As a Christian, I find it very difficult to say anything about love that is both true to experience and true to my religious convictions. The Bible seems to indicate that God is love and that we are identified as part of God's people by being loving. The entire law boils down to loving God and loving our fellow man. At the same time we seem to only experience love in a glimpse here and there and even then, it seems to be enveloped by the rest of life – there, but indistinguishable from everything else. Or, on our worst days, it seems to have only been a cruel illusion that was never true at all.
The worst way to talk about love is when we reduce the word to the idea of “niceness.” Loving our neighbor then means that we are nice to people even when they are mean to us. The result of this is usually that we begrudgingly “take the high road” and subsequently feel self-righteous about it. No one actually says that this is what love is, but this is what often passes for “loving our neighbor.” In my experience, this kind of love makes me more of a dick and less like Jesus, and that makes me think it isn't love at all.
What does love look like? (If you just answered “Jesus” in your head, I'm going to smack you.) I have a couple stories that sound like love to me.
Once upon a time, a friend of mine broke up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend of what seemed like decades. Then, they both signed up for eHarmony and were matched with each other. And now they’re married with a couple of kids. I haven't seen them in years, so it’s entirely possible they now hate one another. But when I think of that story, I feel like love won.
Or, I think of the woman in my Dad's church who got remarried to her first husband after 25 years of separation. That is the most romantic story I know.
I can also tell you stories about how I've hurt the people I love and how they have hurt me too. Obviously, I know the difference between doing something hurtful to a person that I love and doing something loving toward them. But I don't know what being loving looks like outside of a relationship that includes being hurt and forgiven.
A couple years ago, I found myself walking wounded, struggling with inner turmoil. A part of it had to do with a difficult encounter with my parents; they’d dropped the ball on some stuff in life that was deeply important to me. I finally brought it up to them, and they realized then that they’d not held onto that ball very tightly at all. They apologized; they asked if there was anything they could do to make it up. But emotional scars aren’t exactly the sort of thing that can be patched up with a gift card to Banana Republic. I answered honestly; I told them I didn’t think so. Now, they weren’t trying to hurt me. I just got hurt. They couldn’t fix that fact, and neither could I.
“What now?” my Dad asked.
“I think this is where grace happens.” I said.
One of the things I can tell you about grace is that it’s something totally beyond what we’re able to offer on our own, even to people we think we love. Grace is God being sufficient in our weakness. It is a divine help that is sent to us when we need it. Or, to be more accurate, it is sent when someone else needs it from us.
The moments in my life that seemed the most like love had almost nothing to do with me or with my ability to love. They all seem like the story above: the unlikely overcoming of things that were going wrong. I'm obviously not talking about the vapid idea of “falling in love,” which is just total bullshit. I'm talking about an idea of love that could somehow be a connection with the love that God is, a love that requires his presence because it requires us to be weak and him to be strong.
Loving our neighbor can't just mean “be nice, even when they don't deserve it.” As I mentioned above, this is a surefire recipe for becoming a huge d-bag. Loving our neighbor has to mean that we don’t hide our weakness anymore. It means that we can be vulnerable with people who are different, even repulsive, to us.
Love can only be this way, this deep and radical vulnerability, when it is grounded in a faith that God’s strength really is motivated by love and really will be present in our weakness. This means that exactly at the moment when we assume love hasn’t happened – when we have exposed our weakness and actually been a dick - that God’s grace can happen and we can finally experience what we believe to be true, that God is love.
Lane Severson blogs at On Pop Theology and Out of Ur. He likes charismatic liturgy and listening to Kanye West or Jay Z with his wife and five children. Lane can be found at about.me/lseverson or on Twitter @_lxnx.
Image #1 via Pink Sherbet Photography
Image #2, Love is just a game II by carunderwater-x
Image #3, Grace by davespertine
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