Christianity taught me a lot of things; but I’m not certain how to love was one of them. As I was growing up when True Love Waits and I Kissed Dating Goodbye were all the rage, a great many sermons outlined what my Biblically-informed family-oriented life ought to look like so that when it was time for me to have a family, it would be as biblical and God-approved as it could be.
According to Colossians 3, Wives ought to submit themselves to their husbands, Husbands ought to love their wives and not be harsh with them, Children ought to obey their parents in everything, Fathers ought not to embitter their children or make them discouraged, Slaves ought to obey their earthly masters in everything, and Masters ought to provide their slaves with what is right and fair.
According to Ephesians 5, even though everyone is supposed to submit to one another, this instruction carried out in detail looks like this – Wives ought to submit themselves to their husbands and respect them, Husbands ought to love their wives, Children ought to obey their parents, Fathers ought not exasperate their children, Slaves ought to obey their masters with respect, and Masters ought to treat their slaves in the same way – remembering that they, too are God’s slaves.
I’ve been told that it’s on me to choose carefully the husband God wants me to submit myself to – if that husband turns out to be a world class jerk, it’s on me for not having chosen wisely. So the consensus about what to do is to wait to be sure that God sends me the right guy. If I choose correctly, apparently submitting to him will be a joy and I apparently won’t notice that I never get the last word, never get to make any decisions, and always defer to him in everything – and as an added bonus, the older ladies in the church get to encourage me to love my husband and be busy at home raising my children (per Titus 2.) So in this way, biblically-informed Christian love seems to be obedience and through obedience, comes love. I wonder if that’s why so many teachers preach that people should get married so that they’ll fall in love with their spouse (eventually.)
It’s all a little out of order from that children’s rhyme: First comes marriage, then come children, then comes love … But what do you expect from a culture where arranged marriages were the norm and love had very little to do with it? Of course it would be ill-fitting advice to a society with so much freedom in that area. These days though, sermons tend to ironically preach against love, in particular the romantic strain that defies duty and is essentially uncontrollable. They do talk about a kind of love – but I don’t understand it.
The old standby is 1 Corinthians 13, but it’s not a lesson on that kind of love; but one of those higher levels of love. After all, the ancient Greeks had many different words to describe many different kinds of love: eros, philia / storge, ludus, agape, pragma, and philautia. We just have the one word and it can be used every which way. None of these words describe a love between a person who has authority over someone who lacks it in the same way husbands are to love their wives. So what it looks like or ought to be like is a mystery to me.
I dunno, it’s almost like reading a text-book and finding out that the real-world application bears little to no resemblance to what was written. It’s like a kid trying to explain something he or she doesn’t understand and fills in the gaps with ideas that he or she made up that sounds right to him or her. Of course there will be missing pieces and the things we try to fill them in with just won’t fit right. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that we just don’t have that clear of a picture of love – not in this textbook instruction about how to live in love.
But then I’m reminded that “no greater love has anyone than this, to lay down their life for others” – it’s a concept that we see in our movies, is written into our books, and happens in every day life. Sometimes it’s referred to “dying to self” in Christian parlance, but it’s an impossible task to live a dead life.
Dying to self is not trying to live unselfishly, it’s a teaching that you put yourself last. If there’s not enough food to go around, those who hold to “dying to self” would be sure that everyone else ate their fill first before they ate what little (if any) remained. If there’s not enough money for everyone, those who hold to “dying to self” would empty their pockets making sure everyone else has what they need even if they wouldn’t have enough to live on – but it’s more than that. “Dying to self” might also mean denying yourself the right to speak up when you think something’s wrong, it might also mean not offering a solution to a problem or an opinion on a matter because inserting what you think is not being selfless. It can be taken to extremes by those who think they haven’t buried their selfish sin natures deep enough underground so they keep on digging that hole down, denying their very essence, doing whatever it takes to put themselves last. But that is no life at all and anyone who doesn’t take care of himself or herself won’t be very good at taking care of others. Singles are often maligned for being selfish, but I would say that it’s not out of the question for some not-singles to be selfishly unselfish. Love shouldn’t have to drive itself to death in order to prove itself is genuine.
We need a living love – and that’s something that’s hard to come by. We don’t have a picture of what that looks like when it’s done right. Most of the marriages in the Bible are snapshots of the patriarchal era; when it wasn’t so much one man and one wife, but one man, many wives, and more concubines was an apt description of a family. Where the women would bargain over who would to spend the night with their husband. Where the patriarch could loan his wife to the local leadership. Where the patriarch could send away his concubines and have nothing more to do with his children than he wanted. The New Testament doesn’t offer a lot of scenes of family life and even less insight given the aforementioned instructions with little explanation. Perhaps Paul thought it wouldn’t be required given his audience already lived that reality for the most part. It’s us who don’t live in Paul’s day and age and whose families are extremely different. Perhaps for us, love itself is different, too.
I still think that we’re doing far better than we think. We’re a society that believes in equality. We believe in mutual consent. Love itself, isn’t something we arrange – it’s a rare and wonderful treasure that we search for. We get that all of us are different and there’s no cookie-cutter approach to love itself. What magical formula that exists for one couple has no effect on another. We have the wisdom and experiences of millennia spent trying to understand love and it still defies explanation. Today of all days, we celebrate it – especially for those who have it. We get frustrated with it for those who don’t get to celebrate today.
Love is many things – primarily, unpredictable. Maybe that’s what we love about it.