[Okay, I’m late getting this posted, but I mostly wrote it on Valentine’s Day]
I enjoyed some funny skits by a small group of high school seniors, recently. Since this was their “Valentine’s Extravaganza,” the theme was love, friendship, and dating. The boys did two skits that made fun of men and their fears, one called “Bromance” and another called “The Code.” In general, girls seem to be free to love on each other without sexual overtones or assumptions, but boys…men don’t seem to have the same freedom or privilege. Of course, it’s not unusual for girlfriends to live with so much drama, and few of us guys can begin to relate to that, all reminding us that boys and girls are different, after all. And, love is a challenge regardless!
I’ve studied, pondered, and written about friendship over the last 3 or 4 decades, and now I find myself a single man still wondering about friends and wishing I had a few more. In the context of Jesus’ Great Commandment and Paul’s statement that “love your neighbor” summarizes the entire law of God, I’m inclined to wonder why deep and enduring friendships among believers aren’t far more common.
Consider love. We are to love as God loves us, unconditionally and sacrificially, but how common is such love among us? Within a body of believers who love with agape love, friendships between those who are compatible in other ways should be pretty common, shouldn’t they? Sadly, I fear, too many of our attitudes regarding relationships have been created in and polluted by our culture. For all the rhetoric about accepting gays and treating them as equals, many men fear anything that might suggest homosexuality. Men must rather be stoic, reveal little emotion, and avoid showing affection to another man. On the other side, Christians frequently hate, disrespect, and despise each other when they happen to disagree, even though God never suggests such behavior is acceptable; we are to be one family, loving each other as brothers and sisters, loving despite our differences.
Of course, unconditional love isn’t easy; we must give up other things we rather like to do, such as judging each other. God doesn’t give us the authority or the tools to enable us to judge other believers—not their orthodoxy, not the correctness of their doctrine, not the the hidden content of their hearts. Being a well-indoctrinated sectarian or a well read theologian doesn’t entitle us to withhold our respect and love from other believers. The “God hates fags” type of Christian is a travesty—God hates sin, not sinners—and guaranteed to drive people away from Christ, not toward him. Doctrinal differences should never divide people into adversarial camps; instead, we should continue to discuss our opinions until the Holy Spirit leads us all to the truth. Even if that oneness of belief never happens this side of heaven, He still desires that we stand together in unity of spirit, given that there is only one Spirit within and among us.
It”s not only theological division that keeps us from loving each other; political disagreements can divide us sharply with even less Biblical warrant (if such is possible since no division is Biblically warranted!!). This doesn’t mean we cannot have political opinions or concerns or that active participation is prohibited; our nation and world need our influence in the political realm, but such influence will accomplish little if we permit our views to interfere with out love for each other. Furthermore, activism that becomes too extreme will raise barriers to the gospel, as the late Bob Briner noted in his book Deadly Detours: Seven Noble Causes That Keep Christians from Changing the World . We must make every effort to avoid the antagonistic, polarizing rhetoric that has come to characterize much political and social disagreement in our day, for it has no place among those whose love is the greatest priority and proof of one’s being a Christ follower.
Still, even among those who are not divided by theology or politics, unconditional love is a challenge. How do a couple, who once promised “till death do us part,” explain the breaking of their vows? Too many allow feelings to replace obedience; they say, without actually saying it, that their promise may be justifiably broken because feelings change. The unchallenged assumption may be that romantic feelings would cover over all differences of gender, family origin, prior education and experience, or individual personality? Does anyone tell them otherwise? Feelings are such transient things, so easily influenced by change and circumstance, but the traditional vows do say, “I, (name), take you (name), to be my (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward as long as we both shall live.” Wise folk have known for a long time that marriage is no picnic and that struggles are not unusual for couples who choose to make such promises. Wise and faithful people keep their promises and work through the challenges to discover a depth of love in maturity that surpasses a romance often based in the flesh.
If love and unity are so difficult that they even challenge those who fall in love (whatever that means), then how can we expect unconditional love to flourish in simple friendship? The lack of love without conditions would open up so many more possibilities of relationships, some of which might easily mature into friendship…if we would actually love unconditionally. Instead, people drawn to each other through shared background or experience, who perhaps enjoy the same things, who find they see the world or the church in similar ways, or who find they simply enjoy each other’s company, lose the treasure to be found in deeper friendship. Sometimes, if they cruise along without getting too close, they may enjoy their shared experiences and acknowledge their friendship. Then a girl comes along to upset the status quo; they argue over some triviality that suddenly seems no longer trivial. A wrong word is spoken, an offense is given, or politics or religion suddenly becomes a source of rancor.
Perhaps even worse, in either marriage or friendship, trust may be broken. Close relationships offer a place of safety to share the deep uncomfortable fears and feelings, perhaps even secret things that trouble the heart. None of us is perfect, and we need confidantes…confidantes we can trust because they love us unconditionally. Taking the step to trust is hard, but it’s a disaster if the one trusted turns away. Long ago, a pastor friend taught me that it was important to be “unshockable,” and he was right. We need to be so aware of the pervasiveness of sin, doubt, and fear that no friend’s confession disturbs us or drives us away. This is as critical to maintaining trust as keeping confidences, for of course we dare not violate a friend’s trust by sharing it with someone else.
Our role is not policeman, prosecutor, judge, or jury; it’s not counselor, supervisor, or pastor. Listening and understanding are first, encouragement and support are next, and advise should come only if invited or accepted when gently offered (I learned to be sparing of my counsel, even as a pastor and counselor). God has not given us power over others, and we do not have the ability to control others, although we often wish to control those we love. No matter how wise or experienced we may be, none of us is in charge of anyone but him or herself, except parents, to a degree. Even parents must learn to exercise parental authority wisely and cautiously, lest their use of power lead to rebellion, whether immediately or at a later time when that power no longer exists. Our most critical task is to make clear that our love is present, uninterrupted, and unwavering always, which is perhaps why Peter reminds us, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”
Breaking trust, which includes but is not limited to inappropriate sexual intimacy, is only one way a person may hurt a friend or spouse. Anything from an unkind word to physical or emotional abuse is painful, and pain easily justifies turning away from a friend. Yet what about unconditional love? Does it not still apply? Of course, God requires no one to endure danger or tolerate persistent aggression, but the love of Christ is not a painless activity. Loving even the unlovable—and who isn’t unlovable to some extent?—is the key to reconciliation both to God in salvation and to others in resolving our differences. Romantic, idealistic notions end up easily frustrated, and those who accept them often disillusioned, a thing to remember on days like Valentine’s Day.
Schools may be tough places to learn about relationships; so much cruelty occurs there, even more than when I was young. Churches are not exempt from hurtful behavior among children and youth; not even families are safe for everyone. I look back at my own life and recall painful experiences that still resonate in my soul today; I wonder at feelings and reactions I cannot fully explain. I’ve seen similar struggles in others I have known, counseled, and befriended. Yet, though I’ve been hurt and sometimes abandoned, I tried persistently not to willfully or neglectfully harm others. I can date my awareness of the very significant importance of loving others to a youth sermon I preached on I Corinthians 13, some 45 years ago. Yet despite what I’ve believed, I must also admit my failures, and I can never forget the pain I have given others, especially those whom I have loved, some whom perhaps I have driven away even as I so much wanted the pleasure of their friendship.
I tend to hold myself apart and may seem aloof, not from judgment or superiority, but from doubt. Do I fear the pain of possible rejection? I’m sure I must, to some extent, but I don’t find myself thinking about it. Love is impossible without the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of disappointment, pain, rejection, loss, abandonment, or sadness. Yet, even as we recognize this, we have that same list to challenge us not to disappoint, hurt, reject, abandon, or create sadness or loss, to the extent that we may prevent them. That is the mission of unconditional love, and it is a holy mission, given by God, paid for by Christ on the cross.
I’d like to finish on a positive note. For the every pain and struggle I’ve experienced in loving others, I have also experienced the delight of the unconditional love of Jesus. Far too many have been just brief glimpses of the possible, but they have been delightful glimpses. Moments of pure harmony arise in places unexpected with people who are strangers, yet brother or sisters in Christ. Some were so enjoyable, I’ve wished I could hold on to them, but the newly found friends lived hundreds of miles away with little possibility of continuing communication, as much as we may have intended it. Others involved dear friends where time and circumstance have created distance despite our efforts to maintain closeness of spirit. I’ve seen those who have enjoyed a childhood friendship throughout the years or who’ve stayed close to a sibling for a lifetime. By contrast, I have had relationships develop with a few who were totally different from me, like the elderly teacher that I visited, for the first time, but we conversed for hours, and lasted all too briefly.
Love is a duty and a mission for disciples of Christ, a very important one. We all know this, to one degree or another, and we pretty much know that we have often neglected that same divine obligation. We have too easily hurt, abandoned, and rejected those whom we once loved and should have kept on loving. We have been hurt in our efforts to love and experienced pain and rejection. Yet, the delight far outweighs the sorrow, and the power of love is the greatest power we have in Christ. I would encourage you not to give up on loving, not just because God has commanded it, but also because the blessings you will receive are unlimited and unimaginable. If I might borrow from Paul, “Let us not become weary in loving (unconditionally), for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us show (unconditional) love to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”