When we talk about love, we tend to imagine something warm and accepting, something with big smiles and open arms, like a mother or a grandmother or Big Bird with Snuffleupagus.
People don’t usually look at a football coach and think, ‘man, that guy loves me,’ even though he probably wants nothing more than to see his players mature and succeed. You would expect your mother to keep loving you even if you drop an easy catch in the end zone with the clock running out. The coach? Maybe not.
We sense that love should come without limits or conditions. It should be open-hearted, open-handed and open-minded.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
But if love always trusts, hopes and perseveres, keeping no record of wrongs, what do we do with, say, an intervention? When parents entrap their addicted children into a scenario where they are forced make changes or suffer the relational consequences, can we say that those parents are putting conditions on their love?
Most people would agree that when a loved one is moving in a direction that could bring them harm or even death, it would be unloving not to act. Love compels us to sit that person down and have the hard conversation.
Love without borders is a slippery slope, leading to things like enabling, spoiling or endangerment. But how do we manage these borders without becoming like that football coach, making our relationships based more in some kind of give-and-take, performance-oriented thing, rather than pure, open-hearted benevolence?
Christianity only complicates the issue. Christians are commanded to love God. We are commanded to love our brothers. We are commanded to love our enemies.
Sadly, the first thing God ever clearly said to me was: You don’t love me.
I had a hard time with that. Of course I loved God. I sang worship songs every week of my life. But he showed me that if I really loved him, I wouldn’t struggle so much to spend time with him or to stay faithful to him. It would be something that I wanted to do, not a sub-cultural obligation.
If you ask a random person on the street of any major city in America how they feel about Christians, do you think a majority of them would say that Christians seem more open-minded and loving, or more closed-minded and judgmental?
The negative stereotype actually makes Biblical sense. The Bible urges God’s people not to love the world or the things of the world. It calls them ‘set apart,’ a chosen people. It claims that these special people have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, no longer associated with the violent and lustful sinners of this world.
But . . . love them anyway?
I think sometimes we take Biblical ideals and redefine them to fit who we already are, as if conversion itself can somehow transform us completely without having to pick up our own crosses and let death do its sanctifying work.
We claim to be in God’s image and likeness, but feel comfortable acting nothing like him. We claim to have a peace that passes understanding, but continue to worry. We claim to have joy deep deep down in our hearts, which apparently drags the corners of our mouths down with it. We claim to love everyone, though we can’t seem to keep our pointer fingers in their holsters.
What is the solution to all this? Personally, I find Paul’s statement in Romans 5 very intriguing:
We glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Wait, Paul’s goal wasn’t just to get into heaven? It wasn’t some crown of glory? Apparently, Paul wanted nothing more than for God’s love to be poured out in his heart by the Holy Spirit. And he was eager to embrace suffering if that’s what it took to get him there.
Paul didn’t trust his own ability to love. And I agree with him. Trying to genuinely love an invisible spirit or a stranger or an enemy is sort of like trying to pick yourself off the ground by your own hair. Without an established relationship, love is really hard. One might even say impossible.
God, however, would look at his own creation with a natural sense of compassion, wanting to redeem it at any cost. This is what we hear in the Old Testament prophets. This is what we see in the life of Jesus. This is sentiment behind all the Lost and Found parables. This is the core of Christ’s message.
If God truly loves his Creation, and God lives inside his people, it would make sense that this love is available to anyone who is willing to set their own life aside for something greater.
Are we willing to admit our own lack of love? Are we willing to do whatever it takes for our natural Grinch hearts to expand, making enough room for, say, murderers, child molesters, Islamic terrorists and–gasp–even our new president?
I really hope so.