Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day: A Counter-Cultural Message of Love

Happy St. Valentine’s Day everyone!!! I have been thinking a lot recently about this day. We all know the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 and the song based on this passage: The Gift of Love. However, I feel as if not enough people have defined love from a Christian perspective. Seeing that today is the feast day of a martyr for Christian marriage, I think that it would be a good idea to discuss Christian love vs. worldly love. Often, we cannot tell the difference, or do not know that Christian love is radically different, in fact the opposite of, worldly love. Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book that I am in the process of reading called Works of Love where he analyzes Christian love as defined in the scriptures. (People who wrongly consider Kierkegaard as the philosopher of doom and gloom may be surprised that he wrote quite a few books on love).

Kierkegaard asks us why we can say that Jesus is Love when He was not the liberating Messiah of Israel that the Jews were looking for and who’s controversial life led to the persecution and death of almost all of His apostles. From a worldly (secular) perspective Jesus is the opposite of love; He seems selfish and inconsiderate. However, as Christians we believe Christ and the teaching that He was and is Love. So what kind of love is He? Kierkegaard argues that true love requires one to help the beloved love God. This requires one to sacrifice some of his/her personal love for the other so that the other may know God better. Jesus is Love because His life, and especially His death, reconciled humanity to God. This was the ultimate sacrifice. Poets do not praise this sort of love, finding it selfish that a couple would place Jesus in the middle of their relationship. This is, though, what we must do. True love for another person never betrays the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). From a Christian perspective, if a person does not help the beloved know God, he/she is actually selfish and really does not love but hates the other person. This is definitely not what people talk about and exalt on Valentine’s Day. But maybe this is the reason why promiscuity and abortion are misdefined as love in our culture. True love always involves obedience to God. Any relationship that leaves out God is not based on love but hatred.

What kind of relationship is Kierkegaard interested in? He asks us to listen to Jesus for the answer. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). This is a command that must be followed at all times, no matter who our neighbor may be. Kierkegaard argues that this is good news for those of us, like him, who do not have a “special someone.”

“[I]f your love for your neighbor remains unchanged, then the neighbor also remains unchanged just by the fact of existing. And death cannot deprive you of your neighbor for if it takes one, then life at once gives you another. Death can deprive you of a friend, because in loving your friend you are really united with the friend; but in loving your neighbor you are united with God, and therefore death cannot deprive you of your neighbor. If you have therefore lost everything in love and friendship, if you have never enjoyed any of this happiness: you still have the best left in loving your neighbor.”*

True love does not play favorites but loves all equally because each person was created equally by God. This is why Christians must love their enemies. This kind of love is not the charity that the world boasts of. True Christian love is thankless. True Christian love is considered hateful and selfish by many. Couples think that if God gets in the way, their relationship has been ruined. Each person wants the other exclusively for his/herself. What the world exalts, Christianity condemns and what Christianity exalts, the world condemns.  I must admit that I am utterly shocked and scandalized by this. Love is thus not the gushy feeling people have for each other but the desire to help everyone have a relationship with God. A lover becomes responsible, in a way, for the beloved’s soul. Now St. Paul can be better understood:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Let’s be counter-cultural in our love for others. Peace.

*Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. Trans. David F. Swenson, and Lillian Marvin Swenson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946. Print.

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