The Bible, everything must be put in context. Eugene Peterson calls this context the “meta-narrative.” It's the larger story that every syllable in the sixty-six books comprising this great anthology speak to. To quote Peterson, “it takes the whole Bible to ready any part of The Bible.” Yes, there are still many passages in The Bible that I wrestle with, and some I simply don’t understand, but every passage, especially those that are difficult to swallow, needs to be viewed in context of this meta-narrative. What is that meta-narrative you might ask? Well it goes something like this:
God created the universe and everything in it out of his goodness and power. From nothingness, he made all that exists, including mankind. He shared an intimacy with his creation and even says he made humans “in his own image.” However, those humans rebelled against God and severed that intimacy they shared by choosing to disobey Him. From that point on, the world was cast into brokenness, corruption, death, and decay, and no effort of mankind could restore the broken relationship. However, God showed his great love for humankind by sending his Son, Jesus, to become a man on Earth and live the perfect life each of us were meant to live. Jesus would then die as a sacrifice for the past, present, and future sins of all of mankind. Jesus then rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven and now sits at the right hand of God. In order to receive the pardoning of sin, and ultimately restore their relationship with God, a person must simply confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that He rose from the dead. Eventually, Jesus will return to earth and judge both the living and the dead. To those that reject His Son, God will eternally cut off from His provision, and they will exist in the agony of separation from Him forever. But to those that have received Jesus as their Lord and Savior, God will restore the perfect relationship between Himself and His creation, where they will live in blissful community for all eternity.
THAT is the message of Christianity. Funny how when you look at it, you notice how little it has to do with your moral behavior, and how it all has to do with Jesus. So, why do so many Christians focus on the behavioral part instead of Jesus?
I say, we should blame the parents. I know, how millennial of me isn’t it? But seriously, what is usually a child’s first experience with Christianity? Sunday morning church, right? And what’s the number one rule for little children at church? They must sit still, be quiet, and not embarrass their parents in front of some of the more prominent members of the community. So, when that pew seat starts getting a little uncomfortable and the preachers voice has about as much intonation as an air conditioner, little Jimmy starts to squirm and murmur. Quickly, his protest is met with a threat—and that threat is often the very gates of Hell. It is on this threat that Jimmy will build his view of reality—a reality, as he is told, that little boys and girls who behave go to Heaven, and the ones that don’t, are destined for eternal torment. Enough to scare any kid straight, am I right?
Let’s flash forward a decade or so. Jimmy is now a teenager, and depending on how his upbringing has gone, that threat of Hell Jimmy heard as a kid has affected him in one of two ways.
On one hand, Jimmy may have decided to rebel against the threat. Growing up in a household built on do’s, don’ts, and because-I-said-so’s, he’s decided to buck the system altogether. He thinks if God is anything like his parents, he’d rather just go it alone. Jimmy figures if he can’t live up to his parents’ lofty standards, what hope does he have in living up to God’s?
On the other hand, Jimmy may have decided to internalize his parents’ threat. Now, everything he does is an attempt to be that "good little boy" that goes to Heaven. Anything short of perfection is simply unacceptable in Jimmy’s eyes. When he falls short, he is devastated, and vows that more effort is simply required in order to avoid faltering the next time. If he comes to find any stretch of success in his behavior, he holds it over those he sees as merely “less disciplined” than he. Jimmy thinks, “If only these people knew how dirty and weak-willed they are. They need a good old fashioned threat to help wake them up. Now, where’s my megaphone?”
Now, what if Jimmy’s first lesson he learned all those year’s ago, as he sat squirming on the hard wood of an old church pew, wasn’t about the threat of Hell, but about the Love of Jesus? What if he was told, even before he got to church on Sunday, that there was this man named Jesus who knew that we all did bad things, and misbehaved, and didn’t listen to our parents from time to time, but He loved us anyway? In fact, He loved us so much that He decided to be punished in our place, even though He didn’t do anything wrong.
Then, as Jimmy grows up, the magnitude of this love he is continually hearing about begins to grow along with him. Jimmy's actions are now based on appreciation rather than obligation, and when he does mess up, he knows he is still loved in spite of his mistakes. And when Jimmy sees other that are struggling, or just don’t seem to care, he thinks, “If only these people knew the power Jesus’ love, like I do. They need to experience this love. Now, how can I help them?”
Herein lies the difference between what many people perceive Christianity to be, and what the Christian message actually says. The Scriptures, as they often do, perfectly sum up this difference. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:18-20)
What About Hell?
So, now that we understand that love is the theme of the Gospel message, what to we do about this notion of Hell? For most people, the message of the Gospel sounds pretty great until this whole “Hell” concept comes up. “How can a loving God send people to Hell?” is the objection I hear the most. And in response, in some ways, I can only say that I don’t know. However, I will submit to you an explanation by C.S. Lewis that may help shed some light on the conundrum:
“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can't. If a thing is free to be good it's also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they've got to be free. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (...) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will -that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying.”
We have all chosen to rebel and side with evil, and if a just and holy God is to abolish this evil that we've invited into the world, then He must do away with it once and for all—and with it will go anyone and anything that continues to side with it. There must be a line in the sand to delineate which side we stand on. That line is perfection—of which we all fall on the wrong side of. And God would be perfectly justified to sentence us all to eternal punishment, because frankly, He is God and He has set the standard. The fault lies with us.
But as the Gospel tells us, God has chosen to give us redemption. And it wasn’t by means of some magic snap of His fingers saying “Tah-dah! All your sins are forgiven!” No, it was costly act—a brutally, heart-wrenching act—that gave us another chance; that saved us from the eternal torment of the Hell we had chosen. Only by the death of God’s only son do we have the hope of a restored righteousness and an eternal relationship with our Father. Yes, Hell is a ghastly reality, but it’s a reality that God has gone to every length to allow us the opportunity to avoid. As a pastor of mine used to put it, “Yes, a person can go to Hell, but Jesus says to that person, ‘You’re going to have to walk all the way around my dead body.’”
A Transforming Love
Knowing a love like that, you can see why Christians are obsessed with this Jesus person, and you can see the dire importance of telling others about him. But, we must speak from a place of gratitude, knowing our own brokenness, and point to the loving redemption of Jesus Christ. Yes, obedience is vastly important. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) However, obedience is a product of our salvation, not a condition for it. As Romans 8:5 says, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (emphasis added)
I cannot think of a more loving act than to point someone towards the very thing that will full restore their brokenness and give them life everlasting; give them a wellspring of love and relationship that will not run dry. This is the stuff the soul yearns for, what it was built for. As you come to follow Jesus, oftentimes you think you came to the decision using your head, but you’ll soon find out that all along you were lead by your heart. I’ve tried to be thoughtful and logical in my presentation of these 5 essays, and I hope you've found some use of them. But I’ll tell you right now, once you’ve tasted the electrifying love of Jesus Christ—I mean, the indescribably blissful embrace of the God of All Creation—all those “issues” you once had with Christianity that seemed insurmountable, will immediately fade way when they are overwhelmed by the infinite grander of the Love you now experience.
We are creatures that love to search for answers, because answers allow us the illusion of control. However, the biggest answer—the answer to every question we could ever possibly ask—stands right in front of us. It’s not found in some research journal, or on top of some mountain top in the Himalayas. It’s not something we find within ourselves. No, the biggest answer is on display for everyone to see. And it’s not pretty. In fact, it’s downright ugly. It comes in the form of a broken, disfigured man hanging on a cross like a criminal. A crown of thorns on his head and a spear wound in his side, he is the answer to our biggest question: “Am I loved? And if so, how much?” With nails in his hands and outstretched arms The God of All Creations says, “This much.”
"Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."