"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."
-1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Love: our culture defines it in so many different ways. We personally define it in so many different ways too: based on our experiences- things we've gone through; based on our models- what we've seen parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, anybody else go through; based on what we've seen of love- and, sadly, what we haven't. Subconsciously and without thought, most of us 'know' what love is based on experience.
Until we experience something different.
My experience in Colorado has been an interesting one. Everyday are synchronicities that seem to connect me to a higher purpose, a more intentional, well-designed life. I'm working in a family craft center on a resort/vacation property, and since it's not peak season, I've had time to talk and interact with guests with a bit of a deeper connection than a season of extreme busyness would allow.
The other day a couple and their three kids came into my work to make some crafts, and so I sat down with them to help. We began to talk about faith; I notice now, since my heart is open to it, I am more receptive to others who carry the spirit of God in them. There are nice, wonderful, people who carry other beautiful things in them too, that are not the Spirit of God, of course; but there is some kind of special connection with others who also understand themselves to be children of God. It is almost like knowing a sibling or something; the connection is innate because of a shared, learned worldview, which comes from the perception of a shared creator.
There's something in the way they carry themselves. Something in the way they love each other and draw near to each other. There is sometimes a certain light that they have, almost like they are innocent and hopeful and free and have never been hurt.
Although of course, they most certainly have.
I opened up to this couple and before long we were talking about my own life story, as it pertains to feeling the love of God in my life. I told them I was 28 now and had been a Christian for only about three years; the woman told me she came to Christ when she was my age now. We talked about straying, about knowing and feeling the truth of the love of God- a pure love, a certain love you felt before you were inflicted with whatever wounds in life- but being so blinded by pain that you ignore it for a long time, or you get lost from it.
I told her that was me for a long time. I told her I grew up with religion but not Christ; I told her, a little embarrassed, that I made it all the way through Catholic church services every Sunday without really even understanding who Jesus was or why He mattered.
In church, I heard about rules and religion, and I only really heard about Jesus at funerals and weddings and on TV and things like that. And I was an intuitive, introspective kid, so I wasn't, given this as my evidence, convinced.
And I have come to meet so, so many people in the same boat. So many people who were dragged to church as kids, or it was obligatory, so they made up their minds as soon as they could to turn away. There are so many things that seem to work better than this model, I'll be the first to admit. They are the things I chased after all my life. Mostly, I now see, because I didn't want to look at the problem of my pain. I simply didn't know God was beautiful, not just 'useful.'
It's kind of like why I like the mountains, or nature: they are beautiful. They awaken something. The kind of beauty we are drawn to in pure, contentedly wild things is not a kind of beauty we want to use or manipulate; it is the kind of beauty we simply want to behold. It is endlessly satisfying, unfading; our hearts, when they are still, just know it.
When we talk about Christ- which we didn't when I was in church- we are talking about the Son of God. We have to keep in mind here that when we say 'God,' in the Christian sense, we mean a definable, real, knowable thing- not an idea, not a feeling, not a sense; not Mother Earth or the Universe or something vague, but something with qualities, something with character; something very real, something very ultimate; something which requires commitment, loyalty, and dedication (not to mention desire) to know.
And if such a thing existed, we have no bargaining power with it- it is too ultimate. It is not the genie-in-a-bottle god many people have formulated, who gives us what we want on our terms. It is the maker and orchestrater of everything, with an ultimate plan that reveals itself in who He is. It is the thing that has placed within human beings this feeling that we want to be loved- despite being afraid to be left. That feeling that we so desperately want to loyally commit to some purpose in life- but are so afraid of failing, or not being good enough.
That feeling that we want to be vulnerable- but are scared of being revealed; that feeling that we know that there is more- but are scared to seek it because our world has us situated to buy the ideas of human masters (even if well-intentioned) that can't ultimately fill the void with the limited wisdom we have.
And if such a thing existed, it would also be the ultimate solution to those very human pangs for belonging. We would not need a God unless we were designed by one, for one.
And to the self-aware human heart, we are.
So if that is the power of our God, if that is the all-mightiness of his character and the brilliance of His creative power, then the idea that He sent Himself into the world of men- to live among us and know our struggles; to feel pain as we feel it, to be put against temptation as we are; to live our humanness, to deal with what we all deal with (betrayal, pain, suffering, temptation, pressure, loneliness)- is not as crazy an idea as I had once thought.
I had made God in my image growing up- so of course it was just as easy to erase Him (or it, or whatever it was). I had not matured enough to realize that the opposite is true, that I am made in His image. It was not until I began living from the purity of my purpose, from the real authenticity of my heart, that He became a reality to me. I believe in God because I believe, humbly and purely and authentically, in my truest self. In my soul, in the purest part of me. When I read God's word and I listen to His voice, I am reminded- against the voices of the world that tell me otherwise- who I really am.
They didn't tell me that in church. I told this lady, as I am writing here right now, I simply didn't know. I thought Jesus was by nature just purely a human, maybe like the Buddha, who had advice for a path of righteous living in the world because answers to life dawned on him. But that puts God in no better a position than me. The anwers to life dawn on me all the time.
But they usually don't lead anywhere. They're usually self-centered, centered around what I know and can figure out- which isn't a lot. I can make them sound pretty wise, but they don't really sustain. I thought I could just pick what seemed most right to me, in personal and spiritual choices. I didn't think there was ultimate truth; I didn't think I needed God. I didn't believe in the idea that the world- that I myself- had to choose whether I was driven to become fully alive by a creative force, or limited to merely exist- purposeless and hopeless- by a destructive one. When we start to pay attention, we feel these forces acting- competing for our very souls, for the ultimate loyalty of our life- all the time.
And that's where love comes in. There were moments in my life when God was becoming apparent to me that felt like complete loss and destruction. And, in hindsight, that's what those moments were: the abolition of myself. It was like living as a seed. A seed becomes a plant when the seed is destroyed completely. A person becomes a child of God when who they were designed to be supersedes who they think they are.
God has a way of stripping us of what we think we need- which may seem cruel and unusual to us at the time- so that He can literally make way for something so much better than we ever thought possible. He is in the business of clearing out our hearts. It is not a metaphor- it is a real inner process that we allow to happen to us once we begin to feel again.
In Isaiah 66:9 we find the promise from God: 'I will not cause pain without allowing something new to be born.' In Romans 8:18: 'The pain that you have been feeling cannot compare to the joy that is coming.' These were verses I wrote, referenced, and committed to my heart continually when I was first seeking Christ, the son of God; the character of God, to guide me to my authentic self. I sensed they were true before I went seeking.
There is a refining process to becoming who we truly are. We will not follow Jesus while we are still enslaved to our own comfort or the avoidance of buried feelings. It takes a long time. But there is something fantastic about it. There is a sense of adventure about it. It is the adventure I find myself in now.
When I began my walk in faith I often found myself seeing little glimmers of hope amongst my darkness that I could never see before, and wondering, 'could it be, could it be?' But it is. It is God's promise to all those who choose Him above themselves. It makes looking at these mountains here in Colorado and thinking about how far I've come so much sweeter than if I had gotten my way when I wanted it. God wants us to enjoy life more optimally than we can even comprehend. He wants to bless us, He wants us to live with love and purpose; it's how we were designed.
Sometimes our experiences tell us otherwise, yes. But always our God- our source, our designer- tells us the truth. It takes courage to believe this, not naivety.
I don't believe this because I need the comfort of imagining it to be so; I believe this because it is the nature, the character, of the God I know. The more relational and familiar we get with someone, the better a friend they become to us and we become to them. That is growth. That is relationship to the utmost authenticity. Investment and effort- not half-heartedness- is a key component.
And that is exactly what God intends to give us through Jesus. Faith is relational, it is not 'religious.' When God's love for us becomes the basis for our understanding of relationship, it's not that life gets easier, it's that life gets worthier of our investment. And we get worthier of our dreams and living the life we are designed, from the inside, to live. Don't we all sense in our hearts that we want love to last? It's the epitome of human longing; and I think one of our biggest fears is that it won't.
Because as long as we still go on relying on limited human strength, love is too emotive, emotion-driven. It's about us, about our comfort; it doesn't glorify anything higher than what we want. In a way, it can be selfishness. We see this all the time. But what if, as it is with God, love wasn't something we did when a person was worthy of it, but love was something we did because it was in our character to be loving?
That changes things.
It makes love bolder and more real. It empowers: us, and those around us. It makes love a way. It makes love a conviction; it breaks once and for all the cycles or examples we've been caught up in or seen all our lives- and, like that shattering seed, it frees us to believe in our truest worth.
I could know what love is based on what I've seen; or I could know what love is based on the eternal and unchanging idea that the Creator of the universe loves us, and then look for ways to manifest and embody that love in my own creative life. It's a choice to do the latter, to be conscientious enough to see it; it was more a habit or a default to do the former: to self-protect, to push love away.
But God moves us to act in love far beyond ourselves.
I remember going to a wedding in 2014, still learning so much about my faith but having, at that point, an awareness of what marriage in the Christian sense means (a bond which is in reflection of the bond Christ has with the world, one of eternal love based on 'love as virtue and principle' and not 'love as the filling of a personal need or desire.') And the pastor read the whole verse: Love is patient, Love is kind... and then read it again, intermittently and rhetorically asking: are you patient? Are you kind?
Are you boastful and proud- or quiet and humble?. Do you dishonor others- or do you respect them and their choices? Are you self-seeking, or do you extend yourself to those in need?
Are you easily angered- or at grounded enough in the knowledge of God not to let people's opinions agitate or discourage you? Do you keep record of wrongs, or do you forgive and choose love; do you desire truth?
Does your love protect, trust, hope and persevere?
Because as children of God, this is the foundation for our lives. We have a definition, a model, for love that should inform who we are and the kind of life we lead. Ephesians 4:2 reminds us to 'be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.' Love bears with. 1 Peter 4:8 tells us to 'love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.' Love undoes a great deal of what we thought was unrecoverable pain. 1 John 3:18 reminds us: 'Let's not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions;' let love be a verb, something we do, not something we say we want.
Let love give us a voice. Let love speak truth and goodness into us. Let love remind us who we are. Let love in, let love have us; let love break our hearts wide open; let it flow through us and be in us.
Let it come from the heart. Let it be patient. Let it never fail.