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!”
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!”
Love is depicted beautifully in these classic song lyrics, “How can you believe me when I say I love you when you know I’ve been a liar all my life?” Or how about this one? Come on sing along you know the words: “If you can’t be with the one you love, Honey, love the one you’re with.”
Today’s world tells us that love can be found merely by seeking our own desires, which no one has a right to deny us, and that it’s just as rewarding to love things as people. The if-it-feels-good mentality of worldly love 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 all our efforts. The lie will continue to perpetuate the madness.
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 does it seem like a daily battle to love others? Why can’t you let go of your past? Why is it so difficult for you to trust God, accept His love, and your inherent worth? Perhaps my ego has been too big, my fear too overwhelming, and my God too small.
But lately, by the grace of God, I am seeing my failure to truly love and my fear of accepting love in the light of a much bigger God; a God that does not fit neatly or easily into the image I have created. He refuses to patronize me when I cry out, “Lord, Lord!” It’s as though He is saying to me, “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, “So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Then, as so often happens, Richard Rohr puts it into perspective for me:
Our failures open our hearts of stone and move the rigid mind space toward understanding and patience. It is in doing it wrong, being rejected, and experiencing pain that we are lead 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….
This is why Christianity has as its central symbol of transformation a naked, bleeding man who is the picture of failing, losing, and dying . . . and who is really winning–and revealing the secret pattern to those who will join him there. Everyone wins because if there’s one thing we all have in common, if we’re honest, it’s our weakness and powerlessness in one–but usually many–areas of our lives. There’s a broken, wounded part inside each of us.
If we expect or need things (including ourselves) to be perfect or even “to our liking,” we have created a certain plan for a very unhappy life.
I have recently been reading about Celtic Spirituality. It ‘s fascinating! It was rejected as heresy by the Roman Church and was almost lost. (If you would like to learn more about it I highly recommend the writings of J. Phillip Newell, especially, “Listening for the Heartbeat of God” and “The Rebirthing of God”).
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. God in us adores God in the other” (The Rebirthing of God, p. x, xvi)
Recently, I have been experiencing a great and mysterious intensity. Perhaps that is the longing Newell speaks of. I recall someone else calling it those thin places when we feel God’s presence most profoundly. I can’t describe the emotions except that they are overwhelming. In these moments I know God is working in this messy heart of mine. That’s simply AWESOME!
When I start to make judgments about 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 brings to my own heart is beyond words!
Though I converted to Catholicism in the late 70’s there was so much missing for me for so long. I don’t feel I was nurtured in the faith, but rather, indoctrinated: memorize the prayers, miss Mass at your own peril, go to confession, and for Heaven’s sake never question the Church’s authority!
In graduate school I began to grow into a different faith, still Catholic, but more in line with the saints I so admired and wanted to emulate. I have no illusions of becoming Saint Linda, but I can strive for the perfection Jesus calls us to; strive to be more compassionate, loving, and joyful in the midst of all my circumstances.
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 if we’re Christians – we really hate to suffer.
Throughout Scripture we are told of God’s deep love and longsuffering for those who turn away from Him. This is not a God who can’t wait to punish us for our sinfulness; this is a God who longs to lavish us with His love despite our sinfulness. God’s longsuffering is manifested for the sake of our salvation, and our own call to longsuffering is for the sake of other people’s salvation, as well as our own. Just as Jesus’ suffering and dying brought many sinners to salvation, and the apostles’ suffering and martyrdom brought others to God, our own 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 good friend whose marriage is terribly difficult. She has often threatened divorce. She told me once that she could easily live in a cave with God, a refrigerator, and a port-a-potty, and be content. But God spoke to the very 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 new-born baby or a tiny puppy or the perfect mother that you’ve been blessed with. But, what about those imperfect relationships and 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 obnoxious neighbor you secretly wish would fall of 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; 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? When you cry out to God in despair but receive no answer, how do you go on?
You have to believe, truly believe, that the God of mercy, the God who sacrificed His only Son for you, 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, Abraham was called by God to slay his beloved son Isaac. Could I have trusted God that much? There’s no anonymous tipster in this story whispering, “Pssst, Abe! Just go along with it. He’ll stop you at the last minute. Trust me.” Nope, it didn’t happen that way. Abraham completely trusted God.
Paul continually calls us to faithfulness and courage: “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13). He also reassures us that “God…comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God”. Paul was persecuted, jailed, abandoned, and martyred, yet he gave thanks and praise to God: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you…” (Colossians1:24). He praised God, in fact, even though he had been given a “thorn in his flesh” and had pleaded three times for it to be removed – until God spoke to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness”(2 Corinthians 12:9). Then Paul understood: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
We can find incredible stories throughout history of people who have suffered persecution and abject loss. Countless people have survived the unthinkable. But how? They’ve survived by knowing and 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 trust that His love for us is at the core of our being and to do that we need only go to the foot of the Cross. “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. In suffering, we learn how 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. During His life on earth, He had done nothing but love His Father and all of humankind, and for that flawless behavior He was crucified. He could have retaliated with an army of angels, but He didn’t. Instead, He healed the sick, brought hope to the hopeless, and forgave the sinner. He was stripped, spat upon, mocked, and killed. He could have cursed his enemies to Hell, instead he prayed for them – as his Father quietly wept for the love of his only Son.
The world repaid Jesus’ love with hatred in the form of a cross. The nails didn’t hold Him there, however; his love held him there. His last words could have been shouts of bitter vengeance, but 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. Many believe that Jesus had to come and die to atone for our sins. I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. I believe too many of us to this day subscribe to the belief that God’s anger over our sins required his son’s death. Doesn’t that create an image of a God who punishes; who rules with an iron fist; who can’t wait for us to screw up? Not my God. No thanks. Where do we find in Scripture that Jesus stomped around grumbling about his fate and shaking his fist at us pathetic humans? Where? Show me. You can’t because it’s not there.
GOD IS LOVE…PERIOD. And because we were created in his image, we are to be that love to others as well (and by the way, to ourselves, because we suck at that too!). Jesus’ last command to us was to love. When did he tell us to hate and 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. 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. He spent so much time with her, in fact, 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: it was what I was accustomed to. Instead, she chose to love me in spite of myself, and soon I could feel myself being drawn to her. She had something that I wanted and I didn’t even know what it was. But after being in her company and experiencing firsthand her selfless love for others – and for me – I was hooked.
Unwittingly, my wonderful mother-in-law took me to the foot of the Cross, and that was where I began the long journey of change. 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. Yet she continued to reach out to others and to love them.
If I hadn’t witnessed her faith and hope in the midst of suffering, 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!), and here’s the beauty of it…I would have missed the blessings that God has poured on me and she would have missed the blessings God had prepared for her. I can imagine reunion with God, “Come on in, Catherine. I have reserved this special place for 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)
There are many other lost souls out there. Have you touched one lately – or have you turned them away?
“The Greatest of These is Love”
C. S. Lewis had this to say about love:
The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell (Lewis, C.S..The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt, Inc.. 1971).
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). Yes, the greatest of these is love. “Love” at its most compelling 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, regardless of whether we’re talking about love for God or love for our neighbors. When Jesus died on the cross, he went beyond telling us that he loved us, he showed us – and he expects us to do the same.
How about 1 John 4:20 for a wakeup 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?” No doubt we all know someone else like that, but could we be accused of the same shortcoming?
No one promised us that God’s 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. But, 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?
Jesus died for all of us even though we still sinning against him. He made the ultimate sacrifice for love – a love that we struggle, and fail, to comprehend. What God revealed in the resurrection was his radically unconditional love for his Son, and for us. And though that love is freely given, it longs for a response. Today, in a world that is laden with mistrust and fear, we’re focused on taking care of “number one.” We have been made in the image of God, created anew by the resurrection, and empowered by the Holy Spirit – and that is good news! But we as Christians are called to take that good news to the world.
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.
However, God’s sacrificial love is meant for everyone, and “everyone” means 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 God’s love, or our response and our faith are inadequate at best, sinful at worst.
I would like to end this very long post with a quote that I read over and over again. It comes from a most powerful sermon on Job once given by Archibald MacLeish. He says:
Man depends on God for all things; God depends on man for one. Without man’s love, God does not exist as God, only as creator, and love is the one thing no one, not even God, can command. It is a free gift or it is nothing. And it is most itself, most free, when it is offered in spite of suffering, of injustice, and of death….Only man can prove that man loves God.
So…what are you waiting for?
Are you ready to prove it?!