July 5, 2017:  To Be Loved and to Love in Return

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As much as we write about it, talk about it and claim to build our lives around it, true love is a rare commodity. But the real thing stands out. True love draws a crowd.

What does true love look like? Many consider these verses written to the church in Corinth to be the Apostle Paul’s greatest literary work:

      “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. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8a).

We are instinctively drawn to and desire such a love. It is the love that we innately know is somehow “out there,” even if we have never experienced it. Couples often choose to have this passage read in their wedding ceremony as a sincere aspiration for what they truly desire their love to be for one another. As glorious as Paul’s writing is, his goal was not to definitively describe love. His words are more of a description of a boundless love displayed. More accurately, he was defining attributes of the heart of God.

I wonder if there are moments when we find it easier to believe that God exists than that God loves us personally? And yet Paul’s words are all at once this tender, compassionate, gentle, extraordinary, explosive, revolutionary symphony of Christ’s love for us. This “furious love of God” (to quote G.K. Chesterton) knows no shadow of alteration or change. 

  • God is and will always be patient with you.
  • He has and will always champion and believe the very best of you.
  • He has and will never lose hope in you.
  • His love has and will always seek to defend and protect you.
  • His is a love that has and will always faithfully endure all things with you. Through all of life’s challenges, His love has not once left your side and He never will.
  • His is a love that is never too proud to forgive you.
  • His is a love that is not too proud to pursue you when your intellect denies it and your emotions refuse it.
  • God loves you without condition or reservation.
  • God loves you this very moment, just as you are and not as you “should be.”

Of such a love, Brennan Manning wrote, “Jesus says: ‘Acknowledge and accept who I want to be for you: a Savior of boundless compassion, infinite patience, unbearable forgiveness, and love that keeps no score of wrongs.’”

We so often hear the phrase “love is a decision” or “you have to choose to love.” Do we perhaps find ourselves nodding in agreement with this exhortation because we fear that love is, after all, just a feeling — and therefore prone to contrary equivocation and recalcitrant volatility? I am grateful to John Piper for pointing out that many (if not all) of the things that Paul lists are not really ours to choose. Paul tells us love “…is not arrogant.” That is not a choice but an attitude of the soul. Similarly, to “bear all things, hope all things, endure all things” is again much more about the capacity of my soul. If it is the kind of decision that I must make, miserably and begrudgingly, is that really love at all? Paul is, by inference, showing us that love is so much deeper than our day-to-day choices.

The central motif in the movie “The Moulin Rouge” is “the greatest thing is to love and be loved in return.” Jesus would personally agree with this. For us, however, He has mercifully reversed the order. The greatest thing is that we are loved by God and only then, out of His unconditional love, do we find the right conditions within us to begin to love one another as He has loved us. This means that we will fail to love as God loves us if we attempt to tackle true love head on. Instead, Jesus would first have us receive and define ourselves as radically loved by God. Manning wrote, “The wild, unrestricted love of God is not simply an inspiring idea. When it permeates minds and hearts it determines why and at what time you get up in the morning, how you pass your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, and who you spend time with, it affects what breaks your heart, what amazes you, and what makes your heart truly happy.” In other words, only when we rest upon the unconditional love of God do we find the inborn means for His love to flow through us to others.

How can I be sure that I can rely upon Jesus to do this kind of work within me? How do I know that I am not better off left to my own devices? Paul’s words on what love is and isn’t, as beautiful as they are, are not a full definition of love. Paul leaves that for Jesus. Jesus defined the pinnacle of love with these words: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:3). Jesus was, of course, speaking of His own death. His sacrifice on the Cross is the ultimate expression of His self-giving love for all humanity. For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) His love is, therefore, patience to the point of sacrifice. His love is kindness to the point of sacrifice. His love protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres, all to the point of sacrifice.

Paul also penned, “…that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3: 17b-19). In other words, we could no more easily contain Niagara Falls in a tea cup than we can comprehend the vast and unconditional love of God for us. Rather, Jesus would have us stand anew each day before Him and, with the titan tumbling torrent of Niagara Falls in our mind’s eye, pray: “Lord, like that, through me!”

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