Tuesday, June 06, 2017

No Reinterpretation Required

Love is a two-stage project: there is the declaring of it and then the hard work of actually doing it. It is impossible to effectively communicate love without doing both.

The order of operations is not terribly important, but both elements are critical.

Now of course declarations of love on their own may mislead us and require us to do a little contextual reinterpretation. A classic Canadian rock tune from 1970 made the point that we often say “I love you” when we actually mean something else entirely.

Something Else Entirely

I found that thought a little disturbing as a teenager, but Pierre Sénécal’s lyric is perceptive, and I think most of us acknowledge its truth:
“A child asks his mother, ‘Do you love me?’
And it really means, ‘Will you protect me?’
His mother answers him, ‘I love you’
And it really means, ‘You’ve been a good boy’

At seventeen his girl says, ‘Do you love me?’
And it really means, ‘Will you respect me?’
The teenage boy answers, ‘I love you’
And it really means, ‘Can I make love to you?’ ”
So “I love you” doesn’t always mean “I love you”. We get that.

What’s Really at the Root?

Likewise, the importance of backing up our words with consistent actions hardly requires spelling out and is acknowledged even by pagans. As Elvis Costello sang, “What’s the use of saying ‘I love you’ when I’m drinking to distraction?”

Exactly so. We grasp instinctively that declarations of love are falsified by patterns of behavior inconsistent with our words. There may be genuine affection at the root of a chronic drunk’s slurred confession — or the motivation may be need, desire, familiarity or even shame. But whatever it is, love it ain’t — and there are many, many other ways in which our actions can make mockery of our professions. The words “I love you” unconfirmed by loving behavior are as useful as the promise that the check is in the mail.

Thanks, but no thanks.

While most of us (if we’re honest) acknowledge that we sometimes have problems behaving in a way that is consistent with the promises we have made, almost all of us recognize the absurdity of babbling on about our feelings for someone else while perpetually failing to deliver the goods.

No More Words and No More Promises

Lately, though, I’m noticing that more and more of us are reluctant to even say the words. There are a variety of reasons for this:
  1. Avoiding Hypocrisy. People who confuse love with fuzzy feelings don’t want to declare it when they’re not feeling fuzzy. That’s a major misunderstanding of what love is, but it’s a perfectly understandable response.
  2. Cynicism. Our post-modernist, relativist, evolution-believing society essentially denies love exists in any sense more significant than churning brain chemistry. So why say “I love you” unless it gets you something you want?
  3. Fear. What if I say it first and find out he/she’s not feeling the same way?
  4. Bad Experiences. If my father or mother or even other Christians have been in the habit of saying they loved me, and then did something to me that scarred me for life, I may not think those words have any meaningful content.
  5. Culture. We’re all familiar with cultural backgrounds in which to say “I love you” is to be considered a sentimental weakling.
  6. Misguided Respect. Some people consider the words “I love you” so significant and talismanic that they are uncomfortable using them freely, meaning that occasionally the objects of their love remain blissfully unaware of it.
  7. Error. John said, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk.” Some Christians live their lives as if in hyper-literal obedience to these words. But if John meant us not to verbalize our love, why does the same apostle persist in addressing the readers of these very words as “Beloved”? (It’s a full eight times by my count, and it’s a trend echoed by Peter (7x), Jude (3x), James (3x), the writer to the Hebrews (1x). Paul splashes the word around like he can’t get enough of it, applying it throughout his epistles a very liberal 26 times.) Clearly John didn’t intend us to be stingy about expressing what’s in our hearts (or what ought to be).
There are other reasons for keeping quiet about love, naturally, and many of them seem perfectly sensible on first pass. But refusing to say the words “I love you” poses a real problem for the Christian.

Get Over It

Put bluntly, those of us who have trouble saying the words need to get over ourselves. The meaning of words may be open to interpretation, but the meaning of our unexplained actions can be equally obscure, maybe even more so.

How do I know you are not merely acting out of duty, fear, habit or concern for your reputation when you treat me decently? I know it because you TELL ME that love is motivating you. All ambiguity is thereby removed because the two ways in which love makes itself known are singing in harmony, and you know what the Bible says about the testimony of two witnesses.

We are not operating scripturally or in a Christ-like way when we smother the impulse to tell people we love what they need and deserve to hear.

The book of Proverbs says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” That doesn’t mean hidden love is useless, of course; it may manifest in all kinds of unexpected generosity and kindness, and may make the world and your life a better place. But so long as it remains unrecognized for what it is, it cannot blossom into the fruit of joyful relationship and truly bring two people together.

That’s one biblical hint that love demands verbal expression as well as practical expression. But we needn’t stop at mere hints.

The Doorway to the Gospel

The gospel of John proclaims God’s love right at its outset. The very first lengthy exposition of truth from the mouth of the Lord Jesus in the fourth gospel culminates at John 3:16 in a statement so profound and so well known that I won’t embarrass you by presuming to quote it. The Lord’s words anticipate his death, of course, but Nicodemus was unlikely to have understood “gave his only Son” in precisely that way. Not at that time anyway. In the moment, it was big enough news that Jesus had explicitly declared God’s love for the world.

Paul picks up the theme that Christ’s entire life and ministry was a declaration of love from God in his epistles; a declaration that was consummated in the cross. He tells us in Romans:
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
First came the declaration, then came the evidence. God’s actions backed up, validated and endorsed the words he had put in the mouth of his Son as completely as may be conceived.

Having Loved His Own

But we needn’t stop there, because the Lord Jesus didn’t. Having expressed to Nicodemus the love of God for the world, he continued to verbalize his love for his own:
  • “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.”
  • “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
  • Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends ... I have called you friends.”
Needless to say, the Lord Jesus backed up every claim of love that he made. But my point is that he made those claims repeatedly. He did not leave his disciples to consider, contemplate and reconstruct his actions toward them in the hope they might belatedly stumble to the conclusion that he loved them. They would do that anyway, of course. But his verbal declaration of love for them made his motivation considerably less murky.

No reinterpretation required.

1 comment :

  1. Ironically, I was looking at this short comment from philosopher Umberto Eco this morning. He's secular...but he seems to have realized that in our present world, we're in trouble for sincerity when it comes to loving people.

    For anyone interested, here's a link. https://alittlefish.wordpress.com/2008/03/03/umberto-ecos-definition-of-postmodernism/