Love is Patient

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Love is patient…. (1 Corinthians 13:4)

When Paul embarks on a description of the characteristics that distinguish love from other virtues, he begins with patience. This seems at first counterintuitive. What has patience to do with love? Shouldn’t he begin with doing good and being generous? We commonly think of patience as waiting without getting upset. So if I spend an extra 15 minutes at the doctor’s office waiting to be called but don’t get angry, it’s because I’m patient. This is certainly an aspect of patience, but I don’t think it is what Paul has in mind when he says, “Love is patient.”

The King James version has “Charity suffereth long,” and I think the concept of long-suffering gives us a clue to why Paul chose patience as the first characteristic of love. Today the concept of suffering almost always has to do with experiencing pain, but it was not so when the King James version was translated. It meant “to let, to allow.” So when Jesus said in Mark’s gospel, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (Mark 10:14 KJV), he meant let them come. Jesus instructed his disciples not to control access to his presence. He had a genuine open-door policy, and he meant to see it enforced.

Therefore, patience is not primarily about waiting. It is about letting events take their course. It is about not trying to control what happens. Since love is other-centered rather than self-centered, it means specifically that love does not try to control other people. It allows people their own agency. It does not seek to manipulate, coerce, or cajole others into behaving as you want. Rather, it lets people make their own decisions, take their own actions, and suffer their own consequences.

This exactly describes the way Jesus behaved toward the rich young man who came to him asking how he could have eternal life. Jesus begins by giving him the standard religious answer: follow the rules, and you will live. But the man is not satisfied. He tells Jesus that he has kept the Law since he was a boy. Then Mark tells us, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It is this love that motivates Jesus to tell the man about the one thing he still lacked. And it is because of that same love that Jesus watches the man walk away sad. Jesus does not do any of the things we are tempted to do for those we love. He does not pursue the man and try to talk him into making a different decision. He doesn’t lower his standard for entrance into the kingdom so the young man could meet it. He doesn’t try to trick him into changing his mind. He lets the man be sad. He lets him walk away.

I am convinced that the single greatest mistake that parents make with their children is in ignoring their child’s agency. They seek to control their child for any number of reasons—because they find their child’s misbehavior embarrassing, because they fear what may happen if their child makes bad decisions, because their own parents used deceit and manipulation to control their behavior. Of course, parents are legally responsible for their children, and they need to exercise a certain level of control. The aim of parenting, however, is the freedom and independence of the child. How can the child learn the self-discipline necessary to become an independent adult if the parents are always stepping in to impose artificial consequences or averting the natural consequences of their child’s behavior? It is only natural, then, that the child eventually reaches an age where they resent their parents and rebel against them. Our culture tends to consider this progression a natural part of growing up, but it is actually the result of a faulty concept of parenting that does not begin with the patience of love.

Before Paul says “Love is kind,” which introduces our own agency in doing good for others, he insists that love recognizes and honors the agency of others and does not try to subvert it or diminish it. Love begins with letting other people be and allowing them to decide and act in ways they think best. This is the love God has for us, and it is the same love he requires of us toward others. Love is patient because God is patient.

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Posted in jesus, love, patience, theology | 1 Comment

Love Your Enemies

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“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Matthew 5:43-48.

Love can mean so many things. I might say, “I love my wife,” or “I love my kids,” or “I love tacos.” In each instance I mean something different by “love.” So what does Jesus mean by “love” when he commands his disciples to love their enemies? I think this passage offers some clues.

I have written elsewhere that the core of love is respect. By that I do not mean esteem. Respect does not have to regard a fellow person as good, but it must regard them as a person, capable of making decisions, keeping promises, and adhering however imperfectly to their own standards of right and wrong. Love regards every person as bearing the stamp of their Creator. Since every person is made in God’s image, there is within each one a template for being the person God intended. Love seeks to activate that template. Love is an advocate for the image of God within each person. Of course, there are some people who seems to us irredeemably evil, the image within them so fractured and tarnished by willful rebellion that every kindness, every good turn, seems wasted on them. Yet it is not often up to us to make that determination. Jesus calls us to love even the most wicked, not with affection or admiration, but with respect for their humanity. He calls us to treat them with the same impartial kindness that God has toward both the evil and the good, giving sunshine and rain to both, neither favoring the good with better weather nor punishing the wicked with darkness and drought.

This call goes against our own inclination and even against our sense of fair play. Should not the wicked be punished? Should not the righteous be blessed? Should we not love those who love us and hate those who hate us? How can we uphold justice in the world without opposing those who cause injustice? Indeed, we must oppose injustice yet do so in love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a sermon about loving your enemies, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” So if we want a more just world, love is imperative; we have no option but to return love for hate.

So far this has been theoretical. How do we apply it to real enemies? How do we apply it to President Donald Trump?

I would like to propose a few guidelines by which you can measure your own behavior to consider whether it is loving. Most of us are unlikely to be in a position to actually do anything of real value for Trump or anyone in his administration. We all have attitudes and opinions, however, which we express with words. Our words reflect what is in our hearts. If it is love, then our words, even toward the President and his associates, will be loving.

The Issues, Not The Man

Stop ad hominem attacks. This includes name-calling and character assassination. Every day I see posts on my feed, not just memes but well-researched, thoughtful articles about Trump’s policies (or lack thereof), yet the comments are nothing but acrimonious names or supposed descriptions of Trump. I see him called “idiot,” “piece of shit,” “knuckle-dragger,” and  “orange cheeto,” I see speculations on the size of his brain or whether he has testicles. There is no way that such remarks can be construed as loving. You may be angry at Trump’s policies, his shameful behavior, or his many, many lies. Fine. Attack his policies and behavior, and expose his lies. It is loving to correct error and declare the truth. It is loving to advocate for the oppressed and excoriate their oppression. It is not loving to denigrate the oppressor.

Wish Him Well

Some Facebook friends have expressed a wish that Trump would die or fall ill or be declared unfit to serve as President. Some have hoped he would be assassinated. Such desires do not spring from love but from hate. Jesus implied that hate was the moral equivalent of murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Love never rejoices at the misfortunes that befall an enemy. It is unfailingly kind. Of course, the best one can wish for an enemy is a sufficient change to make them a friend. I do not know if Trump is capable of such a change, nor does it seem likely, but it is something to pray for.

Pray For Him

By this I mean sincere prayers for wisdom in governing, decorum befitting a President, and all the other graces and competencies that would make him a better President and mitigate the ridicule to which he is subject. Of course, a certain amount of ridicule goes with being President. When Obama was President, he even made fun of himself. Trump, however, desperately needs a sense of humor, and that is surely something to pray for. I know it’s hard not to want him to fail, but failure is not bad just for him; it’s bad for the United States and even for the world. So pray for his success—not the success of bad policies, but for wise policies to succeed. Pray that he will take his duties seriously and consider the repercussions of his words and actions before tweeting.

Of course, there are other things you might do, but these should give you an idea of the direction love wants to go. Love your enemies.

 

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Reflection on Death at 3 AM

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I don’t believe in death. I never have.

When my mom died, I was there. I saw the slow dissolution of her body, her labored breathing, her unconsciousness. I saw her afterward in the casket, her visage severe and unsmiling, her body patently uninhabited. She died, and her body was surrendered to the flames, reduced to a couple of handfuls of ash. There is no grave for her, no headstone saying how long she lived or memorializing her character as “Devoted Wife and Mother.” But there is a tree in Arizona planted in her memory. I know I can’t call her on the phone as I used to, but I can’t shake the feeling that she simply moved away and left no forwarding address. Somewhere she still is.

As a child I remember being fascinated by my own consciousness. Though I could not remember its beginning, I was convinced that it nevertheless began. That I began. I tried to understand death as not-being, but I could never do it. Even if I thought of it as a slumber from which one does not awaken, I could see that the possibility of awakening remained. Given a loud enough trumpet blast, a loud enough shout from the right archangel, even the dead would startle again into consciousness and wonder what the hell was going on. So I have never quite believed in death—my own nor anyone else’s.

Perhaps that is why my grief has seemed so wan, not much like the grief I’ve seen around me. Of course, dear as my mom is to me, there are others dearer still whose loss would be harder to bear. If I should lose a child, for example, I think I might grieve more. Or if I should lose the love of my life, whose very soul is knit to mine, I do not know how I would bear it. And yet I know I would bear it, just as people all over the world, even those who believe heartily in death, bear the loss of those they love and go on living anyway. But even if my wife died and the fabric of my life was rent in twain from top to bottom, I don’t think I would grieve as some have grieved. At the back of my mind would be this bright hope that I had somehow merely misplaced her contact information. Of course, I would see her again. I would kiss her brow and call her “my darling” and bring her coffee, and we would sit and catch up on all the things we had seen and done while we were apart.

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