by Rev. Stacey Midge, Mt. Auburn Presbyterian
So many of our songs, movies, plays, tv shows, books, television ads are, at their core, about people wanting to be loved. There are entire industries built around helping people find and celebrate and maintain love. Of course, most of these are about romantic love, and we have by far the most examples of romantically partnered love, but at its core I think the desire to be loved is broader and more varied than that. It’s part of human nature to want to feel valued and cared for in a spectrum of relationships with other humans. We all want to be loved.
Of course, it’s been particularly hard for a lot of us to feel loved in the last couple of years, as we’ve lived in greater isolation and without a lot of the regular contacts who helped us feel loved before. A few caring words and a hug every Sunday morning can mean a lot over time. But when we’re not seeing each other in person, and a lot of us are running out of time or energy for phone calls, or maybe we’re just not sure if we’ve moved past the chat and a hug on Sunday kind of friendship up to the calling at random to say hi kind of friendship…those casual relationships lag. Even our closer relationships may lose a little of their intimacy. It’s easy to start to wonder if we’re really loved.
I asked people on social media recently to tell me about some times when they’ve felt truly loved. I got a lot of answers: times when people unexpectedly gave them something they particularly enjoyed or needed, when people really took the time to hear and know them, when people actually told them how much they cared.
The commonality between all the stories was that they all felt most loved when someone chose to do something loving, that they didn’t have to do – that they may not even have had a good reason to do! They weren’t getting anything out of it. They just did this loving thing, with no expectations, no reciprocation, no obligations. Something about how we experience love exists in the choice to act lovingly without conditions.
The choice to love unconditionally is so central to God’s nature that according to 1 John 4:7-8, whenever we encounter God, we are encountering love – and whenever we encounter love, we are encountering God. God is made known in acts of love.
Sometimes this makes it sound like love is always very sweet and easy. If you abide in love, you abide in God, and God abides in you! And yet, John goes on and on about loving each other. When they need to spend so much time talking about one particular point, you might speculate that it’s because the audience is not doing that thing. Honestly, a huge portion of the New Testament letters are John, Paul, and others just begging all the people in the churches to stop being jerks to each other – while also reminding them that God is love, and everyone who dwells in God dwells in love. These are aspirational statements, both for the original audiences, and for us. It’s HARD to be loving all the time. Because for most of us, we spend a lot more time worrying about whether we are loved than about whether we are loving. In order to be loving, we have to step outside of the fear that we won’t be loved in return, and simply act from love, without expectation, without reciprocation, and without obligation.
Every time I officiate a wedding, I tell people some version of the phrase, “Love is not a feeling, love is a choice.” They will feel all kinds of things about their spouses over time, but the health of their marriage won’t depend on how they feel, it will depend on the choice they make about how to act. The more closely tied we are to someone, the easier it becomes to take them for granted or lash out when we’re hurting. But we always have a choice. We can always choose to act with harshness, with apathy, or with love. We can choose the path that is actively unloving. We can be passively uncaring. Or we can actively love.
That’s a choice we make in every encounter we have with another human being. We have a choice in the smallest passing moments with people we’ll never talk to again.
This can actually be harder when we’re in community with people, when we have to deal with them repeatedly – and when we have something to fear from their rejection. Let’s be honest, I don’t care if someone in passing doesn’t act kindly back to me. I’m never going to see them again. But choosing to be loving toward the people within my circle is different. It’s easier to be hurt by what they say, or by what they don’t say. What if I go out of my way to be kind, and they take advantage of me? What if I do things for others and I never receive anything back? What if I open myself up to really caring about people, and make myself vulnerable to them, and they reject me?
Love is a risk. But if we all wait around to feel absolutely secure in being loved before we act in loving ways, well, we’re all kind of going to be jerks. Later 1 John tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…We love because God first loved us.” What he’s really telling us is that we don’t need to wait around to be loved. We already are loved, so much, by a God who chose to open up to us, to be vulnerable to humanity, without expectation, without obligation, without condition – even when humans responded not with reciprocal love but with violence and death. Still, God persists in choosing to love us.
So we have no reason to fear how others may react to us, or to withhold love until we receive it. We are already loved, and we are already overflowing in love to give. Because God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.