“I love you,” the over-used, trivialized phrase goes. But do we mean it? What is love, really?
I was struck by this question, Tuesday, while on a long, crowded flight back to the normalcy of my life in Indiana, after a far-too-short stay in Alberta. I was visiting people I love, growing to love them even more, and hunting for some chink in bureaucracy that might facilitate my moving there. And even so, I was missing those I love in the Midwest, wishing the church I visited there were more like the one here. I was wondering where that place was to properly call ‘home.’ They say ‘home’ is where the heart is. Home is where you love. —which makes it even more difficult, since I also love many who live in the city I lived in for 35 years.
Is love a sort of favoritism? I love the town I grew up in, the town I left five years ago. I mean, if I had to pick on architecture, culture, and overall natural beauty, that one wins, hands down. It’s my favorite of the three, of the places I have lived or in which I am considering living. But if I had to pick for the number of people I favor, I’d be hard pressed to choose between any of the three cities—unless, that is, you recognize rankings of favoritism, and then it gets all irrational, since the city I truly like the least (though to be fair, I know it the least, too, even though I moseyed about, poking and exploring enough to get a good whiff of its personality and culture) is the one I currently most wish to call my ‘home.’
So then what sort of favoritism is this?
In town A (the one I lived in for 35 years), I have family and one of my very closest friends. In town B (current residence), I have very good friends and a church family. In town C, I have three people whom I wish to call family. Actually, whom I consider family, and who consider me likewise. Again, back to that thing, love.
Is it merely favoritism?
Consider. When we speak of love, we speak of dedicating one’s life to something or somebody. We speak of certain feelings. We speak of passion, of loyalty.
So is this a specialized sort of favoritism?
We all know love isn’t a feeling. Or maybe we should all know that. Love is a commitment. We’ve heard that. But is that all it is?
Consider person S who is committed to person G. G has a lot that S finds appealing. And when you ask S why she loves G, she tells you it’s because G has a nice house, fabulous wealth, unspeakable generosity, and a character that makes infidelity impossible. So S favors G. Understandably so. G is “the whole package,” as it were. So S commits herself to relationship with G. But is this love? Sure, it’s favoritism—of a sort. S would rather have G than be left to her own resources.
I don’t call that love. I call it gold-digging. And gold-diggers have commitment. So it seems to me that although love is a commitment, a commitment need not be love. Love is a kind of commitment, maybe.
I’ve been reading a lot of Rob Bell, lately. You should, too. Velvet Elvis is amazing, and I didn’t think it possible that he write something better. But Sex God is better. And it’s fresh on my mind, having been the bulk of my on-flight entertainment from Calgary to Minneapolis, and Minneapolis to Indy. Not that it took me that long to read it—rather, that it took that long and many staring-into-space meditative moments to absorb it. Bell reminds us that God calls us to sacrifice ourselves, to submit ourselves to each other. Bell argues (quite compellingly) that love (and sexuality) are images of the human-divine relationship. A relationship is not defined by commitment only, but by submission, by sacrifice.
That’s what it is to be a disciple. To submit oneself to others in the ekklesia. To give up my agenda in favor of theirs. Paul exhorts us to submit ourselves to each other. And that’s the paradox of love—that I give up myself to you, and you to me, and we persist in this as we strive to serve each other. That’s what Jesus was speaking about when replying to the Sons of Thunder when they asked if they could be honored above the rest by sitting at Jesus’ right and left hands in the kingdom. That’s what Jesus was communicating when he washed the disciples’ feet. Submission.
Mutual submission. Where it’s a race to the bottom in an unselfish, unconscious competition for least-ness. That’s what the Psalmist meant when he wrote about giving to those who cannot repay. What James pointed to when he said the rich should sit in the low places and the poor in the place of honor.
Love is commitment. But it’s a commitment to sacrifice. To give up what one wants, to risk losing it all, to dare to forfeit one’s own goals, aims, comforts, and proclivities for the beloved.
Love is favoritism. It’s favoring the beloved over oneself. Being willing—and acting on that willingness—to sacrifice one’s own agenda, one’s own preferences and dreams, for the other.
Risky, but love is reciprocal. If I love you, then I give up for you. And if you love me, you give up for me. And we both gain. The whole is greater than the parts. Love expands those who express it. When you love somebody, it isn’t static. Love grows, and love grows you.
I was, this past week (via the miracle called Facebook), found by one of my closest friends from my first attempt at college. We lost contact, through chaos and crisis, and hadn’t spoken for twenty years. And here she was, first asking to be my ‘friend,’ (no brainer) and then talking with me on the phone for a good long time. And she noted, “I love you deeply, have loved you my whole life, pretty much.” And I her. So what sort of thing is this love? Neither J nor I were capable of sacrificing anything for each other through those silent years of growth and turmoil.
Love is, I think, wanting the flourishing, the very best, for the beloved. And that’s deeper than the sacrifice. It’s the reason the lover sacrifices and submits. It’s the why that drives the actions of the lover. J and I were not in a place to sacrifice anything for each other. But when we spoke—simultaneously catching up on twenty years and relating as if not a moment had passed in our friendship—the character of the relationship was this ‘wanting the very best’ thing.
Love is made visible by sacrifice, by submission, but this activity of sacrifice / submission is motivated by a desire for the other’s best that is so powerful it favors the other over oneself. If the best for you is my being less, then I will rush to decrease.
I know that, had I the power and mental capacity at the time, I would have given anything to make J’s life better than it was back then. And I know she would have in return (had she had the power and mental capacity—but we were truly debilitated and confused little puppies back then).
Now consider. How does this love cash out when applied to a city? To a nation? To the world? If I love a city, do I wish the very best for it? How then, do I stay at home, ignoring open council meetings about how to stop crime in neighborhoods? How then, do I excuse tossing my litter (oh, it’s biodegradable!) out my car window? Or not picking up the trash I see weaving itself into the underbrush on my daily walk? How do we justify yelling at that rude driver? Or rolling our eyes at the guy with the chunk of cardboard smeared with black marker?
What if I realized that when Jesus said our actions to the ‘least’ were really actions to him (Mt. 25), he meant it? Do I love Jesus?
When I was a kid, I had a rotten temper. One time, I flew so out of control I beat the crap out of this girl on the school (Christian school, no less!) play ground. I was so violent, I tore her coat up to ribbons. I don’t hardly remember this event, but I recall the response by my mother was not to punish, but to cause me to think. She told me about the sheep and the goats. I was in third grade. And it struck me so profoundly that however I treated somebody, I was expressing my love for Jesus.
I suck at loving Jesus.
I mock people. I mock Jesus. I say unkind things about them. About Jesus. I slight them. Jesus. I favor my own comfort levels and dreams over theirs. Over Jesus’s.
And remember S and G? Why are we Christians, after all? What does it mean to us? Jesus spoke over and over and over again about the kingdom of heaven—coming here. The writer of Revelation wrote about God coming here, establishing a reign of love here. When did we get it into our heads that heaven is somewhere…..else? When did we get it into our heads that we don’t have to love, that we aren’t responsible for bringing heaven here?
Somewhere along the line, we moved from being lovers to being gold-diggers. I turn on the Big Hair network, and each time I hear the well-dressed orator (cuff links, Rolex, and fancy rings) tell us that if we want a nice home and fabulous wealth to commit to God.
Oh, and I’m not talking about here. I’m talking about a home in heaven (somewhere else) and eternal riches. Streets of gold. Piles of crowns.
A home where those you don’t agree with aren’t ever allowed to visit. They get a crappy home, and serves them right!
Commit to God, get the loot—don’t commit, get the boot.
A religion of gold-digging, appealing to lust, not love. Dostoevsky was right (in “The Grand Inquisitor,” from Brothers Karamazov). The church has fallen for the temptations Jesus resisted. We are no longer disciples, but dragons, hoarding wealth and counting blessings instead of submitting to others and sacrificing ourselves in love. Dragons who publically appeal to the dragonish lust for possessions, security, and prestige when we promise great reward for commitment.
It isn’t about reward—it isn’t about what we get. It’s about what we give.
Jesus said his disciples would be known by their love. If I am a Christian, then I am supposed to be emulating Christ—thus loving the world. Sacrificing myself if needed, in order for those in it to have what’s the very best for them. Here.
Bringing heaven here by being a ‘little Christ.’ Banishing the hell of isolation and emptiness.
What is love? A world-threatening, power-denying force that can obliterate the world as we know it.
Love can restore Eden. Consider: if I love somebody, then I treat their possessions well. The earth and all that is in it is God’s. If I love somebody, then I want them to succeed. Do I want God’s creating process to succeed? Then I should work towards preservation, towards beautification, towards improvement, not selfishly raping the planet for my own conveniences. Sacrifice. Do I love those who share this home with me? Then I should enable them to have not only what they need to survive, but what they need to flourish and improve. Maybe I don’t need those extra kilowats or that thirty gallons of water. Maybe recycling those water bottles is a good idea after all—even if inconvenient.
Love can restore Eden.
If I love God, I love you, since you are an image-bearer of God. I’m in love with somebody. Though it’s just not the same, I do like to look at pictures of her. And I take good care of them, especially since I can’t see her face-to-face right now. I make sure the conditions are right for that picture to remain what it’s supposed to be. We are all image-bearers of God. So why do we who claim to love God take such abysmally poor care of each other? Why do we create alienation and destruction—why do we create hell—when we are supposed to be characterized by sacrifice, by love, which would create heaven?
It turns out, then, that love is favoritism. Love is commitment. But love is vast, and not the easy way out, if one is concerned about self-preservation. Jesus said that whoever strove to preserve her life would lose it, but whoever chose to lose her life would gain it. It’s all about that crazy paradox, love. Sacrificing to the beloved makes the lover bigger, more human, more clearly what we were created to be: image-bearers of the God who is Love.
And thus, we are creators—like God is Creator. By loving, we are extending God’s creation, expanding the boundaries of heaven. Restoring Eden. Or, by not loving, we are destroying God’s creation, reinforcing the boundaries of hell. Banishing ourselves further from the place where we can walk with God in the cool of the day. Either way, we create reality—for better or for worse.
So what is love? Way too much for only one blog posting. What is love? The endless quest for sacrificing oneself to better the other. What is love? The way of Christ, the quest for least-ness, the rejection of gold-digging, even (especially!) in the name of religion.