Saturday, March 2, 2019

Loving Well In An Unwell World

As a culture, we seem to be trending in the wrong direction in so many ways.

  • We shout when we should whisper and whisper when we should shout. 
  • We deride and antagonize those with whom we disagree rather than seeking first to understand and then thoughtfully engage. 
  • We try to win arguments by bullying people rather than compelling them
  • We vomit anger and hurl insults on total strangers before settling for those we know. 
  • We let partisan politics cloud our rationality and empathy. 
  • We worry far more about policies than the people impacted by those policies
  • We want to be first, right, and best without doing the moral or intellectual hard work that would justly place us into any of those positions. 
  • We want to be seen rather than see; be known rather than seek to know; live in comfort, security and ease rather than give sacrificially of ourselves for the sake of others. 

The world is not well. Neither are we. This is probably nothing new. Maybe I'm just noticing it and feeling it more than I have before.

Is there an answer? I think there is: love. This sounds trite; even as I say it, I've got pop songs that make me laugh or cringe running through my head.

There is a danger that saying "Love is the answer!" trivializes the situation. But love - real love - is not trivial, and neither are the situations into which it enters.

So let's talk about loving well in an unwell - and often unloving - world.

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We live in a consumer culture. We basically say, “If you please me, I will reward you. If you don't I will push you away or punish you.”

If my garbage doesn’t get picked up, I’m getting a new collector.
If another phone company is cheaper and better, I’m switching.
If my pizza doesn’t have enough bacon, I’m getting another pizza.

It’s entirely conditional and transactional. If I don't like the product, I move on.

This is not necessarily bad, but it becomes bad if I begin to treat people from a consumer perspective. I can begin to say to friends, family or even my wife: “If you please me, I will reward you. I’ll be good only if you provide something good. I will stick around only if you make it worth my time.” It’s a consumer approach to relationships. It’s entirely conditional and transactional. I trade my time and energy with someone else in exchange for him or her making me feel good. If people don’t give me what I want, I dump them and move on.

A few years ago, I read a book called Warm Bodies. It’s the story of a zombie apocalypse, but it’s unexpectedly insightful. In one passage the author has the main character, a zombie named R, explain what life as a zombie is like.

“We are just here. We do what we do, time passes, and nobody asks any questions…We may appear mindless, but we aren’t…We grunt and groan, we shrug and nod, and sometimes a few words slip out. It’s not that different from before… I’ve never thought of these other creatures walking around me as people. Human, yes, but not people. We eat and sleep and shuffle through the fog, walking a marathon with no finish line, no medals, no cheering… We view ourselves the same way we view the Living: as meat. Nameless, faceless, disposable…”

The book makes it clear: this apocalypse happened simply because humanity gave up and embraced what it had always done: used and consumed people. People used to be more subtle, but not anymore.

“….the new hunger demands sacrifice. It demands human suffering as the price for our pleasures, meager and cheap as they are.”

How does this look practically?

  • If you are trapped in a relationship in which you are being consumed you will always need to impress. You will never be free to openly admit failures and flaws. You must be tasty, and you know it. 
  • If you are trapped in a relationship where you are being consumed, you will never be enough for the consumer. If they remain hungry – and they will - you will always be the problem.    
  • If you are the consumer, you will never be satisfied. You will always demand more than others can give. It’s never enough.
  • If you are a consumer, you will always be the one less invested in the other person. You were never here for them anyway; they were always here for you.

This is what consumer love looks like, and it's ugly.

The Greeks had a lot of different words for love, but there are four that dominate the love language landscape: eros (erotic love), storge (manners and courtesy; some say affection or family), phileo (love for friends) and agape (self-sacrificial commitment).

All the loves have their place in our lives.  However,  agape - the word the Bible uses to describe how Jesus loves us - is the gold standard.  Agápē is " always giving… It devotes total commitment… no matter how anyone may respond. This form of love is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not."  I like this quote (I don't know who said it):

“The truth is that the more intimately you know someone, the more clearly you will see their flaws. That’s just the way it is. This is why marriages fail, why children are abandoned, why friendships don’t last. You might think you love someone until you see the way they act when they are out of money or under pressure of hungry, for goodness’ sake. Love is something different. Love is choosing to serve someone and be with someone in spite of their filthy heart. Love is patient and kind, love is deliberate. Love is hard. Love is pain and sacrifice, it’s seeing the darkness in another person and denying the impulse to jump ship.”

Five things to note about this kind of love.

1. It’s decisional, not emotional. Agape love is about position, commitment and action,  not feelings. It’s not divorced from feelings, but it’s independent of feelings. 'Love your neighbor' is not ‘like your neighbor.’ 'Love your spouse' is not ‘like your spouse.’ Why? Because agape love does not waver with our feelings.

2. It’s sacrificial.  I’m not waiting expectantly for my wife to reciprocate when I do something really loving. She can see it and not even think about responding, and that’s okay, because I didn’t do it to get a reward. I am free from getting angry or depressed when my offering of love is misunderstood or rejected. In agape love, I am the one being broken and spilled out for the sake of the other.

Living this way frees me from keeping score. There are no more charts of how much I invested in a friend’s life. “I ask them all the time about how they are doing, and they never ask me. I always instigate getting together and they never call me first.” But that’s not why we loved them.

The 'love chapter' in the Bible, I Corinthians 13, reminds that ‘love keeps no record of wrongs.” We are free to stop keeping track of the balance we have with others. We just love.

3. It’s stabilizing. A consumer never has enough. Nothing is good enough. There is always something better somewhere. It takes me forever to choose a movie to watch on Netflix. What if there is a better one? I am impatient for a movie to end so I can get on to something that is surely better.

We can do this with people if we are consumers. We are haunted by the idea that there is always better conversation, better sex, better personalities, better vacations, better humor, better listeners… There is always someone better somewhere who will complete me!!!  Honestly, if love means you must find someone to whom you can say, “You complete me,” you will never stop looking.

Agape love frees us from this restlessness. It says, “I am committed to you. You don't need to complete me in any way because this is not based on what you can do for me. This is based on how I want to serve and love you.”  

4. It’s costly. Love will break our hearts. It will force us to walk into the hard work of life when all we want to do is wrap ourselves carefully with hobbies and luxuries and distance and entertainment and selfishness. We are willing to be the more invested in a relationship, to offer love even when those receiving it don’t understand or appreciate it like they should.

  • I cannot love my wife without a cost to myself: hard conversations; household chores I don’t want to do; juggling responsibilities; talking about budgets and schedules without getting really irritable; learning how my words and my attitudes can build her up or tear her down. 
  • We cannot love our friends without a cost to ourselves. At some point our friends will let us down, sometimes significantly. We are not perfect people. It is not a question of ‘if’.  It is a question of ‘when’. Love is costly. How do I know this? Because I live around people like you. How do you know this? Because you live around people like me. 
  • We cannot love our neighbors without a cost to ourselves as we get to know and understand, as we listen and love, as we seek to speak truth with love and grace, with humility and boldness. 

5. It’s transformational.  I can’t remain as proud as I once was and give agape love, because that kind of love is not about me. I can’t remain as self-centered as I once was and give agape love, because that kind of love is not about me. I can’t settle for being resentful, as short-tempered, as mean, as lustful, as calloused as I once was and give agape love, because none of those things are about the well-being of others.

May we do this continually and well in a world that desperately needs more love like this.

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For a video presentation of two sermons I gave on this topic, go here for Part One ( and here for Part Two (

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