Yesterday, after spending most of my morning and afternoon working on one of my last papers for the semester, I asked my friend Abe over for dinner. A former seminarian, fellow contemplative, and previous classmate from college, I love spending time with him. We only recently reconnected, but even in such a short time, I've become incredibly grateful for our conversations. Besides, I rarely turn down the chance to cook for someone else.
I shared my most recent blog post with him, the one that was actually a journal entry written after our last conversation. We talked about what matters in our lives, and we both agreed that more than anything, love matters. This led to him asking me how I defined love. I took a second, thought, and responded stream of consciousness style...
Love is a willful decision to give of oneself without expectation of reciprocation...
In my previous post, I asked myself whether love was something we could do of our own accord or something with which we needed help doing, most likely from a divine source. Abe challenged me on this question as it related to my definition. My response: both. There are times I believe that we have within us the power to choose to give of ourselves, and there are times where we need a divine kick in the arse to get us going.
I've said for sometime that I understand love to be, more than anything else, a choice, an act of will. Up until last night, I don't think I knew what the choice entailed, but after our conversation, I think I have a better understanding, especially as I contemplate how my definition of love compares to my understanding of God.
God is Love. It's simple. It's biblical. It's succinct and concise. While we have Paul's list of love's character traits in 1 Corinthians, he doesn't really make it practical. Sorry, Paul. Yes, I agree that love is patient, kind, non-envious, non-boastful, etc. But ontologically, in essence, what is love? If we say that God is Love, what do we mean? What does this statement say about God's character? Does Paul's definition of love accurately measure up to our scriptural understanding of God? It's hard to say, and I certainly don't have many or all of the answers, but I do have some thoughts.
Think about Jesus. When we look at the Gospels, Jesus lived in such a way that he was always giving of himself. Words. Food. Healing. Questions. Thoughts. Affection. Sympathy. He was always giving. When he tells the rich man in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 to give up everything and then follow him, he's defining love. He doesn't say you need this fluffy, comfy feeling inside. He says you have to let go. Look at Luke 9. Jesus says that holding onto our lives will cause us to lose them, but letting go of them will help us to find them. I don't believe he's talking about some pious form of asceticism. Instead, I think he's defining love. In the end, it's about choice. No one can force us to let go of ourselves, to give anything to anyone else. We have to choose to do so.
One of my favorite quotes about love comes from C.S. Lewis.
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly 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.
Towards the end of our conversation, Abe and I started talking about a passage in Ephesians, specifically 2:8-10. Most often, we hear people refer to v.8-9 when explaining the connection between grace and salvation. But when one goes on to read v.10, it changes things. Here's the entire passage:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (NRSV).
We were made "for good works." Grace isn't about what we believe. It's about how we live. No matter what we say we believe, actions truly do speak louder than words. This takes us back to 1 Corinthians:
13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing (NRSV).
So is love just about action? No. Is it just about emotion? No. It's both. Love must be made manifest in body, mind, and spirit. We have to do it, think it, and feel it... at the very least, we have to try. We must choose to let love enter into us, and we have to choose to let it flow out of us into our surroundings.
As Abe and I were talking about the Ephesians passage, I struggled to remember from my New Testament course whether or not the letter was considered a disputed or undisputed letter of Paul (whether or not scholars think it was actually written by Paul). Abe asked me, "What difference does it make? Does knowing whether or not Paul wrote it make you love better, love more? Does believing in a literal seven-day creation? Does believing in a global flood?" The questions could go on. When we wrestle with theological issues, the most important question we can ask of ourselves and others is, "How does this make you love better or love more?"