Yes... But, If... Then - My Thoughts on Conditional Love and Faith
My mom has this interesting habit of randomly asking if I love her in the middle of our conversations. A few weeks back, I vaguely remember we were on the phone together discussing the book of Acts, and she interjected in the middle of my sentence to say: “do you even love me, Sookie?” “Sookie” is my mother’s affectionate nickname for all of the people she loves (True Blood fans may catch the reference). I responded quickly, saying “yes, but...” and continued on to make my point. My mom was disappointed in my response. “YES, BUT!?” She scoffed incredulously, then said something along the lines of, “I hope you know that I would never say “yes, but...” if you ask me that question.” It struck a chord with me, my mother’s testament to her unconditional love for me. To be clear, I love my mother very much. However, I expressed a sort of conditionality in my love for her at that moment. “Yes, I love you, but right now, I’m trying to finish my sentence, and if you don’t let me get it out, I will love you less.” Now, of course, this is not really the case, but it is what I expressed when I answered with “Yes, but...”.
Out of this interaction with my mother arose a question in my mind. How often am I putting conditions on the “love” (if I can be so audacious as to call it love) that I express towards others? Be it towards my parents, brother, church family, friends, significant other, or God, what limitations have I put on my love? What are the reasons for these limitations, and how dire are their consequences? As this question burned in my mind, I began to wonder about the fallibility of human love, and what it truly means to “love,” so naturally, I set out to learn more about how we (human beings, that is) love. Today’s post is part of a multi-part series I will be writing on love, and as a disclaimer, I will say that the contents of this series are heavily inspired by C.S. Lewis’s book “The Four Loves,” which I highly recommend (you can purchase a copy here) to anyone who finds this topic interesting. So, without further ado, let us begin.
Over the course of a life well-lived, I would wager most everyone, besides the tragically neglected, has experienced love in one way or another. Of course, not all love is the same, and I think I would be doing a great disservice to the readers of this blog if I didn’t first talk about the different types of love, so that is what I am going to do. The first of the “four loves” is affection, which encompasses a variety of loves. When I think of this, I am reminded of how my mother always tells me she “loves” the sound of rain hitting a tin roof in the midst of a storm. She grew up spending a lot of summers in the “holler” in the foothills of Appalachia. Perhaps the sound of rain on a tin roof reminds her of her childhood there, a time in her life when impending responsibilities didn’t loom over every second of relaxation; nonetheless, she has an affection for the sound. Affection relies on the expected and the familiar. In his book, Lewis describes it as humble, saying, “It lives with humble, un-dress, private things; soft slippers, old clothes, old jokes, the thump of a sleepy dog’s tail on the kitchen floor, the sound of a sewing machine….” Affection can often be the stepping stone to other loves. For example, when a man and woman fall in love, it is usually the result of certain affections. Whether it be a shared interest, experiences they have, etc., these things build up into something more as the pair becomes more in tune with the parts of their lives they share. Affection is the familiarity of “the people with whom you are thrown together in the family, the college, the mess, the ship, the religious house,” says Lewis. In short, although we don’t usually put a label on it, affection encompasses most of the love that people experience in their daily lives.
I find it sort of ironic that “love” is a word that is simultaneously overused and underused by most people today. It tends to roll off my tongue in scenarios it ought not yet is far too often withheld when I actually possess the deep appreciation and admiration towards someone or something that the word was designed to express. In Matthew 22, Christ calls us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Christ states profoundly that those two commandments are at the crux of all of the “Law and the Prophets.” That being the case, I began to wonder how well I hold to these commandments in my walk as a diligent disciple of Christ. I often hear myself say “I love you” but am not always convinced I mean it. Am I saying it simply because I know I should love people or because I actually love them? Like if I say it enough, then I will honestly believe it, so I am just going to keep saying it until my heart changes. Unfortunately, I fear the word has lost its significance due to too much misuse. Now it’s become easier to tell people I don’t love that I love them and harder for me to be open with the people I do love. Perhaps spending too much time in the world has perverted my understanding of the concept. Too much negativity around it, too many unrequited feelings that now linger on and prevent me from loving deeper, too much time spent not loving myself so that I could love others the way Christ intended.
“To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves,” says Lewis, “the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” The second of the four loves is friendship, and I’ll admit that I felt a bit called out upon reading Lewis’ words. I had to ask myself how often I let my friends know that I love them. Why is it that the love for friends is often neglected? Lewis says, “few value it because few experience it.” And then I’m reminded that I could probably count on my hands and toes the number of close friends I have had in my lifetime, even now. Of course, my Facebook profile will tell you I have 900+ friends, most of which I haven’t seen or heard from in several years and some of which I have never even spoken a single word to. This begs the question, has the meaning of friendship, along with love, lost its value on me? Lewis and I share the opinion that friendship in its purest form is most likely what we experience when it comes to our relationship with God and our relationships that we might have the privilege to share in eternity. Friendship is developed through mutual interests at some level. Our relationship with God is possible because he wanted it to be so; he wants people to reach out to Him, He wants to be our friend. “Friendship must be about something,” Lewis says, “even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.” Some of the world’s most historical revolutions and advances were made by friends. Jobs and Wozniak, Edison and Ford, Jesus and his Disciples, the list goes on.
My friends like to remind me of my tendencies to be a hopeless romantic, hell-bent on chasing my fantastical vision of what “true love” should look like, which makes me sort of an expert on the third love, romance (eros). Unlike friendship, people experiencing romantic love “are always talking to one another about their love” and “are normally face to face, absorbed in each other,” says Lewis. Solomon, in his wisdom, reminds us to not “arouse or awaken love until it so desires,” a welcome warning about the dangers that come with a budding romance. It is often the case that we follow our emotions blindly and live for the excitement and passion, and when said passion dissipates, we fear our love has dissipated with it. As I continue this series on love, I intend to write a piece on the importance of guarding your heart and the dreaded feeling the Japanese refer to as Takotsubo, more commonly known as heartbreak. However, I digress. Certainly, true romance is not so fickle as to come in and out with the change of the seasons. “The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory,” says Lewis. That is to say, it is such an intense and immeasurably rewarding process that it is almost entirely unreasonable to suggest that romantic love could be an object of impermanence once truly developed. “In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality, and planted the interests of another in the center of our being.” Boom! Just like that, you fall in love with your partner, and you develop an understanding of the way Christ called us to love. True romantic love “is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival.” This bond of man and woman, from Genesis onward, is the picture of God’s love for the world, Christ for his bride, the church. If you find yourself blessed to experience true love at one point or another in your life, know that you are that much closer to understanding how God cares for all of us.
Speaking of how God cares for us, the fourth love is Charity or Agape love. Our aim as disciples of Christ is to hold in our hearts this type of love for both God and one another. The unconditional love of the Father given to us through his Son. The first three loves, or as Lewis calls them, “the natural loves,” are not enough on their own but are the avenue by which human beings expand their capacity for charitable love. “To say this is not to belittle the natural loves but to indicate where their real glory lies,” Lewis mentions St. Augustine’s profound loss of a friend who says that such desolation is what occurs when we give our heart to anything but God. “All human beings pass away,” says Lewis. “Don’t put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of.” In the same breath, if we refuse to love in order to protect ourselves, then when are failing to obey the highest command of Christ. Of course, Christ himself had a deep love for his friends. Of the three times Christ is recorded crying in the Bible, one of them is upon learning of the death of his friend Lazarus. Lewis reminds us:
"There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."
Although I have grown a lot since committing my life to Christ, I still find myself struggling to give my heart away fully. I find myself in a state of indifference towards the lost, even among my own friends. Unfortunately, the fall of man and the loss of innocence has invited much tragedy in the way of perverting love. This state of no longer trying to love or being indifferent to it is becoming more common. However, the charge of the Gospel is to go above and beyond to love those who are broken! And this is not for some vague humanitarian effort, but to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). So, if we find ourselves at a point where we think love is not worth the trouble, that we would rather abstain from the possibility of emotional damage, that someone else will be there to show love to the lost when we are not willing, we have to ask ourselves if we are still disciples of Christ.
As I close out this first discussion on love, I want to leave you with a challenge. Analyze your relationships with others and assess your shortcomings in love. Are you putting conditions on the love you have for others? For God? Avoid the trap of conditional love, do not go on saying, “I would love so and so more if they would just stop doing this” or “yes God, I love you, but right now is not a good time.” Let us ask God to awaken such an abandoned and reckless love to come alive in us as was displayed for us all of those years ago on the cross. I encourage all of you to explore the depths of your soul, dig deep and find a love for humanity that could only be rivaled by Christ Himself.
Until Next Time,