God blesses our relationships with human affection and love, but he has a greater love to give to his people.
Rolfe F. Westendorf
“I hold it true, whate’er befall; I feel it when I sorrow most. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all” (from “In Memoriam A.H.H.”).
Alfred Lord Tennyson penned these words while grieving over the loss of a dear friend. He’s right, of course. As we suffer the pain of our loss, it is logical that we wouldn’t feel the pain if the deceased had been a stranger. We might pity the one who died. We may sympathize with others who are grieving the loss of a loved one. But we would escape the pain if we hadn’t come to love the deceased person in the first place.
But Tennyson realized that escaping the pain was too high a price to pay for the loss of the joy that comes from loving a person.
This joy is most clearly seen in the love that parents have for their newborn child. The tiny stranger doesn’t love them. He makes huge demands and gives nothing in return. Yet the parents loves their baby with all their hearts and faithfully provide for the child to the best of their ability. And they enjoy doing it, at least most of the time.
Love provides similar benefits wherever it occurs between husband and wife, friends and companions. Love rewards us with benefits from having another person who means a lot to us. We discover value in ourselves that comes from our desire to benefit the one we love.
Of course, the loss of this benefit causes pain. We can no longer help a person after death. Careless spouses can neglect and destroy the love that brought them together. Friends can betray each other and lose the love that made their friendship a joy. Death, neglect, and betrayal are all the results of the sinful nature that infects us all.
Yes, the loss of love causes pain. But as long as love lasts, it is a blessing in our lives. And the greater the blessing, the greater the pain of losing it. Yet, in spite of the pain, Tennyson was right: “ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”
ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE
Of course, Tennyson was talking about the kind of love almost all people understand. It is one of the joys God has given us in our human journeys, and he provides it for believers and unbelievers alike, almost like allowing the rain to fall on the just and unjust.
The Bible talks about this kind of natural love. It also talks about another kind of love that is similar yet significantly different. Tennyson’s love is based on relationships and doesn’t have to recognize God or his love. But the second kind of love has deep roots in the richness of God’s love for us. It is a love that is the result of the Spirit working through God’s Word (Galatians 5:22).
It is not natural for us to love God, and God clearly has no reason to love us. By nature he is holy and hates sin. By nature we are sinners and helpless to change that condition. But God chose to love us in spite of our nature and loved us so much that he sacrificed his Son for our salvation. As a result of this love of God, we were cleansed from our guilt and declared holy for heaven.
Many are unaware of God’s love. Some plainly reject it. But when God’s love is received through faith, it produces an unnatural effect upon the sinner’s heart. Paul simply says: “For Christ’s love compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Because of Christ’s love, we behave in a way that is unnatural for sinners. We love each other—even when the others do not deserve our love—because Jesus loved us. We pattern our love on his love. The Holy Spirit gives us such love; it is a spiritual gift from God.
This spiritual love produces unexpected results. When normal human love is abused, it fades away. People who once loved each other drift apart, so that they no longer love each other. But spiritual love remains. Jesus has not stopped loving us, so we continue to love each other.
The benefit of this spiritual love is demonstrated in a marriage that survives in spite of neglect and abuse. Love based only on human standards can be destroyed, but spiritual love remains. It may be abused, but it keeps loving, searching for a way to mend and help. Sometime it is able to endure long enough so that people who have drifted apart begin to love each other naturally again.
OUR LOVE FOR ONE ANOTHER
Spiritual love is not based on being loved in return. Even when there is no human reason for mutual attraction, the Spirit creates affection, even for people who happen to be strangers. Visitors to a Christian congregation are often impressed with the genuine friendliness they find there. And why not? When the Spirit plants spiritual love into the heart of a Christian, his or her welcome is not artificial. It is the genuine love that the visitor appreciates and desires. Visitors that experience this Christian love will be interested in returning for more of the same. Spiritual love will not make Christians of them. Only Word and sacrament can to that. But if a Christian’s love has made them feel welcome, they are more likely to return. Then they can receive the means of grace, which can eventually create Christian faith and spiritual love in their hearts.
Natural human love cannot accomplish this. Natural love is based on mutual relationships, and there is no relationship with a stranger. Instead there is only the artificial friendliness of the salesman, which lasts as long as there is the prospect of a sale. Visitors may be impressed by artificial friendliness, but such friendliness does not produce lasting relationships.
I once thought I had a friend in the person who sold me my car. But once the sale was complete, I was no longer his friend. He moved his friendliness to the next customer. A good lesson, I think. Artificial friendliness may persuade a visitor to return. But if the friendliness is artificial, he will not return often. Christian love means that the visitor is welcomed as a friend as often as he returns, without the benefit of other positive experiences. And that is the love that our God desires.
His law says, “Love you neighbor as yourself,” even if that neighbor is your enemy. Natural human love cannot accomplish this. But the unnatural love created by the Spirit feels affection for those who would otherwise not be our friends.
Yes, natural love is good, but we are not satisfied with that. We also desire the gift of the Spirit—Christian love. It’s the greatest gift (1 Corinthians 13).
Rolfe Westendorf, a retired pastor, is a member at Grace, Dalton, Wisconsin.
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Author: Rolfe F. Westendorf
Volume 103, Number 2
Issue: February 2016
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