Love in Isolation
This all adds up to an inescapable fact: the bible’s definition of love is foreign to the modern mind. Even non-Christians would agree the Bible is entirely out-of-step with our culture. The quick scan of western culture above demonstrates how the fabric of our society mitigates against real love. Most significant is the way our culture severs the family connection and leaves people isolated, and they become confused about relationships. In centuries past, for example, people married much younger, but their marriages were much stronger than modern marriages, even though we wait nearly a decade longer in order to grow more mature before marrying. The significant difference is the absence in modern culture of a continuity in relationships. In older societies, newlyweds often lived either with parents or nearby (a dreadful thought today!) and the parents were far more emotionally-healthy than parents in western cultures. Today newlyweds are far-more isolated, so much of their wisdom comes from the hard experience of mistakes which inflict terrible scars.
Beyond extended family ties, there were continuity in the relationships in older communities which supported the newlyweds with experience and wisdom. The famous Christmas movie It’s a Good Life is undoubtedly idealistic, but not inconceivable for the WWII generation which lived and practiced community concern and sacrifice. In modern world, love relationships are a tiny oasis in a vast desert of indifference.
When people become Christians, they are introduced to a concept of love entirely foreign to their previous experience. It means all their former presuppositions and knowledge about love are distorted. It means love must be redefined within a biblical framework. The need to redefine love is difficult to swallow. People experience love feelings and recognize love without knowing any definition. Even a child knows what love feels like in a mother’s arms. Since people intuitively know love by how it feels, there’s no need to redefine anything—or so thinks the young Christian. This scenario is too common: let’s consider a young Christian named Ted. As a non-Christian Ted was heavily involved in sexual affairs. Most of us have known Ted or we’ve been Ted at one time or another. As a new Christian Ted is so excited by his faith, and so relieved to be set free from that crazy sex life, which was becoming an addiction. But then it’s spring time, and Ted begins dating a young Christian girl and falls “in love”. Other Christians tell him to “cool it,” he’s getting too hot too fast. But Ted’s not in a listening mood because his love for her is so strong and warm, and he knows what he’s doing. The young couple is swept up in a lover’s paradise, and their passion soon becomes physical and hot. Older Christians say the relationship is headed for trouble, but the warnings make no sense. Ted knows this love is real, unlike his previous sexual encounters, and he’s confident it will work differently. Older Christians explain that his definition of love is flawed, but he can’t believe it. What’s the likely outcome of Ted’s new romance? There’s a big difference between recognizing love and succeeding at love. Feelings recognize success, but they don’t create success. New Christians like Ted will continue to love in a defective way until they realize love is governed by principles. Love must operate by principles. This is painfully demonstrated when love hurts, because it means something went wrong. Love can also be the most thrilling experience in life, which means something went right. There is a “right way” and “wrong way” to love. The confusion of our lives is figuring out the difference and how to make love “go right.” Isn’t there a manual to explain these things?
Love operates by different principles than banking. Investors who understand the principles of finance may grow wealthy, but when they apply those same principles in a marriage, divorce usually follows. Love operates by its own set of principles. There is an irrational aspect to love which makes it difficult to fit in a tight system under human control. Consider these irrational elements in Paul’s description of love:
Love is not jealous…It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. – 1 Corinthians 13:4,5
Anything that “keeps no record of being wronged” doesn’t work in a banking system. Love “is not jealous”, but that’s irrational if the person you love ignores you and loves someone else! Love “is not irritable,” but how can you avoid irritation with people you care about? It means that all our reasonable rules need to be set aside if we’re to love people. We cannot love others through reason and logic. Whatever love involves, it certainly involves a personal interaction which surpasses reasonableness. If you interact with your relationships in a business-like, reasonable manner, you’re not loving. You may be treating them reasonably or fairly or politely, but not lovingly. English gentry is famous for its formality and stuffy protocols—which is fine for rulers of an Imperial Empire to maintain an aloof, safe distance from their subjects—but this austerity will not create a nurturing, loving home. Loving relationships encourage spontaneous, personal and free interactions. Most important, love means drop the justice and exchange system. Some people’s minds churn endlessly, calculating and reviewing and summing up the spreadsheets as they consider their relationships. If you’re concerned primarily with getting a fair return on your investment or the unreasonable treatment you receive, you’re not involved with love. You’re involved with the rules of banking, perhaps, but not the principles that make love work. The rules of banking will never deliver what you want and what you need from love. For a fair exchange rate, go to the bank.
Love is Tied to Feelings
Love is so irrational because love is inextricably tied to emotions:
Love one another deeply, from the heart. – 1 Peter 1:22
The feeling of love is deep and impacts our ability to function in life. Psychologists have show that when babies are deprived of their mothers, they stop eating. Not everybody who suffered the holocaust, wars or abuse become dysfunctional from deep emotional turmoil. Only certain people do. The difference has to do with having a feeling of being loved. Our character Ted, above, finds this out after his great love romance fell to pieces five years later. Why did it fail? Because once the feelings left the relationship – as they’re sure to do – Ted had no idea how to get those feelings back again. He lost his motivation to love his wife. Like many men (and as he did earlier), Ted went on a “feelings hunt” that landed him in another affair with a younger, more exciting woman. Divorce was inevitable. But as Ted struggles to get his emotional needs met, it’s now more difficult than ever before. His emotional life is fractured across two families he’s spawned, he still has kids from the previous marriage to deal with, his new lover is increasingly dissatisfied with Ted’s love, and Ted is overwhelmed with emotional bankruptcy. Our motivation to do things and our emotional energy comes from being loved. People who struggle with emotional problems have such difficulty because they can’t put their finger on what love is. They lack the emotional strength to endure, and that emotional strength comes only from love. It means that your sense of restlessness or depression or sadness or anger signals a shortage of love in your life. Your emotional needs require loving attention. Invite someone into your life to share your guilt about the past or your pain about your family or your defeats and struggles. Whatever you do, the pursuit of distractions and substitutes only guarantees the depression and coldness will grow deeper. Don’t try to keep busy. Avoidance leads to all sorts of emotional ill-health. Instead, find the love your emotional life requires:
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8
Love and Emotional Disorders
It can’t be overstated how much our feelings are impacted by love. Dr. Ankenman put it well: “All emotional problems from a crying baby to severe psychotic disorders come from the failure of an individual to feel loved by those who are important to him.” To what extent his postulate can be verified by research is difficult to determine. Fortunately, we have the Bible’s agreement:
“If I have not love, I am nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:2
Christians who ignore their need for healthy love will ultimately fail in life, no matter how strong their faith is. This is what Paul says:
But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13
Faith is over-rated for too many Christians, and they find out the hard way. Greg’s story fits many new Christians in our culture. Greg came to Christ through faith one night by praying after Central Teaching. He began experiencing a tremendous injection of excitement and new life. Later as trials set in, Greg experienced a tremendous emotional let-down. “It’s my faith,” he thinks, remembering the prayer that initially brought so much reward. Greg prays again, he asks others to pray, he talks, and people tell him he needs more faith, but the depression deepens and it doesn’t leave.
Greg was mistaken about that earlier excitement, and mistaken about his faith. His faith didn’t excite him. His faith didn’t empower him. It was the forgiveness and unconditional love of Christ that impacted him so much: May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. – Ephesians 3:19 It is the love of Christ which changes us so deeply and fills our lives “with the power that comes from God,” Paul says. Whatever definition we choose for love, everyone knows it fulfills like nothing else. Faith plays a role too, but only secondarily. The Christian who wishes to live a life of sustained spiritual power and fulfillment must sooner or later cross the bridge from simple faith into the deeper realm of understanding how God’s love works. That’s what Christian maturity means.
The Victory of Love
The time and effort required to learn God’s rules of love and unlearn our rules is trivial compared to the rich rewards it promises. It’s God’s intention to convert our past defeats into a victorious new life, like Paul describes:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. – 2 Corinthians 2:14
Whenever Paul describes his new life, it reads like the passage above. He’s confident about the impact he has on people, and it’s a “triumph”. This isn’t abstract or unearthly, and it’s not a future victory. It’s here-and-now impact on the people he meets, leaving behind a string of triumphs. Wouldn’t it be great to look back and see a trail of names undeniably and powerfully affected? God revealed His love to give us the framework to build such a new life. For most of us it’s hard to identify with Paul’s life of triumph. When we struggle with defeated, heartbreaking relationships, it’s because we don’t know how to make love work. Although Paul’s triumph is tied to “knowledge”–and most Christians understand this concept—but it’s not just academic knowledge at work here. It’s the “aroma of Christ”, and a “knowledge of Him” that impacts everyone. It’s the life and love of Christ pouring out through Paul that stunned the people who met him, like he says in another passage:
If it seems we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God. And if we are in our right minds, it is for your benefit. Either way, Christ’s love controls us. – 2 Corinthians 5:13–14a
“Christ’s love controls us” is the heart of victorious Christian living: a life so few Christians actually experience. This thing that “controls us” is not a series of other-worldly encounters with Jesus, as some believe. For Paul, it was not a contrived experience that came from his morning devotions. “Christ’s love controls us” means that Paul understood how the love of God works. “Christ’s love” was not a feeling or an inspiration that gripped Paul occasionally. It’s because he understood God’s love so well, “Christ’s love” became the controlling and dominating navigation for Paul’s life, and it “always leads us in triumph.”
but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:57
- The Layman’s Challenge and Legacy of Love
- The Stylites