It is Valentine’s day, which in the midst of Lent is a curious mixture, since it is a day that focuses on our desire for love (both giving and receiving), while Lent is pointed at death (the impending crucifixion of Jesus, our Lord).
This is not the anomaly it might first seem, because for Christians, the paramount definition of love in the Gospels is in the Gospel of John (who some like to call the Apostle of Love).
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:6-7
Here love is defined as giving, as sacrifice, even though that giving leads to death. We should note that John is talking about a specific king of love, what Christians call agape. What most people in our culture think of when they think of love on a day like today is what the Greeks called eros (see my postings Lent 07: Day 3 – The Four Loves and Agape vs. Eros for an explanation of the difference).
However, what I want to focus on for this most romantic of days in our yearly calendar is how love is tied to my previous posting on how many small deaths are an integral part of our ultimate death (see Lent 2008: Day 7 – May Apocalypses, Many Deaths).
It would be easy to say that many small loves are tied to our desire for the big sense of love. The small graces, kind acts, little sacrifices are on integral part of our larger sense of giving, receiving, and being in love. However, in the sense I talked about yesterday, it is impossible to separate death, many little deaths, many little sacrifices of what we want for the sake of our beloved from love.
I am sure we can all grasp that important point. Whether it is for our spouses or our children, those small acts of dying to ourselves are an important aspect of real abiding love.
There is an important point, however, that cannot be lost. There comes a time for many people when those sacrifices, rather than continuing to build the bond of love, instead begin turning into bitterness and and a sense of being used.
Here is where it gets sticky, or as an old preacher I used to enjoy, J. Vernon McGee, used to say, “Where the rubber meets the road.” If things do not turn out the way we hoped; if we do not see the reciprocation we expect, the reactions we want, then often what at the onset was a loving act, soon turns in on itself and eventually becomes a deep and abiding bitterness. I believe that is where so many marriages and families falter and breakapart.
I am walking a fine line here, the line between what is giving expressed in real love, because it is the right thing to do on the one hand, and our natural expectations of balance in our relationships on the other.
If we give to get, can we say we are really giving? A true gift is not defined in the receiving, no matter how much pleasure the recipient’s response may give us. The true gift is in the act of giving, at that moment when we do the proper thing, when we make the righteous offering. That is is the moment of love, and just as important, of death. Because at that moment, for it to be a true gift of love, we have severe our ties to what it becomes, how it is received or appreciated, or if any recompense ensues. We have to die to the result.
That does not mean we should not have any expectations and not be disappointed if the appropriate response is lacking. Instead, it means that we cannot demand it, or tie our future actions to getting it. You may have not seen Jesus’ statement to Peter used in this way (Matthew 18:22), but I believe it is utterly appropriate. We must lay aside our expectation not seven times, but seventy times seven (this was meant to show there is no limit to the number). Otherwise, the root of bitterness will begin to grow and it will destroy all the efforts we have made, turning what was meant for goodness, for love, into rancor and loathing.
So for me as a Christian, from this moment forward, love and death are intimately entwined. Jesus died for me, so that in love I might have life. In my expressing that love to those around me, I must die for them, making the love that I offer them free and unencumbered, and in so doing, follow in the footsteps of my Lord.
Grace and peace to your day.