A Tale of Two Loves (Part 1): Constrained Love

I started blogging regularly back in January of this year because I was hot under the collar about how we in the church approach sex. (Not THAT kind of hot under the collar. Or not ONLY that kind. Yeesh.)  As I’ve wandered my way blindly stumbling to the unnamed core of what really unsettled me, I’ve gotten farther from sex and closer to–dare I even say it?—love. The deeper I dig, the more I realize that I have a lot to learn (and unlearn) about love. I’m not talking only about romantic love, but how I relate to every person or being around me—my family, my friends, my coworkers, even my cranky dog. That’s scary. Uncovering this has left me feeling so vulnerable it has taken me nearly a month to write this post—not because I don’t know what to write, but because I know that once I post it, there is no going back. There is comfort in the way I have done things for a long time, in the path that has grown wide because I’ve walked it again and again. But, well, we know what the Bible says about the wide path

I don’t think anyone who identifies as a lover of Jesus would argue that we should be identifiable as Christians by our love. We even sing songs about love—our love, God’s love for us. Love, love, love. Its depth, its unshakeability, its pervasiveness, its power… We read the “love chapter” of the Bible at weddings. But like a statue touched by thousands of hands, it may be hard to see the face of Love clearly after all the handling.

I’m not sure whether it’s the root or a symptom, but how we see Jesus lies at the heart of this. I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I think it is a problem that we see the end goal of Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross as saving us from our sins. Praise God, He has redeemed me from my wicked ways! I have power over my own sin, thanks to Jesus. I do not want to discount the powerful effectiveness of the presence of God to change lives. I have seen families made whole, addicts come clean, finances restored, hearts revived. It’s all wonderful. Miraculous, even. But is it the goal of Jesus’ great sacrifice and God’s work in our lives? And if we see that as the end toward which God’s love reaches, what does that tell us about love?

Let me put that another way: I think it matters deeply how we see the goal of the Great Act of love that we preach to everyone who will listen. If the “God so loved the world SO THAT” we might be morally perfect, saved from the power and destruction of our own sins—if that is its MAIN PURPOSE—what is the love that we are offering?

I have begun to see in myself (and lately it feels like I see it in every Christian book I pick up) a love with the goal of behavior modification. If I love someone, I want them to be who they’re meant to be. Their best selves. I show love by helping them toward that goal.

That doesn’t really sound so bad. Well, ok, “behavior modification” has kind of a nasty ring to it. But what’s so bad about the rest? Don’t we all want someone to come alongside us in our aspirations? To see us the way we want to be on our best days and to help us get there?

A dear friend who also grew up in the church said recently that she has had to learn the value of complimenting people because in her childhood church culture, it seemed like giving a compliment detracted something from the giver. That resonated for me, and it gave me a new lens to start looking at my own behavior and heart. I began to notice that compliments (given or received) often feel inauthentic to me. I am very quick to look for what is behind them. When people tell me things they like about me, I feel weird if I don’t take them as opportunities to improve the things I don’t lie about myself. Physical appearance is an easy example. My hair may look great today (thans for telling me) but I really need to work on my… Fill in the blank. Posture, eyebrows, smile… emails! I spent too much time on my hair and got behind on work emails before the day really even started! The list is LONG.

Turn that around. When I tell people I see something good in them, I sometimes have ulterior motives. Let me tell you this nice thing about yourself so that I can help you out of that really nasty habit I see in you. Doing this is such an ingrained habit of mind that it’s hard for me to even catch myself, but it’s there. The end goal is helping the person achieve a better state, so I think of it as a good thing, or at worst, a small thing. It is easy for me to minimize it myself because I don’t like to think about the ugliness of it. But think of it as a starting point, then draw a line from it into years of relationship. There’s a trajectory there that churns my stomach if I let my mind rest on it long enough.

WHY would compliments feel so inauthentic? What does that say about how I experience love? Thank God His love for me is unconditional. But if the nature of that love is correction, if I believe that the Great Being of the universe (the one who is the definition of love itself) shows love by fixing me for the sake of fixing me, if the end goal is just pulling me out of the actions and consequences of sin…

…I may show love in a new romantic relationship primarily by evaluating its moral status or value. Try having a conversation with Christians about a new relationship and time how long it takes to be asked if you’re having sex. Nearly every Christian book I’ve read on dating (or finding a spouse) has that as a starting point. Seriously, go check out the first few chapters of any Christian book on dating. After all, how can a relationship be good if its moral foundations are shaky?

…Stretching that into years of relationship, I may see my responsibility to my spouse and to myself in marriage as helping us stay on the straight and narrow. We are the light of God to the world. And if the message we are broadcasting is one of God’s goal of saving us from our sins, we’d better get marriage right. Marriage is a safe place where we’re meant to experience love and respect, but we may even twist those around to serve the end-goal of right living. The bestselling book, Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; the Respect He Desperately Needs sounds promising. We recognize the need for both things in ourselves. We long for them. When I first read that book, the title was Love and Respect: Motivating Your Man God’s Way. It’s clear why the authors wanted to change that title, but the yeast of motivation is still there. Check out the very first sentence on the website home page: “We believe love best motivates a woman and respect most powerfully motivates a man.” Is that our goal? Motivation? To what? Why are love and respect for their own sake not enough?

…I may evaluate the value of the charitable things I do based on how effective they are at correcting circumstances and behaviors. If I’m helping women in crisis pregnancies, how many abortions have I prevented? If I’ve “adopted” a child in poverty, does she finish school? If I’m coming an addict, does he overcome the addiction?

… I may think that my child’s moral choices are so important that I will sacrifice my relationship with him or her for the sake of highlighting the destructiveness of their behavior. Drugs, sexuality…

Is the main way we experience and show love as help living within the bounds of what is Right?

What if we’re missing the real point and real power of Love?

To be continued…

1 thought on “A Tale of Two Loves (Part 1): Constrained Love”

  1. You never make this easy!! I have to say, am not surprised that God is doing His work in you, on the things you are looking at. It seems to be a talent of His 🙂
    The topic of compliments is fascinating! Being OCD,and B&W has it challenges. Thankfully, the older I get the more recognizable my weaknesses have become.
    I’ve never really thought about compliments, except in the context of “do I trust your words”….Trust is a thing….words are over used. We all have our village..those we trust. I trust the words of my village, both good and bad, explicitly. Those not of my village..words are just words…calloused huh?
    The book!!! Ever want to hear my soapbox on that…let me know. I’m certain that the intentions of the writers were completely honorable….the audience…not so much.
    I completely agree about the behavior modification issue. It’s a thing I have REALLY had to get a handle on, and see through a different lens. Am continuing to be a student….a student of Jesus. Love….running to love more as He loves. I can see His love in some ppl…some couples…it looks different….its recognizable…can’t be faked…only emulated. It is beautiful to see…
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and writings my friend!

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