Throughout my childhood my father would often take me hiking with him in the wild and rugged mountain of Montana.
I hated it: the eternal early morning drive to the trailhead, the excruciating load of my backpack, the straps of which would cut deep into my shoulders, sure to leave scars (my backpack had all kinds of things in it like my sleeping bag and…well, okay, so it was just my sleeping bag); and the walking–it was crazy–it never ended, on and on and on and on and on…; and then there were the inhumane temperature swings (similar in magnitude to those on the moon): arriving at the trailhead early in the morning, it would still be freezing out (easily sub-zero weather), and then after about ten minutes on the trail, suddenly I would be on fire–somehow the climate would switch from arctic to tropical as the scorching sun would be mercilessly beat down on me. I will stop there. Inexplicably my father was numb to all this insanity and even seemed to enjoy himself the entire time. I hated it–and I let him know. By whining. Incessantly. It was then that I, in all of my pre-adolescent wisdom, knew for sure: by taking me hiking with him, my father didn’t love me.
I recently saw an (old) episode of The Simpsons in which it was Marge’s birthday. As you watch the clip, consider: it’s evident that Homer has put significant forethought and investment into his gift for Marge. So why doesn’t she like it?
My freshman year in college, late into the first semester, a classmate of mine confided in me that he was really struggling in his classes: apart from a miracle he was facing academic probation, even dismissal from the institution. Even worse, he had just received an email from his mom, in which she had expressed her deep disappointment, even shame, in him for his academic failure: all his life she had loved him, had always been there for him, shielding him in hardships, helping him succeed at the last minute when he was about to fail, staying up late with him to help him complete assignments and projects due the next day, sometimes even writing papers for him. She had loved him so sacrificially for 18 years. How could he so shamefully fail her now by getting kicked out of college?
“I admit that I saw a lot of red flags while we were dating, and I…I chose to ignore them…. But all this is just too hard. I can’t stay in this marriage–it would be like a death to me. I know God loves me, and he wants me to be happy; surely he wouldn’t want me to stay in such a terrible situation, would he?”
Indeed, what is love? How do you know? Who gets to decide?
Does the recipient of love get to decide? As a kid, was my dad not loving me by taking me on a hike in the absolutely beautiful mountains of Montana? Of course he was. (And my pre-adolescent immaturity made it all the more an act of love.) I think back shamefully, yet gratefully, that he took me with him; he didn’t give up on me. He was sharing something truly good, truly glorious with me. Could it be that at times receiving love is something that must be learned?
Indeed, what if receiving love isn’t native to us as humans?
But if the recipient of love doesn’t get to decide what love is, does that mean that the one doing the loving does?
As mentioned, Homer Simpson put some forethought and planning into his gift for Marge (did you notice how the name “Homer” had been etched into the bowling ball?). Of course, one could reasonably argue that Homer wasn’t even really trying to love Marge at all.
But what about my classmate’s mother? She spent 18 years being a helicopter parent, making sure that her son experienced as little pain and failure as possible. Was she not trying to love her son? And during those 18 years, whenever his mom rescued him from pain and failure, don’t you think he felt loved? So the mom was persuaded that she was loving, and the son was persuaded that he was being loved–there’s a consensus over an 18-year timeframe. So was this love?
If receiving love isn’t native to us as humans, what are the chances that showing love is?
(Let me say: there is no doubt that this mom had a great affection for her son: she wanted what was best for him. But that’s precisely the question: did she know what was best?)
As one who desires to be loved, do I have the wisdom to recognize and receive it? As one who (at least sometimes) desires to love, do I have the wisdom to give it?
That is, when it comes to love, do I know what is best for myself or for others? If I don’t, then who does?
My family of origin? My culture?
To generalize, here are three criteria for love offered either explicitly or implicitly by voices in our culture today:
First, love is love, if it’s painless. If either the giver or recipient of love are pained by the experience, then it’s not love. Love has nothing to do with either cost or character-building.
Second, love is love, if it’s permitted. If both (or all) parties agree, then it must be love. As long it’s “consensual,” it’s love. Love has nothing to do with constraints (e.g., commitment). Magically, consensuality simply creates love.
Third, love is love, if it’s private (and personal). If it’s what is best for all persons involved, then it’s love. Love has nothing to do with the community. Love is a private affair with no public implications.
These criteria are pervasive in our culture, and yet deeply problematic (as our examples above indicate). All three have had a profound impact. Just one example that highlights all three, but especially the third:
Though dissenting voices remain, researchers can now be found all along the political spectrum who point to the devastating social impact of the no-fault divorce laws of the 1960s and 70s. How, it was asked at the time, could it be loving to keep a marriage together when spouses no longer loved each other? The marriage was causing pain to at least one (but probably both) parties. If allowed, at least one spouse would no longer permit the marriage to continue. And after all, marriage is a private, personal relationship: why should the government (or anyone else) have a say in matters of love?
As a pastor, having had the incredible privilege of serving 20-somethings over the past 2-3 years, I can testify to at least some of the horrific cost of these divorce policies (the research shows the overwhelming cost is to women and children, but I wonder if the cost to men is also catastrophic, just less concrete and calculable).
As a husband, I know that if I used these criteria, my wife and I would almost certainly no longer be married–at great cost to our children, our community, and ourselves. In fact, on a few occasions it has been precisely the significantly positive public, communal impact that our marriage has had that has (practically) forced us to keep persevering and working through difficult seasons: strangely, yet beautifully (and thankfully) we believe that our marriage is about far more than “us” (and certainly “me”).
So what is love?
Could it be that we humans are so lost that we may not always know-in fact we may rarely know–what love actually is. Could it be that we know neither how to receive love nor how to give it?
Over the past three years, especially when speaking in public contexts (i.e., outside my church), I have asked audiences the following question: who do you think are some of the most loving people in history? Usual answers include Mother Teresa, Gandhi, or perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr., but, of course, Jesus always makes the list.
But if Jesus was so incredibly loving, if he was love, then why was he publicly executed in the worst possible way? (And why were both Gandhi and King assassinated?) Why didn’t Roman justice–those responsible for the glorious pax Romana–perceive and protect love? Why didn’t the preservers and practitioners of his own people’s ceremonies, sacrifices, and statutes identify and intervene for love? Why didn’t his own countrymen and kin–indeed, his own followers–see and stay with love to the very end? Why was love betrayed and abandoned, left all alone?
How could Pilate, the priests, and his own people all crucify love?
Surely we civilized, cultured humans couldn’t all be so wrong about something so fundamental and elementary as love.
So what is it?