Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Greatest of These Is Love

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3).

Faith, hope, and love: the fruits of faith, gifts of the Holy Spirit. While we may receive many other gifts from God – speaking in tongues, musical ability, preaching, prophesying, children’s ministry, the ability to transform fabric into something beautiful (the list could go one forever) – faith, hope, and love are the abiding gifts into which all others are subsumed. Paul is very clear that, of these three, love is the greatest. Without love, all other gifts are empty and meaningless.

When theologians talk about love, they often like to divide it into categories like Storge, Philia, Eros, and Agape. Agape is privileged in the love category because it’s selfless and purely other-directed. But we don’t really need these categories, because Paul tells us what love is, and its qualities are true of many kinds of love. This list may strike you as familiar if you’ve ever been to a Western-rite Christian wedding, but bear with me.

“Love is patient and kind” (1 Cor 13:4). Love doesn’t rush people, it doesn’t get angry in a flash, even when the guy next to you on the train is leaning on your arm and snoring. Love pushes aside frustration. This isn’t to say that because love is patient it waits endlessly for you: love pushes you further than you thought you could go, demands your best of you, forces you to be more. Love is kind: it assumes the best, and is yourself acting your best, doing as you would have others do unto you. It is in the small things and the big things, the things that are expected and even demanded of you, and the things that go beyond expectation.

“Love is not jealous or boastful” (1 Cor 13:4). To love another is to embrace them in their happiness without grasping after it for yourself, to encounter a person for themself and not as a platform for your own self-expression. Love is a relationship that accepts both of you without resentment, and without seeking your own self-advancement at the cost of another person’s integrity.

Love “is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right” (1 Cor 13:5-6). To love someone is to not assume that you are right or better or more important than them. Love builds up because it is not puffed up. Love allows for the possibility that you’re wrong and that you might have to say you’re sorry. Love doesn’t resent other people for you being wrong, or for demanding better of you. Love doesn’t mean accepting sin or wrongdoing on your own part or others’, but it does mean learning to love them through it, both by staying true to what you believe and by not allowing it to change the way that you love another.

Paul defines love by what it is and isn't, even though in many ways it slips through our grasp: love is a great and precious and glorious mystery.  

Like many people living with depression, I have often had difficulty with love. We live in a love-obsessed and love-saturated culture, surrounded by dating websites and pictures of perfect families and drawings where God looks like Santa Clause. Self-help manuals populate our bookstores, telling us how to better love our partners, our children, our parents, and ourselves. Love has become a kind of Holy Grail of self-fulfillment – all you need is love.

For myself, a sign I might be heading for a more serious depressive episode is increased affective flattening – a technical psychiatric term specifying blunted emotional responses to everyday stimuli, including and especially happy things. I don’t feel happy when happy things happen, and sometimes I don’t feel sad when devastating things happen. This feeling that you’re living in emotional bubble-wrap is relatively common among people with chronic or prodromal major depression, but it isn’t talked about as much as the other, more overt signs of emotional breakdown. Among other things, what this means is that I don’t necessarily feel love. I don’t feel that you love me, and I don’t feel that I love you.

I’ve struggled with feeling that maybe I can’t love. I’ve wondered, at times, if because I don’t feel love whether love is a capacity I lack. I wonder about what that means for my life as a Christian: I am called to love the Lord my God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength, and my neighbor as myself, but what if I don’t love them? I am called to love my enemies, but what if I can’t even love my friends? Paul is clear that, without love behind them, all our gifts are nothing, all that we bring to God and the Church is nothing, and by our practice of faith we gain nothing. If I don’t feel love, am I anything more than a loud empty noise?

But love, while it often encompasses and involves emotion, is far more – and far other – than what we feel. Love, as we see in Paul’s descriptions, is about how we choose to behave toward others. Love is treating people with dignity and respect regardless of how we feel. Love is choosing selflessness, and kindness, and truth over simple self-desire and the easy solution. Not feeling the emotions of love doesn’t mean that you don’t have love. Love is about the way you choose to live your life.

This doesn’t mean that love is easy for people living with depression. Love isn’t easy at the best of times. We’ve all loved someone and lost our temper over something that shouldn’t have made us angry. We’ve all disappointed someone we love. We’ve all been judgemental. We’ve all chosen our own needs over those of a loved one. Relationships can be frustrating and challenging and it’s easy, in those moments of difficulty or disagreement or just plain exhaustion, for love to fail. We’ve all had those moments where we visualized strangling the snoring, leaning stranger on the train, not to mention the flashes of anger toward those who have genuinely hurt us, or whom we just plain dislike.

Of course love is difficult if you struggle with an illness that can leave you short-tempered, tired, and prone to negativity. But love is difficult for everyone. We all fail at it, and that doesn’t change the fact that love is a choice we must make anew every day, every hour, and every minute of our lives. We have a responsibility to choose love regardless of the cost. We have a responsibility to choose love after we have failed at love.

There are times that we don’t feel as if we can love, that we don’t feel capable of making that choice, of giving ourselves to another. There are times when we feel mired in darkness and despair, swallowed by some strange creature and not knowing when – or if – we will be free. But who is to know the language of our souls, that maybe under the darkness we are choosing love even though we don’t know it? Hidden deep inside us are things that God sees in the dark, and that one day will be shown in the light.

We are never alone in trying to love. When we are failing, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). We do not stand alone in choosing love, in trying to love, in striving for love. Jesus preached the Gospel with His face set towards Jerusalem – God has faith. Jesus told us about the Kingdom which is coming – God has hope. And God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son – God has love. And God’s love is strong enough to carry us through the darkness.  

“So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor: 13:13).

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