The Possibility of Love
Scriptures: I John4:7-12; John 1:1-5, 14-18
In his book What's So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey
tells this story:
In 1898 Daisy was born into a working-class Chicago family,
the eighth child of ten. . Her father was a "mean drunk," she says. Daisy used to cower in the corner sobbing, as he kicked her baby brother and sister across the linoleum floor. .
All her life Daisy determined to be unlike her father, and
indeed she never touched a drop of alcohol. Yet she ruled her own family with a milder form of the tyranny she had grown up under. . "Why did I ever have you stupid kids anyway?" she would yell. "You've ruined my life!" . She had six in all, rearing them in the two-bedroom row house she lives in to this day. In such close quarters, they seemed always underfoot. Some nights she gave them all whippings just to make a point: she knew they'd done wrong even if she hadn't caught them. .
I have heard many such stories of ungrace from [her
daughter] Margaret, whom I knew well. All her life she determined to be different from her mother, Daisy. But Margaret's life had its own tragedies .. Her son Michael, who turned sixteen in the 1960s, especially got under her skin. . Margaret kicked him out of the house when she caught him smoking pot, and he moved into a hippie commune. She continued to threaten and scold him. She reported him to a judge. She wrote him out of her will. . Finally one day in a fit of anger she said, "I never want to see you again as long as I live." That was twenty-six years ago and she has not seen him since.
Michael is also my close friend. . He moved to Hawaii, lived
with a woman, left her, tried another, left her, and then got married. "Sue is the real thing," he told me when I visited him once. "This one will last."
It did not last. I remember a phone conversation with
Michael .. The line clicked and Michael said, "Excuse me a second," then he left me holding a silent phone receiver for at least four minutes. He apologized when he came back on. . "It was Sue," he said. "We're settling some of the last financial issues of the divorce." (Then) using almost the same tone I had heard from his mother, Margaret: "I hope I never see her again as long as I live!"(75-79).
Why is love so hard for this family? I am sure there are
numerous psychological explanations, but I want to offer a theological explanation. The members of this family have a hard time loving each other because they have not experience or believed that they are loved.
According to our scripture reading, the key to loving others is knowing and believing that you yourself are loved. I John 4:7 says, "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God." The same idea is repeated in verse 12: "No one has ever seen God; if we love one another. God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us." In both cases there is a connection drawn between loving others and knowing God.
But sometimes people get the connection in the wrong order.
They think that first you must love others, and then you will know God. They think that a relationship to God is something you earn by loving others.
Philip Yancey tells about a conversation he had with
Margaret, the daughter of Daisy and mother of Michael. He writes,
Margaret is a devout Christian who studies the Bible every day, and once I spoke to her about the parable of the Prodigal Son. "What do you do with that parable?" I asked. "Do you hear its message of forgiveness?" She had obviously thought about the matter, for without hesitation she replied. . "People have freewill," she said. "They have to be morally responsible. That boy had to come crawling back on his knees. He had to repent. That was Jesus' point" (79-80).
Margaret has the order this way: Become a loving person and then you will have God's love, and maybe mine.
But the Bible has it the other way around. Listen again to verses
10-11: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another."
The order is not "love one another, and then you will be
loved." The order is "you are loved, so it's okay, you can love each other." You don't have to prove anything. You don't have to be afraid.
Later in this chapter it says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect
love casts out fear." I wonder how much of our inability to love comes from fear. How much of the "unlovingness" in our country right now-the hostility, the prejudice, the anger-how much of that, do you think, comes from fear? But if we are truly loved by God, we don't need to be afraid anymore. The Bible says that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. If we are loved by God, there is nothing anyone can do to take that away. Perfect love-meaning God's love-casts out fear and sets us free to love others.
A little aside about that word "perfect." I John 4 says,
"If we love one another, God's lives in us, and God's love is perfected in us." This does not mean that our love is perfect. In this case the word "perfect" translates a Greek word that means "finished" or "completed." When we love one another, even if our love is imperfect, God's love is completed in us. We love, because God first loved us.
Think about it. If our relationship to God hinged on our ability to
love people, then we would not need Christmas. We would not need a Savior to die for us on a cross. All we would need is a really good therapist, a glorified Dr. Phil to straighten us out.
But what if it is the other way around? We love, because
God first loved us. In that case we don't need a therapist; we need faith. We need to believe the good news of Christmas: that unto us a Savior is born. We are loved. But that good news will do us no good, if we don't believe it or don't think we need it. But if we believe it, it will transform the way we see ourselves and everyone else.
One of my favorite preachers is a retired pastor from
Georgia named Fred Craddock. This is one of his stories from a book called Craddock Stories:
A family is out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. . Suddenly, the two children begin to beat their father in the back: "Daddy, Daddy, stop the car! There's a kitten back there on the side of the road! . You must stop and pick it up."
"I don't have to stop and pick it up," [the father says].
"But Daddy, if you don't it will die."
"Well then, it will have to die. We don't have room for another animal. We have a zoo already at the house. No more animals."
[From the back seat one of the children says] "We never thought our Daddy would be so mean and cruel as to let a kitten die."
Finally the mother turns to her husband and says, "Dear, you'll have to stop." He turns the car around, returns to the spot, and pulls off the side of the road. . He goes out to pick up the little kitten, who is just skin and bones, sore-eyed, and full of fleas. When he reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy the kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw. Hiss! He picks up the kitten by the loose skin at the neck, brings it over to the car, and says, "Don't touch it. It's probably got leprosy."
Back home they go. When they get to the house the children give the kitten several baths, about a gallon of warm milk, and intercede: "Can we let it stay in the house just tonight? Tomorrow we'll fix it a place in the garage."
The father says, "Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a zoo." They fix a comfortable bed, fit for a pharaoh. Several weeks pass. Then one day the father walks in, feels something rub against his leg, looks down, and there is the cat. He reaches down toward the cat, carefully checking to see that no one is watching. When the cat sees his hand, it does not bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress. Is that the same cat? It couldn't be the same cat. It's not the same as that frightened, hurt, hissing kitten on the side of the road. Of course not, and you know as well as I what made the difference (Craddock Stories, 24-25).
If a cat can be transformed by love, so can people.