If there really is no transcendent source of the good to which the will is naturally drawn, but only the power of the will to decide what ends it desires – by which to create and determine itself for itself – then no human project can be said to be inherently irrational, or (for that matter) inherently abominable. If freedom of the will is our supreme value, after all, then it is for all intents and purposes our god. And certain kinds of gods (as our pagan forebears understood) expect to be fed. (David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p. 227)
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.
It is a singular thing to consider that there are people in the world who, having renounced all the laws of God and nature, have made laws for themselves which they strictly obey . . . . (Pascal, Pensées, VI, 393)
The solution to abuse of God’s gifts is not rejection of God’s gifts but thankfulness for God’s gifts.
“It is perhaps even more useful to contemplate our stupidity than our sin. Consciousness of sin gives us the feeling that we are evil, and a kind of pride sometimes finds a place in it. When we force ourselves to fix the gaze, not only of our eyes but of our souls, upon a school exercise in which we have failed through sheer stupidity, a sense of our mediocrity is borne in upon us with irresistible evidence. No knowledge is more to be desired. If we can arrive at knowing this truth with all our souls, we shall be well established on the right foundation.” (Simone Weil, “Loving God with Your Mind”)
Most of us at one time or another have heard (or maybe even articulated) a self-analysis something like this: “Just because I do bad things doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.” What, though, is the appreciable difference between a “good” person who does bad things and a “bad” person? Just because you’re a few notches over on the curve doesn’t mean you’re in a different class.
“It was an unhappy truth, he told himself, that nearly all people in the world behave badly when there is something really big at stake.” (Mr. Willy Wonka, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator)
I’m in chapter three of Ralph Wood’s book on Tolkien, where he masterfully explores the presence and function of the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage or fortitude, and temperance) in The Lord of the Rings. Here’s a gem on courage:
“In the pagan realm, courage is supremely manifested when one dies in battle while defending a just cause. In the Christian world, it is a willingness to die as a martyr rather than denying Christ, or else to refuse to kill others only in order to preserve one’s own life. Even when courage does not require the shedding of our blood, it always entails a refusal to love our lives so much that we lose our souls. Courage refuses to commit sin because of fear. It makes war against the brute power of evil with all the strength of one’s body and soul. As its name indicates, courage is located at the center of our being, in the cor – the heart and its intentions. We are called to courage in order to preserve our integrity before others and in the presence of God: to keep ourselves morally and spiritually intact.” (Wood, p. 100)
“Before the fall, strictly speaking, there was no conscience in humans. There was no gap between what they were and what they knew they had to be. Being and self-consciousness were in harmony. But the fall produced separation. By the grace of God, humans still retain the consciousness that they ought to be different, that in all respects they must conform to God’s law. But reality witnesses otherwise; they are not who they ought to be. And this witness is the conscience.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 3.173)
“When all is said and done, sin proves to be an incomprehensible mystery. We know neither whence it is nor what it is. It exists, but has no right to existence. It exists, but no one can explain its origin. Sin itself came into the world without motivation, yet it is the motivation for all human thought and action. From an abstract point of view, it is nothing but a privation, yet concretely it is a power that controls everyone and everything. It has no independent principle of its own, yet it is a principle that devastates the whole creation. It lives off the good, yet fights it to the point of destruction. It is nothing, has nothing, and cannot do anything without the entities and forces God has created, yet organizes them all into rebellion against him. With everything that belongs to God, it opposes everything that belongs to God. It is the will of a weak, finite creature in its revolt against the Creator. It is dependence at war with the Independent One and striving for its own independence. It is impermanent becoming in a struggle with him who exists eternally. It is the greatest contradiction tolerated by God in his creation, yet used by him in the way of justice and righteousness as an instrument for his glory.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 3.145)