Love is the most sought after, yet the most elusive thing of all time. Not just romantic love, but love of all kinds. We were all created to need love and our desire to fulfill that need causes us to seek it out in any way that we think will scratch the deep itch within us. We often hear people say things like “If you really loved me you would ___”, or “If you really loved me you wouldn’t ___”. It may not be said it in those words. Some of us might be a little more subtle in our approach, but in true human form, we strive to try to pigeon-hole other flawed humans to meet our needs by setting up certain parameters or conditions for them to meet. Everyone has an ideal list of how we wish to be treated. A sacred “do & don’t” list of ideals that we internally expect others to follow in order to make us happy. We fool ourselves into the delusion that if others would just play by our rules we could finally be fulfilled and happy. If that’s not crazy enough, we recognize that we don’t want to be held to anyone else’s standards, so we excuse our own failures by saying things like “nobody’s perfect” when at the same time we are holding a double standard by actually pointing the accusing finger at each other for doing the same things-completely blind to our own ways! What a set-up for utter disappointment, and so the cycle goes…
What is love really though? If you have ever been at a wedding, most likely you have heard a reading of 1 Corinthians 13, aka, “The Love Chapter”. Because of the association with weddings we tend to think this passage is about romantic love, but really the Apostle Paul was writing to the Corinthian church about their love toward one another. “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”. This is only 4 verses of the entire chapter and that right there is enough to wreck us all! These are the attributes of love. It takes some maturity and self-honesty to read through this and examine our own hearts but it is also a very liberating thing to deal with our own heart issues and finally stop running away from them. The very first thing that jumped out at me through this passage was the pesky little line “it is not self-seeking”. Well, there goes my list of rules! That takes us right back to the beginning where we talked about the common “If you loved me you would___” and “if you loved me you wouldn’t ___” conditions. We are all guilty of trying to place expectations like these around someone’s neck like a noose. The truth is, whether we actually vocalize our expectations to someone or just inwardly resent them, holding expectations as an entrance or exit to our love is self-seeking behavior. If we are not willing to love that person freely, and assume the risk that they may not return love to us on our terms, or may not do what we want them to do, we are not actually loving them at all. We are simply making an agreement or contract with them, or holding them under emotional blackmail. This is why we come up feeling empty. Having said that, this also does not mean that in order to love someone we have to tollerate undesirable or unacceptable behavior, nor choose to be around it. It simply means we do not let (good or bad) behavior or conditions determine, influence or change our love. More simply put: we love (value) someone for who they are and not how they are. They can’t add more value by behaving better, nor can they lose value by behaving worse. Therefore, behavior may change some circumstances, and it may certainly bring consequences, but love does not allow us to change the value of a person based on their behavior.
So what are we afraid of? We are afraid of emptying ourselves out and being left humiliated and empty in our vulnerable state. We’re afraid of being used up of the best of ourselves only to be unloved in return. In our fear we try to give only part of ourselves, but we hang on to the rest because the desire to try to protect ourselves is so overwhelming. Unfortunately, our attempts to protect ourselves actually cheapens the value of our sacrifice. When the sacrifice is cheap, so is the reward. This is why we are unfulfilled. It actually has nothing to do with how we are loved, and everything to do with how we are loving. Jesus himself, set the standard in his ultimate sacrifice. While the entire world rejected him, hated him, spit on him, tortured him and even his own closest disciples denied and betrayed him, Jesus took on the sin of all humanity and faced the epitome of being used up and completely “alone” when even the Father was forced to turn his face away from him because of our sin. He loved at the greatest cost with nothing in return for him. He loved us first with no expectations. Even if we never choose to love him in return (many don’t and unfortunately many never will) he will never stop loving and pursuing our hearts. We were created with the need for God’s love. Without it, our relationships will be out of balance. We will fill our lives with things and come up empty until we truly come to know him. The tricky thing is most of us feel like we could do a little better in our relationship with God, but we are really good at telling ourselves we are ALL IN with our relationships with people. We are masters at deceiving ourselves. This is why it is critical that we have a daily walk with God, we need to read his word every day and ask him to show us the deceitful things hidden in our hearts. The word of God and our relationships with others is the indicator that shows us where we are at with God. We can’t love God without loving people, but we desperately need God in order to love people. It’s funny how God made those two things so interdependent! There is just no getting around this and the most frustrating part is that other people actually reveal the selfish tendencies inside of us. This is not to say that other people will not do things that violate our trust or hurt us, but the amount of emotional turmoil we allow ourselves to entertain has everything to do with the amount of responsibility we are taking in our relationships, and how much we are blaming on others. Love recognizes pain as an indicator that we need God to change our own hearts, and in order for God to work change in us we have to be willing to surrender our will, our desires our attitude and yes, even our feelings. Our feelings will scream at the injustice of laying ourselves down unselfishly. Our feelings will always point blame the other way before accepting responsibility. Even if we feel like we are the only ones in the relationship accepting fault, or even if we feel our part is the smaller part in the equation, the moment we complain- even to ourselves, we are no longer sacrificing anything. The moment we expect something in return, it is no longer an act of love but an act of barter. When those feelings rise up and we instead ask God to help us, he can work in our hearts and do in us what we can’t do on our own. We can only take responsibility for ourselves and we have to trust that God will fulfill us when we do that. It doesn’t guarantee us that others will respond appropriately, but they stand a better chance this way, and most importantly, we become free from the empty cycle.
I want to be very clear. I am NOT describing, nor condoning an abusive or co-dependent relationship. Love does not mean saying yes to everything or being manipulated to do things against our will. Healthy boundaries are vital in a healthy relationship so if someone you are in relationship with is trying to manipulate you, that is self-seeking behavior, and giving in to it is not loving to them or to you. Jesus is our perfect example of love and even he did not allow anyone to push their own selfish agenda. In fact, those who had a selfish motive around Jesus caught a shockingly aggressive side of him. He sharply rebuked them and made it clear that he was there only to fulfill the will of God and not man. Even the sacrifice he made was the will of God and not man although it was fulfilled through man.
A beautiful thing happens when we lay our expectations down. The other person now feels the incredible freedom to choose to love in return and because they chose it without anything expected of them, there is now a genuine purity of their love to be enjoyed without any doubts. That is the most fulfilling kind of love there is, and is exactly what Jesus came to teach us. “We love Him because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19