The revelation of God is fulfilled in Christ Jesus. What have we seen? The love of God. What shall be our practice, if we follow him? The love of God.
Of all the authors in the New Testament, nobody speaks about the love of God by name as much as John. When people want to show how lovely God is they often come up with something John said. Some people have even decided that only John’s writing accurately reflects the spirit and manner of Jesus. But the faith that is written in the Bible speaks of one God from beginning to end. The message from John that “God is love” does not allow us to disregard anything about God that seems unlovely; it rather compels us to rexamine what love is, as defined and displayed by God.
For some months now I have been feeling dissatisified with my relationship with people. I suppose there is no solid reason to pick out the last several months as I have been feeling dissatisfied most of my life, in fits, especially when things aren’t going my way. But it feels like there is some particular issue going on now, I’m not sure what. Even when I am not in one of my gloomy spells and things are going very well all around I feel like something is out of place.
I am not even sure with which people this relationship is out of place. I’ve tried to sort out if it has to do with my boss, my coworkers, my friends, my family, or with Christian fellowship (to repeat the last two). And yes, I do see problems in all of those areas, but I don’t notice anything that makes me realize why I should fee like I am off track.
I have been thinking about it and asking myself, “What needs to be different?” My first thought is always of some problem in the way other people are treating me. But my second thought is that people will always have problems, and you can’t really change them, and their problems probably aren’t as big as my own anyway. So, by Christian definition, my problem is a lack of love for other people.
Love, love. What does it truly mean to love? What, for me, is the action or attitude that results from love? Because it is obvious that love can prompt so many different actions, or restraint from actions, and it is not always the same; as a first cause it can result in many things but cannot itself be reduced to any other thing.
Love can sometimes be harsh. I think of Christ driving the money changers out of the temple; I think of Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love me?” I think of Paul writing letters of rebuke to the churches. I think of a father disciplining his children. There is love that is a consuming fire, jealous and protective, such as God will reveal toward all that is opposed to His love when the fulness of His love for His own is revealed; but when I think of harshness I mean the love that is a purifying fire. It hurts the one who is loved but it also hurts the lover.
There is a stereotype, and an object of mockery, in a parent who is about to spank a child saying, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” But mutual pain is much broader and deeper than this. It is the same as the ache when your child cries when getting a shot or stitches. It is even that smaller regret when you have to tell your child “no” for some toy or sweet or other thing which, if you always indulged, would spoil them.
I don’t think Jesus got any thrill of revenge out of Peter’s heartbreak when he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” I don’t think Paul felt a righteous satisfaction about setting the Corinthians straight. But I also don’t think it was easy for him to always be working with his own hands, night and day, rather than just asking for what he knew they would gladly provide. I don’t think it was easy for Christ in the garden not to ask for thousands of angels to kill every one who would beat him, mock him, condemn him, and ask for Barabbas to live.
If we were to pick another word for this besides just love, it would be “discipline.” All the parents that I’ve listened to and observed understand that children need to be disciplined insofar as requiring them to do their homework and giving them some kind of punishment for gross misbehaviour, but some people I have overheard talking about their own children do not seem to understand that discipline also involves not giving them something they want when you could and it would make you happy to do so. The trivial example is letting them eat sweets, but it also means letting them always go to every sleepover, or giving them a lavish birtday party, or every expensive toy or gadget that their friends have. Even if you can afford it, it is not always the right thing to do. And it also means not calling the teacher or the parent ever time someone mistreats your child; it means not easing every pain in every possible way, not helping with every challenge to guarantee success. To discipline your child you must also discipline yourself.
This all seems obvious to me because I’ve never had children and I was well aware of every time my parents were lax in their discipline and indulged one of my siblings, or didn’t adequately reprimand their misbehavior. But I have noticed that with other people’s children–or even my youngers siblings–I am careless with this principle. I am quick to soothe their pains because it is a quick way to end the unpleasantness of them feeling hurt, and freely give them things because the cost to me is neglible without particularly considering how it effects everything going on in their world. What is trifling to an adult can be enoromous to a child, and while it is sometimes a happy advantage, being to free with it results in a child who does not recognize the importance of things in an adult world.
And I’ve seen the same thing in the way I deal with everybody; as Christians, as coworkers, as strangers or as friends. Sometimes I want to share my critical opinion of something they esteem, and I do that; sometimes I just want to make them happy, and I do that. I think I have learned a lot about saying every critical thing that comes to mind, though I am still rather loose in this regard, but I don’t think I’ve well realized that indulgence must also be kept in constant restraing. I’ve known it as a concept, as something that might apply in some other time of my life or to some dramatic event where a line is drawn in the sand, but I haven’t really grasped it as a daily discipline.
I remember talking about this general idea with the Orners back in August. I’ve still been struggling to really understand this since then; it is still sinking in. If my memory is good it has been about since then, since the end of July more or less, that I have been having a lot of trouble with personal discipline. I’ve never been really self-disciplined and I’ve always had bouts where I let things slide for a while and then get back after them. But it feels like for weeks and weeks, months, I have showing up for work five or ten minutes late; and to me this is disgraceful. It is one thing to have a stack of unfiled papers on my desk, to shirk guitar practice, or to be negligent in something that affects me only; but when my commitments to other people suffer for no other reason than my lack of self-discipline, and repeatedly, that is inexcusable, unacceptable, and reprehensible. But I’ve been doing it for months now, I think.
In the same manner, one time when Chip and Isaac were coming over to play board games I knew they were coming over and I had plenty of time, but I did not leave the house to get some snacks until the last minute and I was late getting back to my apartment so that Chip was waiting outside my locked apartment. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough time. I had no excuse.
Today, also, I got up early enough so that I had plenty of time to bake the bread I wanted to bake for church, but I did not start on it early enough. It should have gone in the oven at 10 but it did not get in until 10:40. This still gave me plenty of time to otherwise get ready before I had to meet Ray to help Emma into the van at 11:15, but I didn’t get there on time either. Ray’s van was full as it always is with his wife, their four kids, a dog, and Emma, so Emma’s wheelchair needed to go in the back of my car. But my bread also had to be rescued from the oven at 11:40 so I had to go back to my apartment before heading to the Suarez’s. By happenstance–and by speeding–I did get the wheelchair there before Emma arrived, but in all fairness I would have again missed a commitment that I knew about well in advance for no cause.
These are little things, and the world doesn’t end because of them; even though I prefer to think of myself as better than such I can get over the fault and move on. But these kinds of little have been happening over and over for months, along with a general neglect of housekeeping and of guitar practice. And it is not that guitar practice has to be all that; if I am really through with the guitar I can just add it to the list of grand projects that I barely started before quitting, put the guitar away, and purpose to do something else. But, thus far, I stand by my intention to learn it; it’s the one single thing I mean to do outside of work. But I haven’t been doing it.
I’m not talking about just my gloomy depressed weeks. It seems like previously I would have a good week where I more or less kept my schedule and got some things done, and then I’d be down for a week or two and get up late and generally not get things done (but at least I was getting to work on time); and now I think the last time I had a good week was late in August. This last week should have counted as a good week as things generally went well and I did not feel morose; but by Saturday I did not feel like I had had a good week at all.
A week or so ago I was reading in Ephesians: “So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.” Since I had been thinking about the discipline in love I thought of how the church suffers so many things, and how “nourishes and cherishes” includes the disciplining of the church through suffering and the pain that Christ bears himself in disciplining the church.
Then I thought of how, in a strong marriage, a husband and wife must exercise discipline in their love for one another. This was somehow a novel thought to me, although it felt like it ought not to be, and not many ways that this could be worked out occurred to me. I thought that a husband who spent all his income on pleasant things for his wife would not be exercising loving discipline in saving for more important needs, but this must be just the fingernail scratch on how nourishing, cherishing, and loving are tempered into something more than just indulgence through discipline on the desire to please.
And then I thought, “It is no wonder that I don’t know how to rightly love anyone else, since I am loving myself by doing whatever pleases me most, without any discipline. You don’t even know what love is.”
So often when I think about love I am, Quixote-style, searching out some love quest to ebmark on. I try to descry some great work I can volunteer to help them with, or some gentle, tender question to ask so that I can listen as they pour their heart out, or some sweet, small gift that will warm their heart. Love can do these things; when most people talk about love they usually talk about these things. But these are just the little blossoms that appear in brief season at the fringes of love; the leaf, the branch, the trunk, the root, are made of stronger, less pretty stuff. And it is not just bearing with the faults of the beloved; it is not just forbearing to displease the beloved; it is also forbearing to please.
None of us has any trouble understanding love when it is lovers bringing each other joy; we don’t need Christ to teach us that. God’s love reaches so much further to love enemies, to love who do not love in return, to love by and through and with suffering; to deny himself the pleasure of our small delights so that we may grow into the deeper, wider, and stronger joy of the Lord.
Do you want to know what love is? This is it. You must misunderstand love for it to be far from you; for everything that Christ ever worked for, from creation to revelation, is to bring the love of God to us. Maranatha.