Monday, November 12, 2012

What is Love? Baby don't hurt me.

What is love? Baby don’t hurt me.

Love is such a ubiquitous word, especially for English speakers. We love pie (or cake), we love our friends, our girlfriends, we love our country and we love getting off work early. We love our God. But even though we use the same word for different things, we don’t think that the love we have for pie is the same kind of love we have for God or girlfriends (though I may love pecan pie more many girlfriends…)

Because we have one word that covers so many things, it’s hard to know what people mean when they use it. When they use love as a philosophy and say things like: “We should just love other people,” the question should be “what kind of love?”

Jesus did said “love thy neighbor,” but he had a very specific idea in mind. He taught that there are two commandments based on love: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind,” and “love thy neighbor like thyself.” The second commandment is like the first, because the first says that love is giving everything to God, our entire selves. If we give that kind of love to our neighbor, it makes sense that we would love our neighbor like ourselves. They have part of us with them.

Love means gifting ourselves to others. It’s not a desire, or an appreciation, or tolerance. To love like Jesus tells us to is to share openly and be vulnerable; it means investing ourselves in others in ways that they may use to hurt us later. That is why there is an ethic to love.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, love implies a duty, a call to action. We are called to relationship, and to ignore a stranger in need is to ignore a brother or ignore yourself. Being called to love means that the people we meet have the capacity to receive that love; it means acknowledging the humanity in one other, the spark of God we share between us.

Love also entails a responsibility. When we sin and fall short of God, we harm ourselves. We are who we should be when we are at our best, and that best is when we follow God. This is why Jesus tells the apostles that when a brother sins against you, show him his fault between the two of you. If that does not work, bring a friend, and if that still doesn’t work then bring him before the elders of the church. If none of these succeed in correcting your brother, then expel him from the community. We have a responsibility to convert the world because the Christian life is the truest and leads to the person God intends for us to be. When our brothers and sisters in Christ fall short, love impels us to correct them. The tough love we are commanded to show other Christians is only tough because salvation is so serious. If they profess to want it, they should not be accepted as they are, but as they should be.

When people use “love” they usually mean “tolerate” or “accept.” They mean that we shouldn’t judge other people, or impose our own beliefs. Many people use “love” as a way to remain impartial or take no sides, but that kind of love means loving other people no more than cake or pie. I accept them as they are, without requiring change.

But a love that means relationship, where people hold parts of our heart, soul, and mind requires more than that. That intimacy requires duty, responsibility. We can hurt each other too easily. This is what marriage is: a promise before God and the Church to hold in trust and commitment the gift of self our spouse is making. This is why sex outside of marriage is so damaging, because we love and give ourselves to each other with abandon, and that gift is so often betrayed.

Love is a holy thing. It should be treated as such, with all the respect, awe, responsibility, cherishment, and grace it deserves. It is hard to be in relationship with all people, but love demands we be open to that. It is hard to demand people change when we say we love them, but if we demand the best from ourselves we cannot do less for others. It is hard to honor the love between us correctly, and we hurt each other too much.

But this is the love that Jesus models for us, the love that loved perfectly but suffered, that accepts our wounds against him and loves us still. Love in the world is raw and tender, but it is the greatest gift we are given.