One of the great discussions of what love means:
Everyone talks about love but very few really know what it actually is or what it means. Hollywood and popular culture are always going on about love – but it usually is lust or sex or selfishness masquerading as love that they have in mind. The poets often speak about love as well, but they too can be all over the place.
To get our bearings right about love – just like everything else – we need to begin, and end, with God. It is God who not only defines what real love is, but who fully demonstrates and exemplifies it. The cross of Christ is the supreme example of this love. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
So if we want to properly understand and speak about love, we need God’s perspective. And to become a loving person, we need God to make it happen. We need to be reconciled to God through Christ, and then we can start to love as he wants us to.
On a personal note, if I may, I recall something that happened to me around 42 years ago. I was a student at a discipleship training school in Europe. As I was rather discouraged and depressed (hmm, I still often am today!) I decided to have a private chat with one of the visiting speakers. He was from New Zealand.
I forget all that I said and most of what he said. But one thing I still remember – he said that ‘I am a man for love’ or words to that effect. I thought that was a strange and not very accurate way to describe me – and I still feel that way. I tend to think of myself as the most unloving person around!
I feel I do not love God much at all, or others, or my own family. I seem so self-centred and so focused on myself and my own needs. I guess the best that can be said is hopefully I have been getting better over the years, slowly learning to love as God wants me to love. So I can always say, ‘Yeah, but you should have seen me decades ago!’
Anyway, forgive me for this little reflection about myself. What I really want to do here is share something from one of my favourite Christian writers. You can never get enough of C. S. Lewis. And having seen a quote of his posted on the social media just now, I did a quick bit of sniffing around to see where it came from, pulled the volume off my shelves, and reread the chapter that it appears in.
In his classic 1960 work, The Four Loves, Lewis looks at affection, friendship, eros (erotic love), and charity (the love of God). In 1976 I first picked up a copy of this volume, and it looks like a colouring book: between the blue pen underlying and the yellow highlighting, there is barely an unmarked page left in the whole book.
The quote in question comes from his final chapter on charity. It sure has plenty of blue and yellow ink all over it. I cannot share the entire chapter here, but a large hunk of it can be offered. Here is what he has to say:
If the Victorians needed the reminder that love is not enough, older theologians were always saying very loudly that (natural) love is likely to be a great deal too much. The danger of loving our fellow-creatures too little was less present to their minds than that of loving them idolatrously. In every wife, mother, child, and friend they saw a possible rival to God. So of course does Our Lord (Luke 14:26).
There is one method of dissuading us from inordinate love of the fellow-creature which I find myself forced to reject at the very outset. I do so with trembling, for it met me in the pages of a great saint and a great thinker to whom my own glad debts are incalculable.
In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St Augustine describes the desolation in which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him (Confessions IV, 10). Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.
Of course this is excellent sense. Don’t put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering.’
To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground—because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife or a Friend—if it comes to that, would you choose a dog—in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love Himself than this.
I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St Augustine’s Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic ‘apathy’ or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he ‘loved’. St Paul has a higher authority with us than St Augustine—St Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died (Phil. II:27).
Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself offer them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’
There is no escape along the lines St Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness. It is like hiding the talent in a napkin and for much the same reason. ‘I knew thee that thou wert a hard man.’ Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.
It remains certainly true that all natural loves can be inordinate. Inordinate does not mean ‘insufficiently cautious’. Nor does it mean ‘too big’. It is not a quantitative term. It is probably impossible to love any human being simply ‘too much’. We may love him too much in proportion to our love for God; but it is the smallness of our love for God, not the greatness of our love for the man, that constitutes the inordinacy. But even this must be refined upon. Otherwise we shall trouble some who are very much on the right road but alarmed because they cannot feel towards God so warm a sensible emotion as they feel for the earthly Beloved. It is much to be wished—at least I think so—that we all, at all times, could. We must pray that this gift should be given us. But the question whether we are loving God or the earthly Beloved ‘more’ is not, so far as concerns our Christian duty, a question about the comparative intensity of two feelings. The real question is, which (when the alternative comes) do you serve, or choose, or put first? To which claim does your will, in the last resort, yield?
I encourage you to either go out and buy a copy of this remarkable book, or find your old copy, blow off the dust, and revisit it. It will do your soul a world of good.