Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What is love?

I said in an earlier post that the essence of the Christian message and life, at least according to 1 John, is love: God is love, and out of his great love for us, he saved us from death and sin through the self-sacrifice of his Son Jesus Christ; and he calls us to live in this same love for others. On a Christian metaphysics, the rock-bottom of reality is not an impersonal metaphysical Absolute, or pure consciousness, or anything of that sort, but rather Love. To paraphrase Isaac the Syrian, it is Love that brought the world into existence, and it is Love that leads the world towards a glorious end -- despite all appearances to the contrary!

But of course, it is typical that the devil and evil people, in the perversion of their thoughts, should distort the one purest and most godly thing there is. So these days, people have all manner of mistaken conceptions about what love is; more than that, they may even feel a love which is distorted, disordered, and positively unnatural. In all these ways, they take what is good and pervert it. 

What is love? Some persons think that love means: Baby, don't hurt me. In other words, to love a person is not to do anything which might discomfort the other person, not to do anything that doesn't send a message of approval to the other. "If you loved me, you would do this -- you would get me this -- you would understand -- etc." Consider the present controversy over gay marriage. Some persons reason thus: Jesus teaches us that we are to love our neighbors; consequently, loving our gay neighbors means welcoming and accepting the life that they choose to live, the sexual partners they choose for themselves, etc. (I am not hereby saying that a person chooses to have gay sexual attraction; but it is obvious that a person chooses to be sexually active with persons of the same sex.) 

But it seems to me this is mistaken. Look at what John says: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3.16). For John, love is understood eminently through the self-sacrifice of Jesus. What does this sacrifice teach us?

In the first place, it teaches us that love does not mean an unconditional acceptance or affirmation of the beloved person's interests, desires, beliefs -- even the most dearly held ones. It would be foolish to think that Jesus accepts us as we are, and even celebrates all the things we celebrate, and yet dies for our sins. After all, many of the things we celebrate -- our pride, our arrogance, xenophobia, hatred, selfishness, etc. -- are the very sins for which he died! Why die for them, if our sins are not worth punishing? Why should he have given himself in our place, if God celebrates all those things, too, out of love for us?

Rather love is acting for the other person's good, even at the cost of extreme self-sacrifice. But this is a good that they might not know or appreciate themselves. This is implicit in the reality of Christ's self-sacrifice for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5.8). We thought our lives were going along just fine, until we learned that Christ had to die for our sins in order for us to be reconciled to God in his goodness and holiness. Thus, through Christ's crucifixion, we learn that the human situation is by far worse, much more profoundly worse, than we might have imagined. As Stephen Westerholm says, But once [Paul] was convinced that Jesus was, after all, God's messiah, then Christ's crucifixion, far from discrediting messianic claims on [Christ's] behalf, had to find a place in the divine plan for messianic redemption. It follows that humanity's predicament must be more desperate than [we] otherwise imagined (Justification Reconsidered, p. 33).

Of course, in this day and age, it sounds rather paternalistic and patronizing to speak like this. "Surely I don't need you to tell me what's good for me! I can handle that myself, thank you very much!" This is a sentiment that we ought to avoid provoking, because it can convince people that your love for them is really just an attempt at showing your superiority over them. But at the same time, we cannot agree with this modernist/postmodernist notion that everyone can determine for himself what is right and wrong, and no one can tell another person what is good or bad. After all, the Christian is not imposing her own moral standards on other people so much as calling them to live in accordance with what (she believes) God has revealed in Jesus Christ.

So there is a tricky balance between acting on the basis of our concern for the other person, which may require us to confront her about the life she has chosen for herself, and trying to avoid coming off as patronizing and arrogant. This can be done, I suspect, by speaking less and acting more -- that is, acting in a manner such that the other person can unambiguously discern our genuine goodwill for her.That might mean helping her in concrete ways that she can appreciate but which have nothing to do with the problem about which you want to confront her. In general, we have to establish trust with other people, so that they can see love for love, rather than for patronizing paternalism.