Love with no invoice

Like the rest of my generation, I like talking about love. I think love is supremely important. I think love is basic to life. I think love is the answer to most of the world’s problems. And I’m often embarrassingly fuzzy on just what this thing is we’re always talking about.

When my generation talks about love, we seem to have one of two things in mind: for a lot of us, love boils down to self-gratification (“I love X” really just means “X gratifies me”); among more religious types, love tends to be defined in terms of stoical self-sacrifice (“I love you” means “I would do anything for you, and I don’t care if I get anything back”). Does either of these, though, really capture the complexities of love?

Take Jesus, for example. In fact, take Him as more than an example: take Him as the Lord who said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” What does it look like to love like Jesus?

There’s no question that Jesus loved self-sacrificially. He didn’t demand anything from us as the condition of His love, nor does He demand anything from us as some sort of reimbursement for His love. He’s never embittered by our lack of response. His love and grace are free. They come without an invoice.

That’s not the total picture, though. Jesus is the sovereign Lord who loves unconditionally, but He’s also the Bridegroom who seeks, desires, invites, and calls for a response. I can see no other way to make sense of the term “jealous God” than to acknowledge that – in an entirely divine, self-sufficient, non-needy way – our Lord wants something out of His relationship with us.

It would appear, then, that loving like Jesus means bringing a robust desire into our relationships, and sustaining that desire in the face of many disappointments, without ever sliding away into self-gratifying lust (“my needs and desires are first priority”), controlling demand (“you will give me what I need and desire”), or resentful self-protection (“you haven’t given me what I need and desire, so I’m done with you”). The heart must be full of unquenchable desire for the good of the beloved and the response of the beloved, and precisely this desire must fuel the motions of love when no response is forthcoming – and indeed may never come.

The way this works depends a lot on the kind of human relationship involved. I think we can place human relations in two categories, which aren’t mutually exclusive: we have companion relations (marriage being the best example), and we have service relations (parent and child, for instance). In companion relations, the expectation of mutuality is quite high, and rightly so. One expects and desires reciprocal benefit. In service relations, there’s a higher expectation of self-sacrifice, the denial of one’s own desires and needs to meet those of the one being served.

The lover’s joy in a companion relationship lies both in blessing the beloved (there is definitely a service component in such relations) and in being blessed by the beloved. The lover desires good for the beloved and desires good from the beloved. This is not wicked selfishness; it is love. No spouse wants to be simply an object of dutiful service; he or she wants to be desired as well for what he or she can give.

In service relations, it’s a bit different. While there’s always some level of reciprocity in these relations, the server’s joy comes predominantly in seeing the other blessed. What thrills the soul of a nursing mother (I speak not from experience) is simply seeing the contentedness of her little one. In C. S. Lewis’ terminology, this is pure Gift Love.

Now to some painful realities. What happens in a companion relationship (say, a marriage) if one’s partner (husband, wife, friend, etc.) doesn’t give back? What happens if it’s not mutual, the way it’s supposed to be? What to do with one’s desires then?

Or what happens in a service relationship (say, that of a parent to a child, a counselor to a counselee, a pastor to congregants, or a king to his subjects) when those being served don’t feel blessed; or don’t acknowledge that they feel blessed; or do feel and acknowledge that they’re blessed, but not that blessed? Children grow up, move away, and give their lives to others with only a cursory appreciation of all their parents have given to make their lives possible. Is it back to stoical self-sacrifice, then, for the poor servant?

It seems to me, again, that following Jesus means free-flowing desire without selfish demand or self-protective bitterness. Love desires the good of the beloved and its own joy in the good of the beloved; and in this desire it serves. Love desires that the beloved may know the goodness of loving, and it desires the fruit of that goodness for the beloved’s and for its own sake; and in this desire it seeks, calls, and invites without retreat. Sometimes a companion relationship must for a long while become a service relationship; and many a service relationship is transformed into beautiful companionship (think of the friendship between adult children and their aging parents); but in every case desire is sustained. Following Jesus is anything but a stoical death to desire.

There’s a poignant application here for those who serve Christ’s church as under-shepherds. A true shepherd desires nothing more than that the sheep committed to him be blessed. This is a pure and Christlike desire. But how quickly and subtly it is soured by selfishness! One moment a pastor desires to be a shepherd through whom the sheep are blessed; the next moment, he desires to be a shepherd without whom they simply can’t imagine living. One moment he wants to build a church where people are refreshed, healed, cleansed, strengthened, and mobilized; the next, he wants a church where people are attached by an umbilical cord. One desire draws with the open hand of true friendship, of true love; the other clutches with a desperate need to feel its own importance.

To desire with no pretensions of sovereignty; to affirm otherness with active desire that the other not only be, but also become, for the benefit of the other and oneself; to nourish desire and hope for fruit when the tree appears barren; to value another enough to maintain what seems a doomed invitation to reciprocity; to be “naïve” enough to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things without fear – this is the love of Christ. It never leaves an invoice, but it always wants all of the beloved. And my generation badly needs to be talking about it.

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