Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Advice to the Lovelorn-- Learn Love

Fallen human beings have a very difficult time understanding real love. They are born inherently self-centered creatures, and what begins as a necessary survival mechanism, becomes in an adult a practiced art form. In its extreme expression it becomes narcissism, the heart turned in upon itself to such an extent, that like King Midas, everything that a person touches is meant to serve a selfish end or aim and so is harmed, damaged, rendered inert. Lust, desire, affection, even attention getting forms of kindness or compassion are all mistaken for 'love'. What then is real love? By definition it is something inherently self-sacrificial, just the opposite of something that is self-centered, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-satisfying. Even animals can express 'love' in the physical sense (see the elephants above), but that is not the essence of what the NT is talking about.

In her recent eloquent novel 'The Maytrees' Annie Dillard has some pretty profound things to say about real love. A couple of excerpts bear repeating. "The lasting love he studied, not mere emotion, might be willful focus of attention. It might be a custody of reactions. He circled this view for years. Love as directed will did not sound like love's first feeling of cliff-jumping. Call that period eighteen months or seven years-- call it anything but infatuation! It must be acknowledged and accounted for. Recently science had nailed down its chemistry: adrenaline. After eighteen months the body balks at more adrenaline. Then what? He had loved Lou for years and years. On and off, mostly very much on. Those loving years and their persistence, must also be credited. People used to die so young! Maybe lasting love is a rare evolutionary lagniappe. Anthropologists say almost every human culture gives lip service, and lip service only, to monogamy." (p. 129).

One more passage will have to do. "The idea of love as irresistible passion died hard for Maytree long after he knew better. Was he 'in love'...all those years?...Then what guides will-- reason? The darling of the dead Greeks, that guarantor of the science he loved? Surely reason never trafficked in a man's love. Science rinsed love's every scent from its hands.... Wishing and doing, within the realm of the possible, was willing: love was an act of will. Not forced obeisance, but-- what? The obvious course of decency? Innate knowledge of goodness? Was it reasonable to love the good and good to love the reasonable?" (p. 187).

These are interesting musings, and they overlap with something the Bible tells us quite often. That love is an action word, grounded in a decision of the will-- whether God's will or human will. Love is not at its essence or inherently about feelings, though it often involves feelings. Love may or may not involve desire, affection, lust, physical pleasure. Much depends on whether those latter things are expressed in the service of self-sacrificial love or not. Indeed those four latter things can be expressed in the service of the opposite of love. Indeed often the most profound expressions of what the Bible calls love have nothing to do with desire, lust, physical pleasure. Take for instance, the ultimate expression of love-- the death of Christ on the cross. Whatever Jesus was feeling on the cross., it was not 'desire' or 'lust' or a longing for physical pleasure. And when we are exhorted in the Great Commandment Part B to love our neighbor as ourselves, this is neither an encouragement to auto-eroticism, nor to lechery. Indeed it has nothing to do with desire or lust or physical pleasuring of oneself or others. Or when the Bible says "God so loved the world that he gave..." we cannot think for a moment that this sacrifice was accompanied by feelings of arousal or 'desire' in the bodily or sexual sense. As it turns out, while the Bible has something to say about sexual relationships and the marital expression of the same (see e.g. Song of Solomon or 1 Cor. 7), it only rarely speaks of those things in terms of 'love', and even more rarely in terms of 'agape' love. Ephesians 5.21ff. is something of an exception, but what is most interesting about that discussion is that the wife is not exhorted to love her husband, but the husband is most certainly and in various ways exhorted to love the wife. The same applies in Col. 3-4 as well. It looks like the male needed more jump-starting when it came to self-sacrifice on the model of Christ's self-sacrifice for the church.

Consider for example a man with aged parents whom I know-- ages 91 and 81. Watch them closely. They still very much love each other, but much if not most of the physical side of their relationship is understandably in the past. Most of the loving done involves serving one another, acts of kindness, helping each other complete the journey of life. It has little if anything to do with 'desire' in the erotic sense. Was Maytree right that infatuation is just the beginning of love, and not its completion? How important really is the physical component, even in a good marriage? Well, many counselors today in our sex saturated culture will tell you its incredibly important especially if you want people to remain faithful. I wonder where grace comes into this sort of counseling? What of couples who very much love each other, but cannot, due to physical impairment or other reasons, share in that way any more? Have they become lovelorn? Are they in danger simply because they cannot express physical desire in one particular fashion? It would appear to me that the answer to this query is often no. Because you see, the real deep dimension of love involves something spiritual, it involves a decision of the will, it involves a conscious effort at deeds of loving self-sacrifice. This is love in motion, rather than love as emotion.

Do not misunderstand me. Anyone who under estimates the power of sexual attaction, desire, sexual expression, and the goodness of those things in the right context, is making a big mistake. But it is an equally large mistake to assume that those things are the essence or quintessence of what the Bible is referring to by agape. Agape is something you can share with God, with neighbor, with anyone. Agape need not wait until one is in the mood. Agape involves self-sacrificial actions even when you don't feel like it, even when it causes you pain, or as in the case of Jesus, even death. Until we understand what sort of love the Bible mostly is talking about, we will continue to mistake a host of other things for agape. And it is, after all 'agape' which makes the world go around, 'agape' which led God to send his Son, agape which saved our skins on the cross, agape which neighbors can share without fear of crossing marital boundaries.

Where am I going with this reflection? I would simply say that even Christians have not plumbed the depth of love, and what the Bible has to say about it. My exhortation would be-- rethink your categories as to what is most important in this universe, in your world as well. If it is not agape, then you have not understood the great commandment to love God with one's whole self and neighbor as self. In short, you have failed to learn love, in the Biblical sense. And that is a very great failure indeed for anyone who bears the name Christian.


Darryl Schafer said...

Reading this made me think of the man who gave up his life, lived on the streets, and fasted over the atrocities in Darfur. Have you heard anything else on him?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Darryl:

I am not certain what has happened to him, but it would be worth finding out.


Grumpy Old Man said...

I've heard it taught that thre are three kinds of martyrdom: monasticism, marriage, and offering oneself up to be killed.

Martyros, of course, means "witness."

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Grumpy:

Love and death upon one tether,
and running beautiful together...


Falantedios said...

NT Wright is doing some interesting work on encouraging and developing an epistemology of love, trying to lead people to understand that love is a higher form (indeed, probably the HIGHEST form) of knowing there is. It is neither objective (as we would define it) or precise (again, according to modern definitions), but it is quite possibly truer.

Nick Gill
Frankfort, KY

Unknown said...

I think the Church doesn't make this distinction often enough. The belief that emotion should supply the content of our love for God or other human beings has caused a lot of disappointment and misunderstanding.

I recommend: Kierkegaard's Aesthetic Validity of Marriage