One of my biggest problems with Valentine’s Day is that it propagates a myth of scarcity in regards to love — the culturally-accepted and poetically-lauded vision of perfect romance demands of us that we love another human being more than anyone else, and thus to the exclusion of many others. Now, this is a huge topic, and I don’t intend to try to untangle all of its intricacies here — I am mainly concerned with what seems to me to be the logical result of such thinking: a mindset that views love like a gas tank, which, when it reaches its lowest point, must be filled again before it can yield its stores to others. In this view, if I haven’t been “loved” enough, then I cannot love others rightly.
Now, again, there’s a lot to talk about here (don’t even get me started on so-called “love languages” and whatnot — we’ll be here all day …), but the point is that even Christians have bought into an ideal of love based on scarcity rather than abundance. I think Scripture is pretty clear that such thinking is wrongheaded. Because, you see, our love for others is supposed to be a reflection of the love of God in our lives — “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) Indeed, all of 1 John states pretty clearly that if we do not love those we have seen, we cannot claim to love God, nor indeed even to know God — “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
God is love. Those are powerful words with far-reaching implications. God is love … and we are able to (in fact, we are commanded to) love others because He has loved us. And this does not merely apply to those within the church — no, God commands “that we do not hurt, or hate, or be hostile to our neighbor, but be patient and peaceful, pursuing even our enemies with love.” (New City Catechism, Q11) Indeed, Romans tells us that our only debt to one another is love — “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8)
So you can see why I might think it’s kind of important to understand what Christian love means, but when we fully realize what those Scriptures are saying, it can sound a little harsh at first. So, what you’re saying is … I am commanded to love all people at all times, no matter who they are nor how they treat me, and no matter if I feel like loving them? Uhm, yup. And I’m supposed to love them and forgive them and desire what is good for them even if I feel utterly empty on love myself, and even if it means sacrificing “my” time, “my” desires, or “my” so-called right to be loved in return, or whatever kind of love I think I “need” from them or others? Well … affirmative, yes. And here’s where we all say, “That’s impossible, and even if it were possible, it’s not healthy.”
Now, if you’re basing your concept of love in scarcity — you’re absolutely right. It is impossible. I cannot love people that way. BUT, we love others because we have been loved by God, who IS Love. And isn’t that the way He loves us? Do I always love Him as I should? Definitely not. No, I fail Him time and again, but His love is abundant — in fact, it is ceaseless, it cannot be exhausted. So, what does it mean for me to love another person because God loves me? Does it not mean that the love I show them is no longer my own (no human love is genuine anyhow, without God’s presence and perfection), but is in fact God’s love being shown through me? And if God’s love is truly inexhaustible, then I am utterly without excuse — He both commands me to love others, no matter what, and then supplies me with that very kind of love. Just as salvation does not depend on our momentary standing before God, but rather on Christ’s forgiveness and our covenant with Him — so Christian love does not depend on our fleeting emotions, nor our own strength to muster up some stock of love from an invisible tank. It is, rather, a way of being — to be a Christian is to be a Love-er, to be one who loves. Because God at every moment and in every way is always absolutely good to us, and pours out His love to us without reservation, we are then free to love others freely, without fear that our love will “run out.”
So, when I feel depleted in every way, and when I feel incapable of loving others as I should (which I am, of course, and in my humanness will always be, apart from the grace of God), instead of asking myself if I need more love from others — placing unhealthy expectations on myself (to deserve or inspire their love) and on them (to love me how and how much I think I should be loved) — I ask myself if I truly understand that I am loved by God.
Now we’re getting confessional, folks. Because here’s the thing, life is tough. And there are so many reasons to justify the thought that God is less than loving and kind. Which is why it is sooooooo important to surround ourselves with the things that God tells us will encourage us and will draw us to Him. For me, that looks like this:
1) Christian Fellowship and Community
My life is crazy — I sometimes feel like I’ve gone through the whole 24 years so far upside-down and backwards, in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve always been sick. My closest friends always somehow seem to move away or grow apart. Right now, I’ve been processing the strange emotions surrounding the house church I was a part of — mourning for the loss of some good things, culling out the things I never really believed, re-adjusting my theology and my hopes for life. I’m also experiencing some of the worst physical symptoms I’ve ever had, and more often than not that means I’m exhausted, emotional, and in a heck of a lot of pain. I’m still building close relationships in my new church, and so I sometimes find myself feeling alone. And THAT is why fellowship is so incredibly significant — because as I grow closer to my brothers and sisters at Mercy and my Christian friends from other churches, I find that I am not alone. You know what else I find? That my problems aren’t any worse than anyone else’s — now that’s a reminder we could all use every once in awhile. In confession and discussion and prayer and community, I am invited into the joys and sorrows of other Christians, and I invite them into mine. I learn to see God’s goodness even in my sufferings, as I pray for God to unfold His goodness into the sufferings of those I care about. Right now, I have friends who are being tried severely by death, divorce, doubt, drama, disease, etc., and when we bear one another’s burdens, we are all stronger in a shared dependence upon the only hope we have — the love of Christ.
2) Prayer, Private and Corporate
I feel like I’m learning again for the first time how to pray. For awhile, I couldn’t reconcile God’s will with His desire to hear our desires. I grew very cold and distant as I forgot what it meant to intercede on behalf of those I love and to supplicate for myself … it seemed that there was nothing else to say besides, “Thy will be done.” But as I start to understand what it means to be loved as a sinful human by the holy, eternal, merciful GOD, I begin also to learn what it means to come boldly before the throne of grace — it means that we are unashamed to confess to God that we are sinners, and that we have human desires and inclinations — it means that we do not fear disappointment, because we know that hope does not put us to shame — it means that we can pray for and delight in God’s will while also genuinely expressing and experiencing our own desires for ourselves and others — and it means that we can trust God’s work in our lives and the lives of others even more fully, because He cares for us despite our failures, weaknesses, and lack of confidence in Him. And when we pray corporately, we bare those weaknesses and desires before others, reminding them that we are all alike sinful — that each one might call himself the worst among sinners — and we are reminded by their confessions that even the strongest among us are often weak, and the weakest often strong.
3) Memorization, Melody, and Rhythm
There is much to be said for the value of structure in life, and though at some times and in some ways an unswerving adherence to some strict regime can prove problematic for the Christian life, there are times when routines spring organically from the soil of our lives and blossom into profoundly fruitful and sustaining practices. For me, recently, this has happened in a few ways. First, I was introduced to a wonderful thing called The Book of Psalms for Worship, and psalter.org. And I began to sing Scripture with people, and on my own. Then, Psalm 4A became my bedtime song, and I started to understand what a beautiful thing it could be to let the same words from the same Psalm mean something new to your life every day — rarely does a night come when some portion of that song doesn’t strike home, when I find the words to be irrelevant to my daily life. The practice of singing Psalms has been inexhaustibly rich in my life, as I begin to discern the beautiful balance of Scripture’s fear before the judgment of a just and holy God with its joy and assurance at His mercy and providence in the lives of those He’s claimed as His righteous ones. And singing with others has reminded me again of the gorgeous melodies of the Christian life, where each of the parts we sing (and each of the lives we live out in submission to God) harmonize in an exultant chorus of vibrant and humble worship to our glorious Creator and Sustainer. Secondly, I began to memorize the New City Catechism. It had been a long, long time since I’d memorized verses as a little AWANA leader all those years ago. And I had forgotten what a powerful practice memorization can be. The NCC is a particularly good starting place, because it is shorter than most catechisms, and because the website is awesome for study. But I have been struck with how my life has changed just since I started memorizing doctrine and Scripture. I think at times we almost think of memorization as an attempt to gain power over the words — to make them our own, and to be able to wield them at our sin or at others’ doubts or troubles. Memorization can become a thing of pride, a mere accomplishment. But if we’ll let it, memorization can change us deeply — for when we truly, humbly seek to “hide God’s Word in our hearts,” we come to find that memorization doesn’t give us power. Rather, memorization gives the words we memorize power over us. It calls us to submission to Scripture and to God. Because the things I’ve set to memory come to mind unbidden when I am weakest, and when I am least inclined to turn to God. They do not come when I feel like fighting off my sin, nor do they come when I feel like correcting others’ mistakes — they come when I am faced with temptation that feels insurmountable, when I am too upset or weary to pick up my Bible, when I do not have words of comfort or hope for those I love. And I cling to them because I need them. They remind me that when I feel empty, the love of God remains strong in my life.
4) Ministry and Hospitality
This is essentially the same as fellowship, but just from a slightly different perspective. It is perhaps paradoxical that some of the most draining things in my life are also the most uplifting, the most reassuring. I think we all experience feeling overwhelmed when we pour our lives into the lives of others, feeling incapable of ever truly benefiting anyone else, of ever genuinely communicating Christ’s love. The more I give, the more I say, the more time I spend with others — the more likely it becomes that I will be hurt, that I will say the wrong thing, that I will fail. But what an incredible, constant reminder that it is not our job to fix others’ lives … and that if it were, we’d be incredibly inept to do so. Opening up our homes and lives and hearts to one another, and investing in ministry (both the nurturing of the saints, and caring for those outside the body of Christ), constantly draws us to dependence on God and on the Holy Spirit, whose work it is to convict and to change and to regenerate and to encourage. It is a grace of God that He allows us to be useful in that process, but it is a greater grace that His mercy does not depend on us, but on His sovereign will.
This was another long, long post, so I doubt anyone has made it this far, haha. But believe me, I understand feeling like Christian love is an endless and impossible struggle, especially when beset by the lies that worldly loves and purely emotional fulfillment will bring us easier and better joys or will fulfill us without the difficulties imposed by Scripture’s call to love — but I know that there is no scarcity in the love of God. Christ came to give us an abundant life, and we are commanded to love others out of and because of that abundance. Life isn’t easy already, and I’ve heard it only gets harder as you get older. We hurt, the people we love hurt, and life never seems to get to the point where everything makes sense. But Christ is risen, and “because He lives, I can face tomorrow.” More than that, because I am loved by God, I am able to love others — falteringly and imperfectly, but nonetheless genuinely. My life is crazy and hard — I’m sure yours is, too. But my life is abundant and incredibly blessed.