As I read through some of Rich’s old love letters for this post, there is one I can’t stop thinking about. It was about what love really means. The thought was spurred on by an episode of This American Life called Unconditional Love. (Listen to it- it’s so inspiring.) They have a segment by a mom who had to struggle for years to teach her sociopath son how to love. She concluded, “Creating love is not for the soft and sentimental among us. Love is a tough business.”
I think for a lot of my life I have been confused about what love really is. When I was a child I thought love meant giving me everything I wanted. My parents denied me ice cream, and that bouncy ball at the store? They must not love me. But I’ve discovered love does not mean giving someone everything they want.
When I was a teenager I often thought love meant being my personal cheerleader. If you loved me, you praised and encouraged my decisions and actions. If you criticized me or my choices, well, you must not love me. After all, I’m just me. My choices are me. If you don’t love my choices, you must by extension not love me. But I’ve learned that love is not just being a cheerleader.
For a long while in my dating years, I thought love meant flattery. If I was flattered that a guy liked me, regardless of character flaws, I probably would have let him in my heart. The deeper the flattery, the more I liked him. Flattery would often blind me to a guy’s faults. But, thankfully I learned that love is not flattery.
As an adult, I’ve often confused love with happiness. I think if someone loves me they should make me happy all the time. If I love an activity, I should be happy while doing it all the time. Loving my life meant I needed to be happy all the time. I’m slowly coming to learn that love isn’t always happiness.
It’s easy to confuse love with a butler, a cheerleader, an ego-booster, a happy fix.
And honestly I think a lot of people’s God issues stem from a confusion about what love is. I think most of us (myself included) pay lip service to the idea that God isn’t just our cheerleader or butler- letting us do whatever we want and giving us whatever we want. But then, when it comes down to Him requiring us to do something we don’t want to do or denying us something we really want or even need . . . well then, what kind of God is that?
But, giving us these things wouldn’t really be love, because we as humans tend to be really good at making ourselves very unhappy with things we think should make us happy.
Rather, God shows us actual love, which is that he allows our suffering and heartache. He allows us to go through hard, hard things because otherwise we would never become strong, independent, faithful and actually happy.
So, what is love?
Characters in movies or even the glimpses we get of other people’s lives on social media can make it seem like love is joyous, exuberant, and fulfilling all the time. And sometimes it is. Sometimes love does mean being a cheerleader. Love often means happiness. But other times, love is hard. Love is painful. Love is work.
What is love?
Simply, I think real love is sacrifice.
In a parent/child relationship, love is sacrificing the desire to give in to your child’s every request to give them what is best for their growth. It’s holding back and saying no when they want candy and TV shows all day even when that means short-term tears.
For parents of teenagers, love is sometimes refraining from cheering on and encouraging behaviors that are not good for them even if that means they will be mad at you.
In a marriage, it’s a little different because we are not our spouse’s parent and are not responsible for their moral progression, but love still requires sacrifice. Love in a marriage is sacrificing our own convenience to show our spouse we’re thinking of them – that we care about what they care about. Love is staying up to do the dishes when we know they’re so tired. It’s listening to them gripe about their day without scolding. It’s reading a book we have no interest in because they think it’s important. It’s forgiving them when they do something that upsets us without meaning to. (If you are dating someone who you can not see ever sacrificing their comfort for you, think seriously about getting out of that relationship) And together, it’s sacrificing temporal peace by talking about hard things that need to be resolved instead of just putting a band-aid over it.
Loving yourself means sacrificing things that may bring you immediate gratification, pleasure or escape for things that bring real, lasting happiness and contentment.
The ultimate example of love comes from the ultimate example of sacrifice- Jesus Christ. He sacrificed everything- his comfort, his popularity, his loved ones, his body, his life, for us. We cannot comprehend the depth of his sacrifice for us and by extension, we cannot comprehend the depth of his love for us.
Today I am grateful for parents who loved me enough to set boundaries, for a husband who loves me enough to often sacrifice his own desires and convenience for me and for a God who loves me enough to send His own Son here to suffer and sacrifice to save me.
Love is a tough business.