This Reflection is the third and final post in a series about using Christian love as we interact with others. A first Reflection, A Time I Got It Right described love in the simplest of terms: looking at the needs of others before one's own. A Tale of Two Priests explored how employing the traits of love can make all the difference when we act in situations that might deal with a conflict of faith.
While we know Christian Love is to be a hallmark of the Christian's life of faith, we do find it hard to love ... and maybe even difficult to understand. At least doing and understanding love are hard for me!
As I wrote in the last Reflection, I think Jesus realizes that loving will be difficult. In the gospel of John (13:34a ESV), Jesus says, "A new commandment I give you: Love one another." Commandment: an interesting word here. If love is easy, comes second-nature to us, commandment wouldn't be necessary. We're commanded because the task is difficult.
Much of the difficulty we have in loving others is the language we use when we talk about love ... maybe more importantly, the language we use when we think and pray about love. Words do make a difference. They shape our conversations, they shape the way we think. I'd like to share some thoughts about words and phrases that affect our ability to love. (Each of these could probably fill a full Reflection ... or even a whole book. But, I'll try to restrain myself and give a cursory look at a few.)
The Word "Love"
Part of the problem of understanding Christian love comes from our understanding of the word love itself. We are told that love is not the same as like. But, try as I might, when Jesus says "love your enemies," I still think in terms that Jesus wants me to like my enemies. (Or like that jerk down the street!)
A clearer understanding of the Greek word for love (in the context of Jesus' command or Paul's famous chapter on love) can help.
There are different words in New Testament Greek that are used for love ... and we translate them all as
"Love". These definitions may be common knowledge for many, but worth repeating. Here are a few:
Eros means love, mostly of sexual passion. The modern Greek word "erotas" means intimate love. Desire is a part of this type of love; eros is definitely a term that implies feelings.
Philia means affectionate regard, friendship, usually between equals. It can be thought of as loyalty to friends ("brotherly love"). Philia is a general type of love, used for love within family, between friends, a desire or enjoyment of being with another. Like eros, philia also involves strong feelings.
Storge means the love, affection, and natural empathy found especially in parents for their children. Storge is also used when referencing the love for one's country or a favorite sports team. Like the others, this word connotes feelings on the part of the lover.
Agape is the unconditional love of God for God's children, stress being on "unconditional". This type of love is explained by Thomas Aquinas as "to will the good of another." Unlike the other words, agape does not necessarily involve feelings. It may, but agape love can be dispassionate.
AGAPE is the word used for Love in the New Testament by Jesus and definitely by Paul in the famous love
"Agape is disinterested love. ... Agape does not begin by discriminating
between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. ...
Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both."
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. chapter of I Corinthians. Understanding "love one another" and "love your enemies" with this explanation of agape can make such love more doable.
I don't have to "like" or be fond of the other person. I do have to care about their welfare. C.S. Lewis says it quite well: "Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained." (God in the Dock) In this way to love someone according to the Gospel call is not the same as "to like someone" in affectionate terms. Nor is it the same as to agree with them, or follow them, or support them, or vote for them. It leaves room for disagreement and even dislike. In Tyndale Bible Commentaries, writer Leon Morris describes this agape as, "a love lavished on others without a thought of whether they are worthy or not."
We are to love one another ... not necessarily like them.Interestingly though, loving someone you do not like, without the requirement to like them, often ends up in actually liking that person. I can think of situations where I decided to act in love toward someone I really did not care for at all. But after doing this love thing, I found a bit of fondness grow. I also know of as many situations where I think I did love, but I still really couldn't stand them!
Sometimes the words we use when we talk or think about others can be a gauge of whether we are thinking in a manner that will lead us to agape-love. Especially, we can be aware of our words and terms that suggest we are on paths of thought likely to lead us away from acting in love toward others. "Those people should get a job!" "What is it they want? They are always protesting something." "Those people just disregard what the bible says about marriage."
It can be difficult to act in love when we really don't know the other person. In the absence of really knowing someone or a group, we apply our stereotypes or generalize based on limited knowledge. A friend's favorite quip when I make sweeping generalizations about other people seems appropriate here: "All Indians walk single file; ... at least the one I saw did!"
The thoughts of Jewish theologian Martin BuberMartin Buber (February 8, 1878 -- June 13, 1965) was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism centered on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship. He was nominated for the Nobel prize in literature ten times, and Nobel Peace prize seven times. In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou). can be quite helpful in getting us to think beyond "those people" terms. Buber would describe the examples above as being I-It relationships. We think of and treat others as "its"; we fail to recognize the dignity of their humanity. While in many interactions we have no choice other than to treat a relationship as an I-It one, if we want to think and act in love, we need to move to what Buber calls an I-Thou relationship. Rather than think of others as objects -- Its -- we think of others more as reverent Thous, made in the image of God.
I've tried to read some of Buber's works and found them interesting but quite deep and difficult. One of the best and understandable explanations of these I-It, I-Thou relationships is in the opening paragraphs of a sermon of a former pastor and friend Stephen Jones. I've included Steve's sermon in the Resources below, and I recommend highly reading at least the first few paragraphs.
(It might be OK, however, to describe people who are on their cell phone while driving as "Those People!")
Liberal/Conservative, Evangelical/Progressive, Left/Right
Thinking of others in either/or terms such as liberal versus conservative can prevent us from acting in agape love. "Oh, she's just one of those bleeding-heart liberal Christians." Rather than get to know what's in the other person's heart or why they might think differently about an issue, we pigeon-hole them and pre-define their motivation. We rarely sit down with and view the other as a "Thou" and try to learn why they might view certain scripture passages differently than I do. "Oh, he's one of those every-word-in-the-bible-is-literal-truth guys. I just tolerate him." Loving is difficult when we misunderstand or only have a superficial understanding.
Perhaps even more limiting and destructive is when we use these same pigeon-hole terms to not only describe but also define ourselves. Rather than really thinking and discussing with others and come to our own conclusions, we use our label to think for us. "I'm an Evangelical Christian; therefore I believe ...."
Another term that prevents us from thinking with the language of loving is "Politically Correct". Perhaps we are part of what some might call the "PC Police". We correct (or simply dismiss) those who use a word or term we don't think the appropriate one. "I can't really get into the pastor's sermons because he always refers to God as 'He'." Or at the other end we dismiss any serious thinking on another's part based on politically correctness. "Oh, she has to be PC and support things like same-sex marriage." It's a lose-lose situation: You're wrong if you don't use what's considered politically correct language; or you're wrong if you do use politically correct words!
What seems most destructive about "politically correctness" ... and how it can keep us from thinking in loving language ... is that it tends to trivialize the issue. Rather than have a meaningful conversation about the gender one uses when referring to God, we trivialize the topic either considering the gender-word choice simply PC or deliberate political incorrectness. Rather than get to the heart of the word used or the issue, we concentrate on whether one is just being politically correct -- or trying not to be politically correct. An important issue is no longer one worthy of serious discussion.
A final language-that-makes-loving-difficult category is one that views situations as either/or. A zero-sum game; one has to win -- one has to lose. In trying to work out a difficult situation we use phrases such as, "I've got to win this time." "I've got to show her that I'm right." "Why am I always the one who gives in? She always gets her way!"
I am not suggesting that Christians who want to act in love should play the doormat; compromise our beliefs and values; fail to take stands. But, if we really do want to act in love, we will try to avoid this win/lose mindset. I realize that even in acting lovingly we can't always come to some mutually satisfying solution. But agape-love would seem to demand that we try our best to work within a both/and mindset, not an either/or one.
But, in trying to act in love, we are not on our own. We have the actual Christ demonstrating what real love, agape love, looks and acts like. We have the Holy Spirit to instruct us and walk with us in both thinking about how to react and actual acting. We have scripture, such as Paul's famous love chapter, that can describe what real love is.
I hope also, through this series of three Reflections, I may have provided examples and food for thought that can help us love as we ought ... and as we probably want to love. I shared a story of how simply putting the needs of another before my own helped me find loving words to use with a transgendered person. The "good priest" in the Tale of Two Priests showed that if one really does want to act in love, there is usually a way that is good even if in a position of conflict of faith. I showed how we could use Paul's characteristics of love in our prayers to help us choose loving ways. There was also an examination of ways of thinking that make it difficult to act in love. And one of my favorite items shows that sometimes acting in love is not as complicated as we make it: Baseball's Joe Morgan's description of his manager Frank Robinson: "He can step on your shoes, but he doesn't mess up your shine!"
And by knowing what the word love really means: We are not given the impossible burden of liking others. We are free to love. To love as Jesus loves us. And how Jesus wants us to love one another.