Impossible Love

The following is the first essay from a book of essays I’m writing, to be published as an Amazon eBook for cheap.  Because I’m a profiteering nut like that.  The book itself is a reaction to years of frustration with the church boiling over onto paper, so it may be somewhat more acerbic than my usual style (and given that I save all my vitriol for blogging, thereby preserving for the world at large my sweetness and light, that is a nice accomplishment).  You have been warned.

Impossible Love

When Jesus says, “But I say to you, love your enemies, and bless those who persecute you,” the heathen says, “That’s impossible!” And he is right.

When Jesus says, “But I say to you, love your enemies,” the Church says “God would not ask us to do something we cannot. So whatever this means, it surely means something we are able to do.”

Riiiiiight.

God would never ask us to do the impossible. That would be ridiculous! He wouldn’t ask Abraham to slaughter his heir and at yet expect a nation to arise from the same child. He wouldn’t ask Moses to call water from a stone or cut a dry path through the sea with a wooden stick. He wouldn’t ask a nation to live on the fat of a dusty and barren land for forty years. He wouldn’t ask a single prophet to take on eight-hundred and fifty false prophets, or a single judge to take on a nation. God wouldn’t ask a church to accept, no, to welcome a man who had devoted himself to slaughtering them. He might as well ask a storm to clear in a heartbeat or request the sun move backwards!

God doesn’t ask us to do the impossible.

He demands it.

This is not a request.

Imagine a broken watch, a shattered and bent mess of former clockwork. A watchmaker says to the watch, “You must point to the correct hour and minute at all times.” The watch says to itself, “it is physically impossible for me to point to the correct hour and minute at all times. Since the watchmaker knows this, it is evident that he doesn’t mean I should literally, physically point to the correct numbers. He must mean something different, something of which I am capable. Perhaps something spiritual.”

But the watchmaker means what he says. And he says it because he means to give the watch the power to fulfill his command, even though obtaining the power by its own devices is as impossible to the watch as moving its arms. God told Moses to raise his staff because God intended to part the sea. God told Elijah to face off with hundreds of prophets because God intended to humiliate Baal.

He bids us to fly. We cannot. He bids us to grow wings. It is not in our power. He once demanded light itself exist. Light doesn’t have the power to leap into being! Light doesn’t even have the power to make more light, having been denied in its glory the powers given to the most low and disgusting of germs.

God isn’t in the habit of making impossible demands. Not at all. God is in the business of making impossible demands. It is His calling. It is His vocation. And the most impossible demand He makes, first of Himself, and then of all who would call themselves His, is love.

When I sat, as a child and student, on mother church’s knee, she told me that love is not affection. Love is not caring. For God tells us to love our enemies and, what is harder, our spouses, and He would not command us to do something we cannot. Love, the church gently told me, means doing right by someone, whether you feel like it or not.

But Paul says “If I feed the poor, and sacrifice my life, and I have not love, it is worthless.”

So, according to Paul, it is possible to do right by someone and not love. Mother was wrong. Go to the back of the class.

What then is love?

Love is Active.

There is some truth to mother’s claim that love is doing right by someone. A mistake I run into more often than not is that love is something of the spirit, and not a thing the emotions or, much less, the stuff of actions.

“By this,” Jesus says, “people will know you are my disciples: if you love one another.” But if love is not visible, if it affects the inner world, but not the outer, how can people know we are his disciples? “A tree is known by its fruits,” he tells us. A tree that bears invisible fruit is either an invisible tree, or else a dead tree. The first makes no difference to the world at all, the second is only good for firewood and bug-food. Southern California burns to the ground every year because of all the dead trees in the forests. Southern California burns to the ground every day because of all the dead trees in the churches.

So while love, whatever it is, might not be “doing right” by someone, but it will inevitably lead to doing right by someone. If I feed the poor and give up my life, yet have not love, I am nothing. But if I have love, I will certainly feed the poor and give up my life.

“If you love me,” Jesus solemnly informs his disciples, his bride, “You will obey me.” The feminists go nuts, desecrating churches and screaming at churchgoers because they know he said this. The western church, however, is equally in love with the idea that a good man never manipulates his wife, never begins a sentence with the words, “If you love me.” So she ignores them.

It is possible that love does not mean obeying God. In other words, it is not the same thing as loving God. But it is certain that love always results in obeying God. A man may kiss his wife and not love her, but he will not love her and not kiss her. Conception is not the same as birth, but there is no birth without conception and, unless things go very wrong through disease, disorder, or violence, no conception that does not result in birth. So, though a man can obey Christ and not love him, anyone who does not obey Christ, ipso facto, does not love him.

“I command you,” he continues, “to love each other in the same way I love you.” Thus he tells us what it means to obey him: to love like him. And how does he love? Passionately. Chaotically. In one breath he says Peter is inspired by Heaven, in the next, inspired by Hell. He berates his chosen representatives for their foolishness, and then turns around and washes their feet. “Love of your house consumes him,” the prophesies say, but he demonstrates this consuming passion by vandalizing his house.

Above all, he bleeds, for in his next words he heralds the sacrifice he will make before the next sundown: “There is no greater love than this: to lay down your life for a friend.”

Many Christians see the implications of the first bit: to lay down your life. That’s easy to get, even though it’s hard to do. Jesus died for us. That’s the example.

But notice the second half of the example. Those last three words. Those sense-defying words, those earth shattering words.

For a friend.

“What’s so hard about those words?” you may ask.

What’s so hard is they come from the same mouth that said “Love your enemy.” Put the two sentences back to back. You are to love your enemy. The measure of love is not to die, but to die for a friend. Let the implication sink in. Let your stomach twist and your heart sink as you see the terrible truth tucked into this passage. Watch as the objections rise in your mind, as it squirms to try and interpose the lies of the church between it and the horrible reality that only the pagan sees clearly.

The pagan cannot define love, but he has a strangely clear idea of what it means. The church has carefully defined love so that she can more easily avoid what it means.

If you are still with me, if you are capable of objecting based on the Word of God and not your own good sense, you might point out, “Those verses are far apart. They are in different places, in different contexts. They are talking about different things.”

Fair enough. What did Jesus mean, then, when he said we are to love our enemies?

“You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “’You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48, ESV)

Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Those words terrified me as a child. I knew perfectly well that perfection was beyond me. But I took them out of context. I didn’t realize that Jesus was here speaking only of love.

Of course, that only means he was speaking of everything. This is the circle of the great commandment: “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” which we are informed sums up God’s commands. And yet, the summary does not replace the unabridged volume, for, Christ, our very medieval husband says to us in a voice that a modern councilor would see as petulant and manipulative, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

Love your enemies; be perfect as God is perfect. At least, if you want to call yourself His child. How does God love His enemies? The answer to the question is the same as the answer to another question: How does God love His children?

Paul writes in Ephesians 2, “You were dead, because that is what sin is: death. You were the servants of evil. You were the children of wrath. But God brought you to life, resurrected you with Christ, and sat you down in His court in Heaven for the direct purpose of showing you kindness.”

God loves His enemies by making them His friends, even at the cost of His blood.

Love your enemies. The mark of love is to die for your friends.

From the nameless mountaintop at the beginning of the first gospel, to the valley garden at the end of the last, Christ’s to pronouncements on love were never more than a hair’s breadth apart.

Love is Affectionate.

Over and over, I hear it said of someone, “I have to love him, but I don’t have to like him.” And Josh McDowell and James Dobson and many other sages of the church somberly inform me that loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean liking someone. How can they say this? “Well,” they reason, “you can’t control your emotions. You can’t make yourself like someone.” In other words, it’s impossible, and God would never ask us to do the impossible.

Usually, this is preceded or followed by a discussion on the Greek words for love. The English word “love” is too vague, we are told. It can mean anything. The Greek language used by the writers of the New Testament is far more precise, having multiple words for love. Three are brought up: Eros, or sexual love. Phileo, or brotherly love. And Agape, the divine love of God that does right by someone, but is not always affectionate. These definitions are very carefully set out. Agape is the ultimate. Agape is the true, the powerful. Agape is more than simple affection.

More, to be sure.

But not less.

Here’s a dirty little secret: once, someone submitted, for a philosophy class, a paper on these three kinds of love. Drunk on the rhapsodies of mother church, I read it and nodded. But my professor was a pagan. His knowledge of Greek came from Athens, not by way of Jerusalem. And he instantly pointed out that agape was not used by the Greeks to mean some sort of divine, disaffected love. It was the great catch-all, an almost exact parallel to our English word. An ancient Greek, upon encountering his favorite hot-dog stand, would use the word agape. An ancient Greek husband, drifting off to sleep in the afterglow, would murmur not “eros,” but, “agape.” Agape in Greek is as disturbingly vague as love in English, but one thing it implies, like ‘love’ in English, is affection.

I looked it up. He was right. The church lies, but the pagan speaks the truth.

Now, when Paul goes into the famous list, in 1st Corinthians 13, of all the things love is, since affection is not on the list, there are two possibilities. Either he is replacing the old definition with a new one, or else he is supplementing the old definition with new additions. I.e. he might be saying “Love is patient and kind as opposed to affectionate,” or else, “love is patient and kind as well as affectionate.” Mother church tells me it is the former. But if it is the former, why doesn’t Paul bother to detach the concept of affection? Why doesn’t he use some other Greek word for emotional regard, such as stergo or pathos and say “Contrary to popular belief, agape is not like this”? If this misconception is as horrible, dangerous, and misguided as the church wishes me to believe, then why did her beloved husband never bother to refute it?

Perhaps, I thought, there was some cultural factor that allowed the church to understand that, secretly, agape, which implied affection to everyone else in the world, did not imply affection to God. Perhaps she adopted the word because it was the only one the Greek’s had left that wasn’t specific, and assigned it to a specific concept that was far older. So I looked up the Hebrew word for love.

No such luck. The word is ahab. Strong says it means “to have affection for.” This is the word used when God tells His people He loves them. This is the word used when God commands His people to love Him and each other.

You have to love your enemy, and you have to like him.

Impossible? Of course.

That’s the point.

Love is Involving.

In my quest to discover what love meant to the people who wrote the Bible, and to the audience for whom they composed, I learned one other thing: that in the ancient world, love always implied a connection.

Makes sense. Love is not an intransitive verb; it is transitive. You do not simply love. You love someone.

This is not a small point. This is a matter of fundamentally opposed conceptions of reality.

On this side of the ocean, a person does something. On the other side, and in another time, a person rather is something. Jesus tells us that love results in actions, in obedience, in fruit, because it was not obvious to his listeners.

In the west, the heresy that love is passive is easily refuted, for passivity is foreign to us. We can be passive aggressive – that is, we can actively do nothing – but we have difficulty just existing. We have to be doing something. Rabbi Shmuley theorizes that one of the chief difficulties facing western men is that we have forgotten how to be human beings in favor of being human doings. So when someone suggests, with Christ, that love is active, we nod thoughtfully and accept it, at least to some degree, while D.C. Talk energetically proclaims that Luv is a Verb.

It is a heresy to believe that love does nothing, but it is also a heresy to believe that love is the action itself.

The ancient view of love is aptly expressed in the philosophizing of the hero of Fiddler on the Roof. He isn’t sure what love is, and therefore isn’t sure if he loves his wife, but he is the husband of his wife, and he supposes that this will do. This concept of connection cannot be disentangled from any talk about love and the Bible, for the people of the Bible saw everything in light of connections. What mattered to the ancients was not who you were, but whose you were.

Love is a bond between two or more people.

Christ died for us, while we were his enemies, so that he could marry us. No – the bond that he intends to have with his bride is so intense, that he invented marriage and sex as a symbol of it. A perfect marriage is unity, spiritual, emotional, social, and physical. Love, therefore, draws together and unifies, wherever it can, and whatever the cost.

This is why, in two or three places, God says “Love your enemy,” but in all places, He says, “Love your neighbor.”

Good news! Love your enemies doesn’t mean you have to love Hitler! Loving Hitler is pointless. He’s on the other side of the world, and also, he’s dead.

No, there’s no need to love Hitler. But if a man breaks into your house, steals your things, assaults and molests your loved ones – him you must love. For he is your neighbor.

When we are told to love our enemies, we look to our political enemies, to tyrants and terrorists across the sea, to colorful villains from the pages of ancient history. But God gives us no such break. “Not those enemies,” He says. “You have to love the enemies in arm’s reach.”

And if you respond by moving out of arm’s reach, God knows you’re cheating. But go ahead, cross to the other side of the road. He will gladly take the inheritance of His priests and give it to Samaritan heretics. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Love is about connection. If you claim to love Saddam Hussein, it’s all gas: you can’t possibly. You’re coughing up empty words. I can say to you that I love Taisuke Koriyama. I don’t even know who he is, or even if he exists, but there is probably someone in Japan named Taisuke Koriyama.

There is a technical, theological term for my claim: Bullshit.

Love means making a connection, at the cost of your life if necessary, and maintaining that connection. All forms of love are echoes of that divine marriage, an echo itself of the Trinity. All forms of love are the two become one. So it is that God doesn’t require us to love everyone.

Just everyone who passes through our part of life.

Just the people that it’s hard to love. Or even, in some cases, impossible.

Love is Impossible

This essay is the beginning and end of all the others. God is the Alpha and Omega of reality. Love is the Alpha and Omega of theology. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God.

Given that love is visible, these words hold out great hope for many of the pagans in my life, but precious little of the church.

Love is the essential. Love is the religion itself. God is love. Love is Christ. We are to love exactly like God. Every other thing, every other lecture I give or podium I pound is only a rephrasing of this truth.

So there it is. Love means becoming one with someone in some fashion. It means having affection for someone. And it means that your relationship and affection will be visible, obvious, recognizable. Indeed, it will be unmistakable.

For love of this nature is impossible. You cannot do this well for your friends; God demands you do this perfectly for your enemies.

Therefore, when the church comes along who embraces the man who murders her children, as it embraced Paul, it will be as impossible to ignore as it was for her to accomplish this task.

You cannot do it. Despair of this standard, oh church, if you must. Despise this standard, even, for hatred of truth is closer to love of truth than is apathy. But whatever you do, do not lower this standard. For if you once forget even a part of this, if you once allow a definition that is within your reach, you have taken something that is not love, and named it love. And he who does not love does not know God, for God is Love.

When your fiance comes for you, as He promised He would, if you have done nothing but draw pictures of how you want Him to look, and whisper sweet nothings you want Him to say; if you have rejected the picture He sent you and the letters He wrote you for images and words of your own devising; on that day as He calls out for you, you will not hear Him, for you will not recognize Him. On His wedding day, He shall wed the woman who loves Him, and the only groom you will have left is the eternal regret of choosing the shadow of your fancy over a living, breathing man.

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