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Beyond the Cards and Candy

February 18th, 2009


This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
(1 John 3:16-18)

 candy
I’m not sure about this, but I think it might be time to replace the word “love.”

I know, that’s kind of a radical proposal, but hear me out. I think it’s time to replace it – or at least to change the way we use it – because I don’t think the word means what we think it means.

Exhibit A in my case against the word “love”: Valentine’s Day.

Forgive me if I step on your toes here. I apologize if you’re one of the masses who love – there’s that word again – Valentine’s Day. I really have nothing against the holiday itself; it’s how we celebrate it that bothers me. In particular, it’s the way Valentine’s Day causes us to throw that word “love” around so carelessly. We stick hearts on every flat surface. We tell our “Valentine” how much we “love” him or her through the intensely personal means of picking a card off a shelf or sending a bouquet of flowers. And, listen, some of the people doing this have been each others’ Valentines for long years together. It’s not them I’m talking about. It’s the others.

For some folks, there’s a different Valentine every year. For others, it’s the same Valentine – but the card and candy and flowers and gifts are empty gestures that have nothing to do with the way two people treat each other the rest of the year. And then there are those for whom Valentine’s Day is little more than a chance to get something when the lights go out from whomever most closely approximates a significant other.

And then there are folks that the world considers “alone” who know more about loving and being loved than any ten couples out enjoying a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner.

It’s for those people I would reserve the use of the word “love.”

People like the 17th-century nuns and priests whose remains were unearthed recently in the St. Croix Abbey near Poitiers, France. Chemical testing of the bones and teeth revealed that they had all died of bubonic plague – the “Black Death” that decimated the population of Europe and Asia. Records indicate that the abbey served as an infirmary for the poor who were dying of plague – and, like most epidemics, the plague was especially cruel to the poor. Nuns and priests cared for the dying, and in doing so eventually became sick themselves. While microbiology wasn’t the science then that it is today, people knew that plague spread through contact with those already sick with the disease. In fact, records at St. Croix show that at some point the General Vicar ordered the nuns and priests from the Abbey who were still healthy to leave.

But some of them never did leave. They died right there, among the people they served.

That’s why I’m convinced we need to rethink the way we use that word “love.” I’m not sure we should be able to use the same word to describe our enjoyment of ice cream, our attachment to our pets, the passion we have for romantic interests, the commitment and trust cultivated over a long marriage, and our determination to do right by our children. Not to mention self-sacrifice like those nuns and priests in France. Or God’s love for human beings as seen in Jesus.

At the risk of being accused of being unromantic, I think the root of our problems with the word “love” lies with our misconception that love and feelings are inseparably tied together. While I would readily admit – thankfully – that love is often accompanied by feelings of well-being, peace, security, excitement, attraction, and so on, those feelings themselves are not love, and their absence does not mean that love must be absent as well. It’s the tying of love to feelings that has doomed too many marriages to count, because when the feelings aren’t there everyone tends to assume that love is gone too and starts to head for the exits. But those feelings aren’t love: they can’t sustain a relationship, and their absence doesn’t mean the relationship must end.

No, love is more than a collection of feelings. The Bible suggests that love is an intentional, self-sacrificial act, and that the best way to understand love is through Jesus “laying down of his life” for us. To see Jesus sweating and crying in Gethsemane, pleading with his Father to take the weight of redemption off his shoulders, and then see him square those shoulders and carry his cross to Golgotha, is to understand once and for all that love is about choices you make and not feelings you feel, and sometimes choices you make in spite of feelings you feel.

Of course, understanding that is just the beginning, because the Bible says that once we see what love looks like we have to go out and get it done by laying down our lives for one another. That just might require that we literally die for someone else. Most often, it means that we make intentional, self-sacrificial decisions in the way we treat each other. It means sharing what we have when we meet someone who’s in need. It means forgiving instead of nursing our wounded feelings. It means giving time and emotional energy to someone who’s in trouble when we’re running low on both. It means listening when we don’t think we’re being heard. It means, in short, that even if my ego needs a boost and I’m feeling lonely and isolated, and I’m in pain, I can still choose to do what Jesus did and lay down my life for someone else.

“Don’t just talk the talk – walk the walk,” says John (1 John 3:18, loose paraphrase). So much of what passes for love among human beings is about what we say and claim, or about self-interested acts intended to manipulate someone else. “Let us not love with words or tongue,” says John, but with actions and in truth.” Let us follow our Lord in showing by our actions toward others that their best interests are more important to us than our own. Let us love “with actions and in truth.”

Sound too hard? Well, it isn’t easy because it isn’t second nature. It isn’t what human beings usually do. It takes a degree of courage to put others before ourselves. But Jesus did it, and he promised that the Holy Spirit would show us how to follow in his footsteps (John 14:26).

I hope you enjoyed being with your sweetheart this weekend, or with the friends and family God has given you. But don’t forget that love is more about what you do the other days of the year than what happens on February 14th. And don’t forget that there are plenty of people around you who need the love of Jesus, and who might never know it if they don’t know it from you.

That’s better even than those little candy hearts with the messages.

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