Love Is and Isn’t

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Jesus is beautiful. I don’t mean he’s a good-looking guy. I mean love is beautiful and God is love. Real love, the love that manifests in humility and generosity, kindness and grace, forgiveness and repentance, is the most beautiful thing in the world (a close second is a perfect layout catch for game point, but I digress).

 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:8

I love my kids. I love Rowan, who is now an EMT, and I support him however I can. He’s an adult with his own place and I don’t see him every day. I love him to the moon and back. Recently, someone stole a part off his car (because sometimes people suck) so he is currently borrowing mine. I get to love him that way.

I love Corin, who is thirteen and acts every bit of thirteen. In fact, I am now having flashbacks to thirteen and I just want to say: “Sorry, Mom.” But Corin enjoys my company, praise God, and we play baseball and disc golf, watch shows and play board games, and I’m teaching him to drive (because he. cannot. wait.). We talk about life and the world we live in. I spend time with Corin literally every day and often my love for Corin looks like spending time with him when I feel like I “should” be doing other things. Often, love for Corin looks like exercising more patience than I actually possess–I’m certain he will apologize to his mom at some distant point in the future–and speaking firmly but gently. Firmly. But gently. Grace. More grace. And then more patience.

I love this child, more than I can hope to put into words. Yes, he drives me crazy at times, but I don’t take his life for granted. Ever. I trust you understand what I mean by that.

Love for Corin and love for Rowan look very different at this point in their lives and stages. We express love differently depending on the person and situation. If I loaned Corin my car for an extended period of time and let him drive it wherever he wants, that would not be loving to him. Oh, he’d like it. But offering him the opportunity to hurt himself and others would be unloving.* Likewise, Rowan doesn’t want me showing up at his place every day, badgering him to watch The Simpsons or come throw a disc. He would not feel loved. He has good boundaries, so he would let me know pretty quickly, “Dad, not feeling loved here.”

We love differently depending on the context. However… In honor of Corin’s current enjoyment of The Simpsons, I’ll borrow my counterexample from Homer Simpson. Homer buys his wife, Marge, a bowling ball for her birthday.

Marge doesn’t bowl, but Homer does. Conveniently, this ball fits Homer’s hand perfectly.

Love can take an almost infinite variety of forms; what may feel like love to one person might feel horribly unloving to another. But some things can never be love, no matter how much we want to squint and contort our perspective.

Fear-mongering can never be love. Pushing others down to raise ourselves up can never be love. Rallying others to support your cause through shared hatred of the enemy can never be love. Racism, however we try to disguise, rationalize, or justify it, can never be love.

God is love and love is beautiful. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God,” John writes. I will take the next step: love leads us toward God. When we love, the act of love changes us. I mean, truly love others with our hearts, not pretend to love with our words while our hearts harden. We cannot love and grow further away from God. The very act of loving draws us to God.

Yes, you can love and push away from a church. You can act in love and, through that act, distance yourself from an individual or community who might claim the name of Jesus. But any act of love intrinsically draws us to God.

To me, this explains how some people who do not accept the name of Jesus can be dazzlingly beautiful in their love, while others who proudly proclaim Jesus at every opportunity might appear neither loving nor beautiful. Just as we are punished by our sins, not for our sins (intrinsic, not extrinsic), so too do we grow through acts of love, not for acts of love. God designed it to work this way and God designed us to work this way. In other words, love itself grows us; we do not receive growth as some prize for acting in love. Paul’s passage on love in I Corinthians draws this out:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

None of these “spiritual” actions–speaking/preaching, prophesying, having faith, giving–change our hearts or benefit us at all unless we act in love.** Again, “whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Looking spiritual or having influence over large numbers of people does not necessarily equate with acting in love. I connect this with Jesus’ warning that people can act and claim Jesus’ name: “‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’”(Mt. 7:22) Again, if I have prophetic powers, but do not love, I am nothing.

In fact, people who claim to be acting for God and don’t love are dangerous.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?  In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Recently, I’ve seen this quote bouncing through social media: “Stop walking around with a mouth full of Scripture and a heart full of hate.” Not sure who said it first, but thank you, Someone. It captures Paul’s warning, albeit focused more on the negative: Don’t be quoting Scripture at people as a weapon, don’t be mouthing God’s word when God’s love isn’t motivating you and changing your heart.

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.

This sounds simple and straightforward until we remember that we always have mixed motives. Always. Love is complicated because we’re always navigating our own conflicting desires and motivations.*** So I carry these in tension: Jesus says to beware of wolves in sheeps’ clothing and I can’t know others’ motives to be certain of what is in their hearts. I do have responsibility to watch for–and protect others from–people who claim Jesus but preach hate. I do have responsibility to discern when I see good fruit or bad fruit. Most of all, I am to watch and know my own heart.

That takes me back to my opening: God’s love is beautiful. When I love, I know God. The more I choose to love, the more I grow toward God.

And just so I don’t mentally turn myself into a pretzel asking “How do I know if this really is loving?”

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. I Corinthians 13:4-8

*Actually, he has the sense not to drive it, as he just explained to me that he would not do anything that could possibly delay obtaining his license.

**I’d say an act done not in love can still benefit others, but that’s not my point here.

***I always suspect there is a group of people out there who are much purer of heart than I, have more straightforward motives, and even understand their own motives! If so, I hope they pray for me. A lot. I also suspect my mother-in-law belongs to this group.

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