I saw a couple standing in their driveway this morning on my way to work. They were young and clearly enraptured with one another in the way that young lovers are. They stood close together, their faces inches apart. They smiled and laughed and shuffled their feet. It was, in some ways, an ordinary moment surrounded by all kinds of ordinariness—winter jackets, half-melted snow, some gaudy Christmas lawn ornaments, an aging SUV, yesterday’s recycling. But it also struck me as extraordinary. Or, at the very least, heartwarming. A bit of romance at 8:30 on a Friday morning. Who would have thought? Just as they had almost receded from my view, I saw her lean in for a kiss.
I’m not proud to say that as I drove to work my strangely warmed heart gradually grew more coldly cynical. Yeah, well, love seems great now, but wait until you’ve lived a few years… Wait until life gets a bit more complicated… Wait until you have kids to keep you up at night… Wait until a few dreams wither on the vine… Wait until responsibilities and obligations crowd out space for romance… Wait until the weekend comes and you’re feeling more tired than energetic… Wait until…. Well, whatever. Not everyone has the luxury of making out on the driveway on a Friday morning! Thus did the rest of my morning commute dissolve in Scrooge-like ruminations.
Why, I now wonder, is this the case. Why am I suspicious of such displays of love and affection? Why not just smile and move on? I wonder if it is perhaps because it’s very easy for our loves to become less than they ought to be over time and simple things like a young couple on a driveway can remind us of this. It’s very easy for love to become a rather calculating sort of thing, whether it’s the love of a spouse or a child or a friend or whatever. We so easily extend and withhold affection based on what we imagine we’ll get out of the deal. We express love to our spouse when they’re meeting our needs and propping up our self-image. We express love for our kids when they’re making the right choices and stacking up well against the kids of our peers (or, at the very least, not embarrassing us too terribly). We love our friends and neighbours and people in church roughly to the extent that our efforts are reciprocated. And so on. Love—or at least an inadequate facsimile of love—becomes the reward for acceptable performance.
It’s probably even true when it comes to our love for God. We often love God when God is behaving appropriately—when our lives are proceeding more or less acceptably, when we’re reasonably free from pain and struggle, when we are regularly having inspirational thoughts and feelings, when our church is supportive and successful, when our good deeds are being rewarded, when faith seems uncomplicated, when our lives seem to generally be making sense. When any one or more of these blocks gets pulled out of the tower, though? Well, it’s all too easy for our love for God to come crashing down.
Love came down at Christmas-time. We hear this every year at this time. But I think many of us—even those of us who have walked with Jesus for a long time—imagine that it’s a rather calculating kind of love that came down. God became human in order to enter into our suffering, teach us how to live, and to die in our place in order to defeat the power of death and to offer us the hope of new life. God counted the cost, weighed the potential benefits, ran the formulas and then decided upon the course of action that love would take in order to maximize desired outcomes. If we respond appropriately (i.e., accept his gift of salvation, embrace the path of discipleship, get our theological i’s dotted and t’s crossed, etc.), then we can expect to experience God’s love. If not? Well, then God’s love will be withheld until we make some adjustments to our beliefs and/or behaviour. This is, perhaps, a caricature, but I don’t think it’s too far from what’s going on in many people’s minds when it comes to faith. Christmas (and Easter, for that matter) become rather transactional in nature. And God’s love can seem like little more than another burdensome set of expectations.
We naturally think in these terms because this is the form that our loves often tend to take. But God, we must remember with no small amount of reverence and gratitude, is not like us. We fumble towards love. We try and fail and try again. We make incremental progress here and there in becoming better lovers. But God is love. And God’s love is not like ours so often is—self-serving, measured, conditional. God’s love is like a father at a gate whose love does not wane no matter how often it is scorned. God’s love does not demand a reckoning when the sin-sick prodigals stumble home seeking little more than a corner of the servants’ quarters. God’s love is not carefully measured out in proportion to what God receives in return. God’s love is prodigal, which is to say, extravagant, wasteful, reckless, irresponsible. It doesn’t make sense. It always protects, always hopes, always perseveres. It never fails.
1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.” At one point, I think I interpreted this as something like, “We are supposed to love God and others because God’s love came first chronologically.” I did this for you first and now you’d better respond in kind! And I suppose this is true, on one level. But I think that when it comes to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, chronology is subsumed under ontology. God’s love is prior to ours, certainly, but it is also around and underneath and within and beyond any of our smaller loves. It is the origin and end of all things. It is cause and effect, inauguration and consummation. Our loves are nothing more or less than participation in God’s very being.
Love came down at Christmastime. Yes, thank God, it did. Not as calculation but revelation.
The image above is called “God’s Heart” and was created by Friedrich Peter. It is taken from the 2009-10 Christian Seasons Calendar.