In my living room, there is a beautiful piece of art. (Which doesn't say much, as there are many beautiful artworks by my sister all over the house. I am proud to say that without being an art connoisseur, I have enjoyed all her artwork so far with only one exception, which was a particularly obnoxious object called Worm Baby. Not a horror movie person; that Thing was. I think the name is graphic enough to suffice without description.)
This particular one, however, is 1 Corinthians 13 in Chinese calligraphy, framed in white, and without a backing so it looks like it's floating against the wall. It was done by a friend's father, given to my dad as a present, and one of my favourite things about it is that every time the word 'love' appears, it's written in a different way. I knew there was 'old' and 'new' Chinese script, but it's fascinating to see how many different legit ways the same word can be written, and still read as such.
To me, that reinforces how love is in essence so simple and universal, and yet in application so myriad.
All those Facebook quizzes on What is Your Love Language, and Asian Parents humour videos; and #growingupwithsiblings, for example.
Search the Scriptures challenged me to read 1 Corinthians 13 as 15 ways of describing love, and then summarize and apply it. 15 ways to love. Boiled down to what is most directly, personally applicable to your life. Which is not easy, if you take a look at those verses.
Love suffers long and is kind;
love does not envy;
love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
The first three times I read them through I felt hopeless: "okay, I need them all, every single one of them--I'm just adding a growing number of ticks at the end of each line! How to pick the most important one, or summarize all of this??" But that's precisely why--it breaks down an otherwise overwhelming or abstract list into specific, personal, and most of all, applicable articles.
I finally decided the best approach was to describe it as two general categories:
1. longsuffering /patience /fortitude
All these terms, at least for me, translate to having a higher threshold of forbearance when things don't go your way, by cultivating humility and sincere love and concern for others. This is really difficult for someone who thinks there's a specific format even for hanging up the laundry. I mean, obviously my way is the best, right? Usually, I close my eyes as much as possible whenever someone helps me, (I'm tempted to write, 'attempts to help'!) but that's where the second part comes in. Not merely for the sake of avoiding a petty quarrel over socks and underwear, but out of greater humility; ok, maybe my way isn't flawless after all, you do have a point about bedsheets--
--and love for others; I appreciate you wanting to help me, and I want to remember this could be a fun and pleasant opportunity for us to work together IF ONLY I CAN STOP NOTICING HOW YOU'RE DROPPING CLEAN LAUNDRY ON THE FLOOR AND NOT PUTTING THE PEGS INTO THE BASKET but yeah, those don't really matter in the big picture, do they? *sweats*
In how you interact with and care for others. To be interested in them--not how they reflect upon or affect you or compare to you (which may sound immature and and at the level of teenage friendship problems, but which extends even to parent-child relationships--both ways, at that.) To be less self-conscious; which, as has been so rightly pointed out, is true humility--not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. So your love for others is more genuine. Again, this is challenging in a culture where we are constantly aware of how we look, how others see us, how others reflect upon us; where we zoom in on group pics to see ourselves first, where there are people it's uncool to be friends with, where we squirm when certain people comment on our Facebook page or spoil our feed.
I feel disappointed with myself when I think about how flimsy my love for others is, how it hovers so precariously upon my threshold of forbearance, and how much selfishness is mixed up in it. I remember one quote from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov which really struck me: "The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular."
It's easy to feel a benevolent, if vague and undemanding, compassion and love for others; you feel soulfully convinced that you, too, have a heart to end world hunger or smooth fevered brows and generally be the next Mother Teresa;
but when it comes down to everyday life, to individuals, to toothpaste tubes not rolled neatly, to hairs on the floor you just swept, to unmade beds and apologies and grumpiness and yes, the right way to hang out laundry--we need the Spirit to teach us how to love.
We need Him Who loved us first, and enabled us to love in turn...
'We love because He first loved us.'
Loving Christ can be vague. Sometimes a rush of nice warm fuzzy feelings convinces you that you're aglow with love, like the tangible flush of emotion when you emerge from a hug. Sometimes you feel so impossibly distant, as if you're staring at a static name on a piece of paper, trying to remember why it was once so important to you, trying to remember how it made you feel so much, wondering why nothing within you flickers when you read it anymore.
And we think confusedly, I need to love God more--but how? And we try confusedly to cultivate that warm fuzzy feeling. And we feel guilty when we fail, and we get discouraged, and we get disillusioned.
I am learning to see my love for Christ, not in the terms of how much I feel I love Him--which is how we tend to think about loving people--but how much I love other, lesser things more than Him.
I don't love Him more than I love my anger and bitterness, my sense of self-righteousness, my pride. I don't love Him more than my desire to hold grudges, to hurt those who hurt me. I don't love Him more than my desires for emotional fulfilment, for pleasure, for self-gratification, for security, for affirmation.
This sobers me and shows me, from a different angle, the major idols or obstacles in my spiritual growth, with a startling clarity that doesn't miss out or blur anything. Those things are more significant than I think they are. Some of them are truly good, yet keeping me from the Best; some of them shouldn't be there at all, as they are in direct opposition to Him. And yet I cling to them with a fierceness that surprises me, now that I compare it to the weakness with which I love You.
Do I really love You so little, when You have loved me so much?
We had been studying Margery Garbar's essays on Shakespeare's comedies, and one phrase in particular struck me from her analysis of Portia and Antonio from The Merchant of Venice. (Some background, for anyone who's not familiar--Portia is a witty, intelligent, beautiful and fabulously wealthy heiress beset by suitors; Antonio is a respected merchant prone to depression with few friends he really cares for--like basically, one. Who happens to be the lucky guy that wins Portia, by the way. There is also a gorgeous adaptation of the play starring Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino, but here I'm clearly getting sidetracked.) Garbar analyzed both characters as 'trapped in a death-like ennui of self-sufficient self', needing to commit to the risks of relationships.
I memorized this quote for writing essays, and thought it was interesting. I didn't expect it would resurface in my mind months after finals (and happily forgetting most of what I'd so painfully memorized) when I looked at my own life. Certainly not expecting it would come together, for me, with that quote of Elisabeth Eliot's about 'a life of unmitigated selfishness' (from Shadow of the Almighty) a quote which once meant so much to me; and even C.S Lewis in The Four Loves.
Now, I understand the cynical--I used to think, overly cynical--view of relationships as potential hurt. Caring for someone essentially means making yourself vulnerable. As C.S Lewis so poignantly and beautifully said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
And that is what I am currently learning to accept, not to become embittered, not to withdraw. Like everyone, I am afraid of heartbreak, of loss, of suffering. I am afraid of getting hurt. Of people I love getting hurt. At the first breath of conflict my instinctive response is to retreat, to withdraw into myself, to pull my circle of relationships closer and tighter once more around myself. The bubble of self-sufficient self is attractive; it seems to promise us escape from the pain and conflict that come with human relationships. Something whispers to me that I cannot afford to love people--so much, or so many--because it will end up hurting me.
Yet something also whispers that Another loved, at the cost of ultimate hurt. Knowingly.
He embraced, not a few, but so many; embraced vulnerability in the giving of so much love, love which was still unrequited as yet.
Mark 10:21--'Jesus, looking at him, loved him.'
He knew all that was in that heart. He saw clearly the pride and complacency, the underlying streak of materialism, even as He saw the urge to live a pure and blameless life, the vague but urgent desire to know God.
Christ's love for the eager young ruler has always been what struck me most about this one incident in His life, as recorded in the book of Mark. Even at the very moment when the young ruler seemed to have failed the test, so to speak--at the very point he clearly demonstrated that his heart was given to idols.
Jesus did not push him to make a decision, guilt-trip or pressurise him. Jesus did not condemn him or fling up his hands in dramatic despair. He knew that this was much more than the physical, external act of getting him to sell all he had and give to the poor, even of following Him. This was a battle of the heart first and foremost, a heart which needed to be won and transformed and given willingly through love, not about impressive charity stunts and dramatic life turnarounds.
This love, I believe, was what enabled the young ruler to understand, and more importantly, accept when Jesus told him--gently--but poignantly, probingly--'One thing still you lack...'
John Freeman's wise words brought this part of the Bible to my mind:
When we reduce people to their sin or rebellion, we often react out of a deep motivation to set things right because our own sensibilities are affected.
If, like Jesus, we stop focusing on the sin in other people's lives which we want to see changed, rather than how as a person, as a soul, they need Christ, our response to them, no matter how well intentioned, will not end up being helpful. Judgy. Pushy. Condescending. Those adjectives are ones which Christians should pray that by God's grace they manage to avoid. If, like Jesus, we learn to love them, not because they fit our idea of what they should be like, or make the choices we think they should, even and especially when they don't, our attempt to help them and to share truth with them will not be pushed away or dismissed, even when they don't agree.
How do we love them?
Resisting the urge to add, 'Let me count the ways'--John Freeman also noted that In loving by listening, we learn much more about people and discover why they have sought after other gods.
Loving by listening is one of the simplest, yet most underestimated ways of showing love to someone, in our culture today where we're programmed to be visual, to be instant, to not waste a second, and most of all to proclaim and focus on our own opinions and feelings--as discussed here.
Too often, I make the same mistake. Unlike Christ, there are times when I look at someone and see only the sin in their life or the obstacle keeping them from grace, and forget to love them. I forget that as an imitator of Christ--who loved us first before He died for us--love comes first.
Sometimes, that means I need to listen patiently, humbly, to things I don't agree with, or things I think I already understand. Sometimes that means I need to just listen instead of thinking I have to always give advice or provide a different view. When we know their stories, when we understand what is important to them and what they believe can make them whole, and why, we see them with the same grace-filled love that looked out of Christ's eyes when He spoke to that young ruler.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are