The honeymoon phase of relationships is wonderful. People usually prioritize the time spent with their loved one, become other centered, self-sacrificing, gentle, and quick to forgive. Even in friendships we see a phase similar to this, wherein each person or couple, caught up in the joy of becoming acquainted with a new and exciting person, finds it easy to put others first. We feel hopeful about the future, and our lives seem filled up with activity and satisfaction.
Loving others who show love to us is easy and fun; it’s like a good business investment with the promise of a good return. But how long do honeymoons last? A week? A month? Maybe even a couple years? It’s only a matter of time, however, until something happens. Your wife doesn’t respect you in public. Your son openly rebels against your family rules and flings it in your face. An aging relative you’ve taken into your home displays ingratitude and anger because you didn’t take care of them in the way they thought they deserved. A best friend begins spending more time with someone else and forgets to return your calls. Your husband doesn’t ask before he goes out with his friends from work, and you’re left taking care of the children. Depending on what type of person we are, we may confront our loved ones or bury the hurt. We might even say we forgive them. So, things get smoothed over and we try to move on. Life is fine for a while…but then it happens again, and again, and again. Eventually, if we’re honest with ourselves, the loving feelings that once came so naturally are suddenly hard to recall. In fact, we may wonder if we ever really loved the people who hurt us. After all, we were young and naïve, or maybe we just didn’t realize how many issues our “loved ones” had.
So, to keep ourselves from getting hurt any further, we look to our boundaries. “I won’t say yes to him anymore.” “When she hurts my feelings I’ll tell her how I feel.” “I’ll put my foot down and refuse to be run over by anyone!” “I have to look out for me first, then I’ll be in a better place to love others.” Boundaries are good and wise, but if we seek to protect ourselves with boundaries only, we run the risk of becoming so focused on our own standards of conduct for others that we can unknowingly act as God: demanding perfection from others and punishing them by withdrawing from the relationship or constantly pointing out how they hurt us.
A woman I’ll call Joanne is a perfect illustration of this. After a childhood and adolescence filled with periodic family conflict and scapegoating, she determined that fierce independence and proper boundaries were the path to happiness. So, she moved out, got a stable job, married a man she thought was safe, and began planning for a family. For the most part, her relationship with her family of origin was normal, but she never failed to keep them at arms distance. Decades later, after a failed marriage and other disappointing relationships, she decided to isolate herself. To Joanne, relationships had become taxing, unfulfilling, and inconvenient, and setting up rigid boundaries was her way of protecting herself from further discomfort.
But God rarely emphasizes self-protection; if anything, the exact opposite seems to be true. The following verses show us something of his view of love. “You have heard…‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44). And, “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 our brothers” (1 John 3:16). This provides us with several difficult problems. What does God mean by love and how can we love and care for those who hate us? How do I love someone when I don’t feel loving feelings toward them? Aren’t I just being a hypocrite if I act like I like someone but am secretly angry toward them? How do I actively love others like God wants without getting burned out? Won’t I just be letting others take advantage of me if I’m always “loving”? The answer to all of these questions is actually quite simple, though it can be difficult to put into practice.
First, however, we must understand what God means by the word love. In the Matt. 5:43 verse quoted above, as well as Matt. 22:37-39, wherein Jesus says, “Love the Lord…with all your mind….[and] love your neighbor as yourself,” the word love has as its root the term agape, which implies totally giving yourself over to something with no strings attached. It’s the unconditional form of love that God the Father has toward Jesus (Matt. 17:5). Also, it implies an action, not so much a feeling. So, it would seem that the type of love God would have us show one another (even our enemies) is an unconditional form of active love. At first glance this seems to make matters even worse, but when we have no hope of accomplishing anything, that’s when God is able to work. I believe this is exactly what he had in mind: we cannot love others unconditionally in our own strength. We’ll get burned out and end up despising others as resentment comes to reside in our hearts. So how do we go about practicing God’s love?
First: Recognize why it’s hard to love certain people in your life. What have they done to hurt you? Why do you think they don’t deserve to be loved?
Second: As Paul says in Romans 6-8, we must choose to die to ourselves, to put to death our sinful desires. It helps if, like Paul, we view our anger, bitterness, and resentment as actual enemies. And, understand that as a Christian, you will still feel those emotions but no longer have to act on what you feel. You now have the ability to choose to do the opposite—to acknowledge your own feelings but to lay them aside. In other words, we have the capability to stop making our emotions our idols. So, confess and repent of harboring these feelings and lay down your anger.
Third: Ask God to love through you. This is really key. God is not helping you to love. That would indicate you have some ability in yourself to unconditionally love someone. You don’t, so don’t try. But, He can flow through you as love. The beauty of this part is that because it’s God through us, it’s not about us manufacturing feelings by trying really hard. It’s not about feelings at all anymore; it’s about how we are choosing in our relationships to moment by moment reveal God to those around us. So, instead of gritting our teeth and trying really hard, we simply invite God to show us how to love each person, regardless of our feelings.
The main question which usually arises after such an explanation is, “How do I practically apply this so that others don’t take advantage of me?” God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament provides us with the answer. He always forgave and never responded out of malice, but He did hold them accountable. Likewise, truly loving someone doesn’t mean that we never confront them when they sin against us, but it does mean that we don’t confront them out of anger. Simply put, He did what was best for them in the moment, whether confrontation and accountability, or forbearing their sins with grace and mercy. In summary, Godly love necessitates us acknowledging our limits to God, then laying down those limits so He can love through us. Only then are we suitable vessels for the Love. I leave you with a quote from C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, his masterful retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, wherein an embittered old woman comes face to face with the God of Love:
The air [grew] brighter and brighter about us; as if something had set it on fire.
Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness. I was
pierced through and through with the arrows of it. I was being unmade. I was no
one….[but everything] existed for his sake.