Sunday, August 28, 2011

Love in a Box

The word "love" is thrown around a lot in our culture. It has always had a variety of meanings, but all of them had once been informed by its strongest definition, that is, the sacrifice of self for the good of the other. When any word is overused, of course, it often becomes deflated in its meaning. But love, in its strongest form, as we see in Christ and the prophets, I think is too noble to be lost on the Christian. So let's talk about the nature of love and what the destiny for those who love might be in this culture.

The two strongest desires in the world are to love or be loved. The song “Nature Boy” summed up the greatest thing one could learn “is to love and be loved in return.” But this is a na├»ve view of love. Such reciprocity is a futile hope for both the one who genuinely loves others and the one who loves himself; for one who loves others must sacrifice the love he might have gained from others in order to love them; and one who loves himself must sacrifice his love for others, since it would cost him their affections. Love causes a man to be bold in his attempt to save his friend from drug abuse, but it will be seen by the friend as an imposition, and he will likely have nothing more to do with the one who loved him. Love causes a man to speak out against a relationship, activity, or idea that is harmful to his friend. Like a friend smacking a razor out of the hand of another friend who intends to commit suicide, so love moves one to make right what is wrong in his friend’s life. But it will be seen as arrogant, an imposition, and unloving by that friend. Only those who stand transcendent to the act, watching it from afar, will see love for what it is. Love grabs hold of the collar and seeks to yank one back from the cliff of many a sin, but it often accomplishes nothing but the loss of a friend. Love is doomed. It must act. It is compelled to act, but it will not be perceived as itself, but rather it’s opposite. In a world where “love” and “good” are confused with “nice” and “pleasant,” true love has no chance of surviving its friendships.

Caught between two polar opposites, an individual must choose the desire to be loved, or the desire to love, which are often in contention with one other. Most people choose the desire to be loved. They feel good when people love them. They feel right when people love them. In fact, it makes us feel like we’re doing something right, like we’re good people. It feels good to be loved. The group Frou Frou (yes, I said, “Frou Frou”) has a song entitled, “The Dumbing Down of Love.” I think that would have been a fitting title for what we’re discussing, as I definitely think that our definition of love has become shamefully “dumbed down.”

We live in what I call the “cult of the nice.” To give an example, on most Christian blogs today, as a regular commentator, you can be practicing all sorts of known evil as a professed Christian, espouse all kinds of heresy that may damn thousands of people, and still remain in good standing with the blog administrator; but if you say something that is considered too direct and mean, you’ll be banned from the site. Make sense? To our cult, it does. To the biblical practices of discipline that are based in a more genuine love, it confounds the mind.

But what do we say about the guy whose always got a smile on his face, never criticizes, never tells people they’re wrong, is a listener rather than a speaker, the guy who never causes conflict, but is polite, never bringing up uncomfortable topics, but keeps to himself and offers up affectionate hugs and lots of flattering words to all in the room? We say, “He’s such a loving person.”

And the one who really loves by correcting erroneous ideas that will lead people away from life, rebuking evil inclinations that seek to take over the conversations in the room, and exhorting others toward what is good and pleasing to God? He loses every companion. They all run away. After all, why would anyone hang around someone they don’t love? But the one who loves others sacrifices himself. He sacrifices feeling good about himself. He sacrifices his dignity among the community. He hangs on a cross, where all of his enemies hiss at him and all of his friends scatter.

So why does he do this? Why continue to love and not be loved? Because he has grown up. He no longer thinks of love in the same way a child does, who reasons that the person who gives the most complements, affirmations, and gifts loves the most. He has come to understand love beyond the superficial idea that love does not speak out of turn. Love is no longer the “dumbed down” version of flattery-filled conversations and pep talks. It does not tickle but screech in the itching ear of destructive tendencies. The mature man now knows that true love speaks against what is harmful to others at every opportunity. Love is obnoxious, and it will cost the one who realizes such his dignity. It will cost him himself. For those who truly love are often hated in return, but they love anyway, because love does not seek itself (1 Cor 13:5), but the good of the other.

I remember when we were children that we, as spoiled brats, would yell at my mom when we didn’t get an answer from her that we wanted. We would get mad and say to her, “I hate you.” My mother, knowing what love really is, didn’t go off and yell at us and say that she hated us, as I have heard some very immature mothers do; but instead would always reply to us, “Well, I love you very much.” This is the nature of true love. It only wants the best for the other person, whether it is recognized and celebrated has no consideration in its decision to act. And if no good deed goes unpunished, no act of love, which seeks to do good, goes unpunished.

It’s not all that dreary, of course. Love will be loved in the kingdom to come, where it will be recognized once all illusions have passed away. And, certainly, God loves those who love both now and forever. And it is recognized by others who practice it in the here and now, so genuine love does have some fans. But, by and large, love cannot be reciprocated in this climate, where everyone wants to “love” in order to be loved in return. It will have to wait for its vindication when the Lord of love is revealed and all veils are lifted.

This is why it is so sickening to see that it seems like the goal of so many ministers isn't to speak the truth in love, but to be loved. They want to be funny. They want to be seen as cool. They want to be seen as nice guys. But ministers are called to exemplify genuine love more than any other. If there is a social grenade in the room that will blow up the dignity of the one who falls on it, who needs to fall on it before anyone else? The minister. The guy who has pledged to make himself the representative of the God who is love to the rest of the congregation. If he has to offend and be an obnoxious dork to do so, so be it. His goal is not for himself to be exalted, but for God through His truth to be exalted, because only God's truth sets the congregation free. Until it is spoken, the people are enslaved. And leaving people in slavery when you have the possibility of freeing them, isn't love at all.

But, for now, those who practice it are the troublemakers, the judgmental ones, the intolerant, the arrogant, the mean, the unpleasant, the people who are just uncomfortable to be around. After all, love intimidates us, precisely, because it calls us out of our comfort zones to become better people than we are.

Like nomads with buckets of water in a dry land, those who love carry such a great burden to bring that love to others, precisely, because the world is emptied of it and in need of replenishing. So they may be cursed, sawed in half, slandered behind their backs, thrown out, avoided, locked up, burned alive, fired, or crucified; but whatever may come, they cannot go back to being children in their view of love. For they have come to understand what all sages and prophets have always known, and what every child must yet come to know: that the greatest thing they’ll ever learn is to love without being loved in return.

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