In America, just after Christmas concludes, the lights, trees, and ornaments are swiftly moved off retail shelves to make room for heart-shaped gifts making bold proclamations of love.
Stuffed bears, flowers, and candy are overflow at check-out counters. And school children exchange cards that say things like “Be Mine” and “You’re Awesome.”
It’s all so sentimental. And sweet. Like a sugar high.
Now, before I come off sounding anti-Valentine’s day let me clarify that I think the holiday can be a meaningful time to express love to people around us. Especially in a world where we often forget to use words of love and gratitude for each other.
Yet, as people who long for love, I do wonder if the “trappings” of love sometimes get in the way of understanding what love really is.
Is love just a second-hand emotion?, as Tina Turner says in her 1984 hit song “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” A second-hand emotion is often defined as an emotion that passes quickly or doesn’t provide much use. Like second-hand stories, it’s an emotion can that’s based on something we learn about from other people but don’t directly experience ourselves.
It’s not hard to view love that way. The most alive I’ve ever felt has been in a moment of deep love, yet I struggle to love others. To really love my spouse. To give my family what I think love means.
In the Bible, 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” How bold for the Apostle John to describe God with just one word!
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes that many, many things in our world are going to pass away, but three things remain: faith, hope, and love. Then he adds that the greatest is love.
If love is the greatest, it seems a subject worthy of our focused contemplation. After all, what we believe about love affects our whole lives – our careers, families, and relationships.
So, what is love, really? And why is it so important to us and our world? And maybe more importantly, how do we learn to walk in love as God intends us to?
Loving in a Broken World
In his book The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.”
In other words, it’s easy to love humanity in general, but it’s a lot harder to love individual human beings. Can I get an Amen?
We’re all for love, right? No one is against the idea. But once we get our wings all puffed up and ready to fly into this thing called love, we run into barriers. We’re like a bird that swiftly flies from its perch toward the outdoors, but hits a glass window instead.
We launch out to love and find ourselves battered and defeated.
Because love is so difficult in our world, as Christians, we really must see love as a fruit of the Spirit that grows in our lives—yes, supernaturally—as we are grafted into the vine that is Jesus Christ.
Setting Out to Love Will Expose Your Own Heart
If in our loving, we are like birds who set out to fly and strike a barrier mid-flight, that barrier often is our own inability—our own need.
Our need is frequently tied into our own sin patterns that we must repent from – impatience, prejudice, selfishness, and even scorn.
I’ll never forget decades ago when I spoke with a church planter who was struggling to love the people in his new congregation.
He quoted C.S. Lewis, who wrote in the preface to The Screwtape Letters:
“Even in human life we have seen the passion to dominate, almost to digest, one’s fellow…On Earth this desire is often called ‘love.’ In Hell, I feign that they recognize it as hunger.”
Lewis is saying—as was the church planter—that love can be a very mixed-up feeling.
When fallen human beings set out to love—or, for instance, to plant a church for the glory of God and the sake of others—very soon, our own selfish desires and needs get involved.
It’s hard to separate all of our needs and desires from actual love.
We see this in our families, our romantic relationships, our churches, and our workplaces. How do I distinguish between my desires and my love? My need and my love? In a fallen world, it’s complicated!
But being in relationships or setting out to love someone – a human being in particular – is always going to expose our own hearts.
Fortunately, as believers in Jesus, we are not left exposed and alone.
The Difficulty of Loving Others
The complications of our own hearts are just one factor in our quest to love—but what about the complications in other people?
There are few things as pain-producing as setting out to love someone and hitting the barrier of someone else’s unlovingness.
These run-ins can leave us dazed, confused, defensive, and unsure if it is really possible to walk in love at all.
Even as people who are made in the image of God, they are sinners and they have been sinned against. It’s easy to understand how we live in a world that seems as filled with self-protection mechanisms as it is filled with love.
I see this vividly in my own life.
Just when I feel like I love my work, another email from a colleague I don’t get along with lands just landed in my inbox. Or I get a poorly timed knock at my front door. Or that family member lets me down. I have no strength to love. Apparently, I only have the strength to talk about love.
And it’s those moments that then I start to strategize — not about ways to love others, but about ways to protect myself from the vulnerability and cost of loving others.
But then I look at Jesus and visualize Him vulnerable and seemingly unprotected on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And I know “they” includes me! And, once more, I am given a gift of overwhelming love. Love I don’t deserve.
Perhaps I can share it with others after all.
The True Way of Love
In 16th-century Japan, a man named Sen no Rikyu transformed the Japanese tea ceremony.
Rikyu was informed by his Christian faith (at that time, 10 percent of Japan was Christian), and three of Rikyu’s seven disciples were devout Christians.
When he set out to design tea rooms, Rikyu’s style was a radical departure from how tea was served before him. It had grown common for wealthy people to build extremely elaborate teahouses in prominent public places, where they served as venues for displays of strength and status. Instead, Sen no Rikyu made the rooms very small—only big enough for a few people.
These tea rooms had doorways so low that one could only enter by bowing. And the doorways were so narrow that one had to take off any weapons in order to pass through. Even if famous Samurai warriors wanted to enter the tea room through this entrance, they could not enter with their swords and without bowing their heads.
In my mind, I think these rooms could be called tea rooms of love.
It is not with great hubris and bold proclamations that we can step out into the way of love.
Rather, it is only with humility – recognizing our own need for God’s love and mercy. We must lay down our weapons and trust God to protect us in this journey of vulnerability.
When Only Love Remains…
When the end comes, I hope love is something we recognize and find familiar. I hope love is something we know well, something we have experienced and have offered to others.
More than a sentimental, second-hand emotion, I hope that love—made known to us by the Holy Spirit—can develop into real, substantial, fortifying fruit.
And that fruit will provide a feast when we gather with God and our brothers and sisters for eternity.