True love – what is it and where is it found? And do we think of it the way we ought?
When we talk of love, too often we tend to focus on the one who is being loved rather than on the one who is doing the loving. That is, when we say how well loved somebody is, we tend to be making a comment about how wonderful that person is perceived to be rather than how wonderful it is that another should show love towards that person
This is largely because we live in a world where love and acceptance have to be earned and, as a result, too many of us are burdened with a need to promote ourselves in an attempt to be admired. Indeed, too many of us feel the need to be loved by everyone, and are far too easily upset if this is not the case. But none of us really needs to be loved by everybody – in a world where some do not know what it is to be loved by anyone at all, what kind of a person would require that they were? Sadly, on occasions at least, the answer to that is someone like me.
We, or at least I, need to learn that, rather than being admired by strangers on account of our striving to be somebody we’re not, it is better to be loved by somebody who knows who we really are and who will nonetheless continue to love us just the same. Though the former may have some temporary appeal, the constant demand to perform beyond our capabilities will eventually be our downfall. This is in contrast to those who know what it is to be loved unconditionally and thus know the security out of which they can grow to become, perhaps, a little better than they otherwise would be.
For me at least, getting this wrong and continuing along the road of expressive individualism, portraying myself as more important than I actually am, gets in the way of anything that is genuinely worthy. In particular it gets in the way of the unconditional love that I suspect we all so long to know.
Contrary then to how the world sees things, to truly be loved speaks more about the merits of the one who loves rather than the merits of the one who is loved. Expending too much energy on trying to make ourselves worthy of love results in us, not only being left with the burden of constantly striving to remain loveable, since we have made our happiness and security dependent upon it, but also deprives us of the joy of knowing true love and acceptance since love that is conditional on performance is not real love at all.
For us to be truly loved we need someone who is truly loving and who thus enables us to become more lovely. We do not improve by being constantly criticised for what we fail to achieve and having acceptance denied until we perform better – that is not the basis of a good relationship, either personal or professional. On the contrary, ultimately we are paralysed by such pressure to be perfect – crushed under a fear of failure. Genuine progress comes only as a result of the motivation that flows out of being accepted – only then are we free to flourish, only then can we truly grow into the human beings we all so long to be.
We, and those with whom we live alongside, need to be kinder to one another, acknowledging our humanness. We need to stop insisting that we must be more than we actually are. We are all going to need to be a lot more loving if we are all going to be a lot more loved. But whilst we can all strive to be more loving, in reality it is easier said than done since, just as it is to hard for others to love us when we sometimes let them down, so too is it hard to love those who sometimes let us down. I’m not sure that any of us are up to the task of giving unconditional love – I know for sure, that I am not.
If then we can not find such a love in ourselves, where might we find it? 1 Corinthians 13, a passage frequently read at weddings, gives us some pointers:
‘Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ [1 Corinthians 13:4-7]
True love, then, is patient towards those whose behaviour requires patience to be shown – is kind towards those who do not deserve kindness. Love bears what is uncomfortable to carry, hopes for what is not currently present and endures what has to be endured.
It even endures the cross. [Hebrews 12:2]
As somebody who is far from perfect, this is the kind of love I need. God does not love me because I am lovely but rather because he is loving. It is a glorious truth that, in Christ, I am accepted by God and, as a result of the indwelling Holy Spirit, there is hope that I might yet become the person that I am called to be, someone who is a lot more like Jesus than I currently am. Only then will I be fully able to love as God loves.
Because, whilst it is true that we all, created as we are in the image of God, have some capacity to love as God does, I, on account of my fallen nature, am not able to love as fully as I ought. My selfishness and pride invariably creep in and spoil anything of merit that I may achieve and I am grateful therefore to be married to a wife who graciously puts up with me the way she does. I believe that, just as a good Father is pleased with his child’s efforts to please him, so God also delights in my efforts to try to please him. Furthermore I believe he withholds none of his love when my efforts fall short of the mark. None the less, I also believe that I ought to be more loving than I am but that if I am to have a perfect love for anyone else, a love that is not in the least dependent on the merits of the one I show love towards, a love that bears, hopes and endures as God has had to bear, hope and endure with me, then it will require that love to originate from somewhere other than within me. It will need to originate from the source of all love, from God himself who is, himself, love. [1 John 4:16].
Because, as the scriptures remind us, ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.’ [1 John 4:10-11]. That is, Christ died for me, not because of my merits but because of my need, not because of his obligation but because of his kindness. Only by understanding this and realising my dependence on the one who was perfect for me, and who died in my place for my imperfections, can I hope to show genuine love towards others.
Even so, I ought to love, because, as the scriptures go on to say, ‘beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’. [1 John 4:10-11]. Not in order that I might be loved, but rather on account of my being loved already. Sadly though, this is still something that I fail to do perfectly. Even so the promise is there in Philippians 1:6, ‘that he who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’.
How then can we love others more? By first resting in the love that God has shown to us. ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’, [2 Corinthians 12:10]. Just as those who realise how much God has forgiven them, know what it is to love him more, [Luke 7:47], so too those who begin to realise how much God has loved them, can better know what it is to love others, not on account of their merits, but on account of their need for love, a need we all share.
Let us therefore be thankful that God’s love is patient and kind, that his love does not envy or boast. And let us be thankful that his love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
And let us thank and praise him that God’s love never ends. [1 Corinthians 13:8].