There was once a grumpy old man, who said that: “There are some people to whom I couldn’t warm to even if I were cremated with them!”
Before we go any further, I ought to make it clear that Christians are not called to like everyone. The goes “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” and not, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Likes and Dislikes.” If there are people to whom you do not warm, that does not diminish your faith. We are not called to like, but we are called, to love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” said Jesus.
We often talk about Christian love in church as if it’s both a revered panacea and an underemployed practice. To say that the answer to the world’s problems is for people to love each other more is both right and banal at the same time. It sounds wonderful and grand, who could argue with that? But when you sit eyeball to eyeball with someone, especially someone cantankerous, obnoxious, difficult, unlovely, and seemingly unlovable, it’s anything but an easy task.
Christians love because it’s what Jesus told us to do, and it’s something that we learn from Jesus. We know something about love because we have first been loved by God. But when you think about it, all love is because we’ve learned about from receiving it. The love of a parent, or grandparent, or friend, or fellow believer are all ways in which we first learn what it’s like to be loved. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that:
The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still beside me; as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I who thought to sink
Was caught up into love and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm.
For Christians how we experience “the whole of life in a new rhythm” is God’s love for us, simply because that’s what God is, not because of what we try to earn or deserve, as we have come to know it in Jesus. We live in a culture that loves to quantify. We weigh, measure, time, photograph, and generally assess just about anything we can get our hands on. What’s more, I’m not sure we much like that which we can’t quantify and therefore control. Maybe that’s why it is so hard for us to grasp the love of God: it is both uncontrollable and immeasurable.
A young boy once asked for the autograph of a young lady. She obliged and wrote the following: “Yours till the ocean wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry.” The love of God is love of that duration and it’s not our task to understand nor comprehend that love, but instead our joy to share in it.
Because God’s love for us is this peculiar and unfathomable love, we’d do well to remember a wise person who said that:
All other love, whether humanly speaking it withers early and is altered or lovingly preserves itself for a round of time — such love is still transient; it merely blossoms. This is precisely its weakness and tragedy, whether it blossoms for an hour or for seventy years — it merely blossoms; but Christian love is eternal…Christian love abides and for that very reason is Christian love. For what perishes blossoms and what blossoms perishes, but that which has being cannot be sung about – it must be believed and it must be lived.
Sketching out what makes Christian love distinctive and special, it looks like this.
Christian love sees through walls and around corners. Following God means also we’re also challenged to love others by looking through the walls they place in our way, and around the corners where they’re hiding. This isn’t always, or even very often, fun, but it is what the gospel calls us to do. It is the work of love. When we try to love difficult people, our imagination can provide the transportation beyond those walls and around those corners. What must it feel like for Mabel to believe she must erect a wall? What must it be like for Bert to seem so afraid, and hide behind a corner? How can I gain Mabel’s and Bert’s confidence so that they will take down the wall or emerge fully around the corner?
Christian love is also patient. Waiting for the Mabels and Berts to take down walls and turn corners doesn’t happen overnight. It may take months, sometimes years. But consistent patience eventually pays off. In a culture that blindly salutes doing, and worships acceleration, patience can seem anachronistic. But the speed we demand of our machines, and by implication our people, is neither always healthy nor realistic. To be patient and honour another’s timetable is a manifestation of Christian love.
Christian love has bifocals. It sees the people we would love in two ways: It sees them close up (the way they are right now) and it sees them way down the line (at a place where we would eventually like them to be). Those who teach treat their students not only as students, but also as though they were already in that field for which they are training. Those who raise children, are not only nurturing them now, but leading them into the people they will became. If we lower the bar and expect less than we should, we will raise the probability of future failure.
Christian love, while offered unconditionally, is at the same time intolerant of love’s enemies in the lives of those whom we would love. Unconditional love does not equate to a blanket acceptance of all behaviour. An older gentleman paid regular visits to his doctor, but between visits was not always good at following his doctor’s advice. At times the doctor would become exasperated and say to the man: “Larry, I love you, but you’ve got to stop doing that!” Christian love is just like that. Fred, I love you, but you’ve got to stop riding roughshod over people’s feelings; think before you speak. Carol, I love you, but you’ve got to stop your carping, because it’s driving a big wedge between you and your children. Mary, I love you, but you’ve got to stop behaving like a doormat; there are more important things than being liked by everybody on the face of the planet.
Christian love is a tall order. It’s not easy work. But we worship, and are called to love, by one whose enacted love for us is seen in the suffering love of the crucified Jesus, who has become for us the Lord of life.
Poet Jennifer Woodruff has penned some poignant words that speak to our exertions in love. They come under the title “With the Drawing of this Love and the Voice of this Calling”:
Not only what we thought we could afford,
Not only what we have the strength to give
is asked of us; the grace that makes us live
calls for a death, and all we are is poured
Onto an altar we did not design
and yet which holds us in his perfect will
And in both flames and darkness keeps us still
and is the strength, the pillar, and the sign
Of all that never fails, though we are weak,
of he who calls, and asks us to embrace
our weakness, and our cross, to see his face —
and, made most strong in weakness, he will speak.