Maybe because it’s February, “The Month of Love (you know, Valentine’s Day?), I decided to write my article about love. So, I started looking up Bible verses about love. Right away I decided to steer clear of the 2 greatest commandments (You remember those, right?). Instead, I decided to look at Paul’s letters because Paul was always exhorting people to love.
In Ephesians 5:2, Paul encouraged the newbie Ephesian Christians “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Like any good teacher, Paul uses repetition to help his students learn how to be followers of “The Way” of Jesus. Paul told those early Christians, and still tells us, to be imitators of God – that means, do the things God does – grant mercy, forgive again and again (7 times 70), give grace abundantly, and love all people unconditionally. Then he says to live in love, which is God’s way, he is repeating and further defining what it means to “imitate God.”
It is also “The Way” of Christ Jesus, who loved us, and gave himself up for us, ALL OF US, not just the people who liked Him, or the ones that He liked. He gave Himself up as an offering, a gift, for all people. And that gift required sacrifice, which Christ made not just because He loved us, but also because He loves God. Jesus made intentional choices and took actions that made His love real.
What Paul wants us to take away from this is that there is nothing abstract about the kind of love Jesus embodied. His love was active. His love was manifested in relationships. If you think about it, we don’t grow in love by thinking more loving thoughts, but through concrete actions that manifest love in ways that stretch us beyond our comfort zones.
I believe that Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was illustrating this truth when he described a scene in which a woman who was seeking spiritual counsel, expressed concern about her capacity to love, for she was always searching for reward and recognition. The wise counselor, Father Zosima, tells her a story about a man similarly inclined. This man emphatically declared his love for humankind in general, while acknowledging utter disdain for individual people. The man dreamt of sacrificing himself for others but found the company of those with whom he shared life endlessly irritating (I think we can all relate to that man’s feelings once in awhile, no?).
Father Zosima told the woman, “Active love is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, with everyone watching. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance.”
In other words, love is intentional. Love is work. Love is active over the long haul.
So, what does that kind of love look like?
Well, if we’re honest, the first thing we all likely need to do is go to God and confess the ways we fail to love, and ask for the grace (the power) to become more loving people. Then, because living in love, living in loving ways over the long haul, is an intentional act of the will, because it is work, we need to work at being intentional about becoming more loving.
It could be an intention to be more emotionally present to someone we find difficult to love (a relative, a co-worker, a neighbor, someone you serve with at church). Or, on the other side, to be firmer with establishing and holding clear, loving boundaries in a relationship with someone who is overly needy, and tramples on our boundaries (or on us). It may be an intention to offer our gifts and talents where they are needed (get involved with that church ministry that needs help, or that community project that needs volunteers). Or it may be to simply show up and be present in a painful situation. Or perhaps we begin by acknowledging to God that our tank is empty, we’re empty, and we need to experience anew the love of Christ for ourselves.
That leads us into the hardest part of any growth process: actually practicing a specific way of love that stretches us beyond our current capacity. By practice I mean putting it into action, taking the risks that come with stepping outside our comfort zones. My life experience has taught me that with this kind of practice (and risk) comes failure (death), but also the chance to begin again (new life). And for that reason, it also comes with the joy of finding strength in spiritual muscles I didn’t know I had. In this kind of practice, we can experience God’s amazing grace, the grace that meets us in our flawed and imperfect efforts to grow and become.
In those moments, when I feel that despite my best efforts that I haven’t come nearer to my goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, God’s grace pours down. God opens my eyes, gives me a different perspective, so I can clearly see the wonder-working power of Christ, who has been loving me and mysteriously guiding me the whole time. My eyes are opened to the truth that when I am intentional about living in love for others, I am actually living every moment immersed in God’s love for me.
May God bless us all in our living, and growing, in love.
Blessings and Peace,