The greatest love

“For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” (Song of Songs 8:6-7)

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

Because it means so much to us, authors and songwriters have given us scores of monuments to love: Paul’s catalog of love’s qualities in 1 Corinthians 13; George Harrison’s Something; Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say good night till it be morrow”).

And then there’s schmaltzy greeting cards, the Starland Vocal Band (yes, that song), and honeymoon lodges in the Poconos with heart-shaped tubs. We have these for the same reason we need pens that identify fake $100 bills: We counterfeit things with real value and ignore the rest.

In the creation narrative, I find it interesting that the only thing that is not good is man without a companion: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen 2:18).

Imagine the moment that Adam and Eve meet. A companion, someone to share my life, someone who listens and understands me, someone who loves me and I can love. I wonder how long they just stared at each other. For all the human-to-human benefits of loving companionship, its origin is the divine endorsement that human love is as good as the sun and stars, the vegetation and the creatures of land, sea and sky.

Yet there is another way of seeing love that can escape our notice. It is an elemental force to be reckoned with. It’s not all frills and flowers. It’s powerful. Many waters cannot quench it, Solomon wrote.

What is it that impels a parent to return to a burning building when she realizes a child is not accounted for? The instinct of self-preservation, as strong as it is, is no match for the depths and breadth of love. It is as strong as death.

So, for that reason, we do not find the greatest commandment recorded as obey the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength. Obey does not plumb the depths of our hearts as love does.

You can take a child’s inflatable vinyl ball and hold it beneath the surface of the water by sheer force. But you have done nothing more than temporarily suppress its nature. Remove the pressure and the ball’s true buoyant nature literally pops up in front of you.

Likewise, wherever something besides love defines our relationship with God—it could be primarily parental pressure or the approval of other church members, for example—when the wind shifts or the pressure is relaxed and no one is looking, there goes our tenuous commitment as well. You can pressure someone to obey, temporarily. Love sends down roots.

So, as the Lord refines us to maturity, he does not merely deal with our acknowledged weaknesses or our besetting sins. The angel of the wrestled with Jacob, all night. In our lives that means he wrestles with our loves. If the Lord has won your love, he has your life.

I can say this with conviction because of personal experience. When I was a junior at the Johns Hopkins University, I fell in love–like never before.  My heart started to glow whenever I was with Jasmine.

I remember one spring Sunday afternoon when we walked along a campus lane behind one of the classroom buildings. We just enjoyed each other’s company for an hour or so before going back to the library to study.

I wish I had a photo of that Sunday stroll. (This was pre-selfie and smartphone; we called them “Kodak moments” back then.) If I had it blown up to poster-size, it could have been captioned Pure Happiness, because that’s what it felt like to me. The memory of it is just as real as if it were yesterday.

We started dating as juniors. And we picked up where we left off in the fall of our senior year after a summer separation that was just too long.

And then it happened. As I was praying one morning, I sensed by the Spirit a very clear command: You must break this off. Just that. No elaboration, no explanation. But the clear, insistent urging of the Holy Spirit was as undeniable as hearing a bell on a quiet weekend morning.

Now, 40+ years later, I realize that any accompanying explanation would have gone right over my head. The Lord could have hand-delivered a 1000-word memo like Zechariah’s flying scroll (Zech 5) and it wouldn’t have moved the needle one bit on my willingness (or unwillingness) to obey.

She was devastated. (So was I, incidentally.) And incredulous, of course. We never really talked about it—in fact my mother registered her preemptive disapproval because Jasmine is Chinese American—but we both were looking forward to marriage at some point.

About 15 years ago, I met her for lunch in Baltimore. And as the conversation meandered its way back to our college days, I saw she still didn’t comprehend what happened or accept my simple (but admittedly inexplicable) explanation. It made me very uncomfortable.

God often deals summarily, and tidily, with our weaknesses or shortcomings. Sometimes it takes just a couple of feeling-out-of-our-depths episodes to demonstrate or remind us that, yes, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

But when you’re dealing with what you love, it can be pretty messy. Of course, obedience through trusting God often precedes learning what this or that event was all about. Yet even extended rumination on our lives can leave puzzling gaps. As Paul, who had much of the New Testament on his C.V., wrote, “I know in part” (1 Cor 13:12).

There is much more to my story that will have to wait for another post. But Jasmine and I parted on the night before graduation, after being pretty inconsistent about staying apart in the remainder of our senior year. I gave way very easily to finding ways to cross paths with her intentionally, and I suspect she did the same. It was love being extinguished, but the embers burned for a very long time.

In time, we found that the other wasn’t really the be-all and end-all we thought. Each of us married and had children. Life continued, and God was with us at every step.

A single blog post couldn’t do justice to an explanation, but the decision I made that day in my dorm room made all the difference. I wouldn’t have the clarity and depth of understanding of the faith I have now if I had chosen differently (which, to be clear, shouldn’t be equated with the notion that she was a stumbling block to me). I wouldn’t have become a teacher in the church; I wouldn’t be writing this now.

It’s never a choice between love or no love. It’s a choice between great love and the greatest love.

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