I have been learning a lot about true love lately; how it works, what it looks like on a day-to-day basis, and how to give more and more of it away.
We live in a world that is so focused on hatred and violence that sometimes it is easy to believe that love is defeated, battered and bruised, barely hanging onto life, like a beggar on the street corner in tattered clothes and holding a cardboard sign asking for help. But love isn't like that at all. Love is the most powerful force in the entire universe - past, present, and future...
True love is a bone-deep, cellular-level, DNA-coded yearning that goes far beyond the structure of romantic love like you see in the movies. True love is so much bigger than that, and so much more powerful.
True love manifests itself in servitude or caring for something or someone, doing the everyday nitty-gritty things that seem so mundane and basic. True love is the moment you hold a child's hand when they're afraid of the dark, or when you share your lunch with someone who is hungry and doesn't have lunch of their own. True love is when you hold back your sick friend's hair so they don't get throw-up in it. True love is cleaning out the litter box for your cat before bedtime, or taking your dog for a walk, even if you're tired because he's been waiting all day. True love is helping your brother or sister or friend understand their math homework with patience; true love is giving up your seat on the bus for someone who needs it more than you do. It's the little things that make huge differences in our day-to-day lives, the tiny but grand gestures that build others up.
You've likely heard of the Golden Rule - "treat others as you would like to be treated". The Golden Rule is a great guideline to achieving love. Did you know the Golden Rule is from the Bible? It's a direct quote from Jesus in Matthew 7:12. "Therefore, whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." What Jesus is saying here is that by loving others the way you love yourself will fulfill all the rules of the Old Testament that God requires - it's so simple, yet so hard, because hate is such a strong entity in our world and so ingrained in us that we don't even realize how strongly it throbs through us...
Besides that, it's not just loving others who love us back that Jesus is challenging us to in Matthew 7. If it was only people who love us already, the task would be easy. But in Matthew 5:43, Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Hold up. I'm supposed to love them, too?
Yes. Yes you are.
See, the Golden Rule doesn't have any fine print, no asterisk asking us to see the footnote, no parenthesis, no crossed-fingers-behind-the-back (which I've recently learned is called a "kings cross", by the way). The word "others" is not code for a selected group of people who meet your approval and a list of requirements. It means everybody. Jesus followed up his call to love your enemies with,"For He (God) causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (v. 45)
Yikes. Now that's a kind of standard that would be really hard to live up to, right? Like who can do that. When somebody wrongs you, the natural reaction is to be angry with them, right? When someone judges you or mistreats you or says hateful things to you or about you, it's really easy to pop off and give them a good what-for. But you know, hatred and being angry with someone is really just a murder of the heart? When you're mad at somebody and you cut them out of your life, when you say things like "they are dead to me", you've committed a murder in your heart... and we've all done it. Nobody is perfect, nobody can constantly go around loving everyone all the time, right? Right. So why does Jesus require it? Because whether it's something we can humanly achieve or not, true love is still what is right and anything outside of true love is evil. Everyone falls short of this standard (Romans 3:23), because we live in a corrupted world where hate and sin exists. Because we're not able to love perfectly. If we were, it would be Heaven here on Earth and we wouldn't need to dream of a day when we all live in peace.
That's why we need Jesus, by the way - because we aren't able to keep up the perfect standard. Only He can. He is love personified, after all (1 John 4:8).
As I was pondering this whole idea of loving your enemies as yourself, I wondered about how does the Golden Rule apply when we don't treat ourselves very well?
I've struggled with depression most of my life, and I've battered myself pretty bad, talking down to myself and about myself, even in my own mind. I've spent long nights crying and verbally abusing myself in my anguish. I know I'm not alone in this. More than ever, the world is full of people who have suffered through this kind of debilitating depression. Or maybe it's less "more than ever" and more that we're finally able to talk freely and openly about mental health and the ways that our minds effect our lives. So what then, when we barely have the strength to love ourselves, how does the Golden Rule apply then?
Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy.
The thing is, no matter how much we "hate" ourselves, we still do the things in our daily routine to take care of ourselves, right? As a pastor whose teachings I've been listening to recently said, "Whose teeth did you brush this morning?" What he meant by that was that even if you emotionally were at odds with yourself, you took care of you by brushing your teeth. You probably ate some food, too, and drank some water. These are all small ways of love being manifested. They're bright spots in the dark that prove to yourself that you do have love inside of you. After all, true love is taking care of something or someone, remember?
This concept reminds me of the scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in the Room of Requirement getting Ravenclaw's Diadem and they're confronted by Draco Malfoy and his two henchmen, Crabbe, and Goyle. Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle have been series-long enemies - bullies that have become Death Eaters, followers of He Who Must Not Be Named - and yet when Crabbe sets a feindfyre on the room and the whole place is burning to the ground, the trio turns back to save the three bullies. Harry pulls Malfoy onto the back of his broomstick and gets them out of there only just in the nick of time before they he would've been killed. Draco doesn't magically become Harry's best mate after the rescue, but there is definitely a shift in Draco after that. He's got humility - he's seen what true love looks like... and recognized that it is counter-cultural to everything he's been taught all his life... and true love is not in the nature of Lord Voldemort, that's for sure.
We love our enemies by not wishing pain on them, by not letting them go hungry or thirsty. We love even our enemies by praying for them, by wishing them peace, by our words - or the refusal to speak in hatred of anyone. We love our enemies by wishing that they would come to see what evil they've done to us and to others and leaving the door open for them to turnaround and come back, letting them have the opportunity to make amends should the time come. We do not allow them to continue hurting us, we may have to step back to protect ourselves from them, but we wish them only the best despite what foul things they may wish upon us.
You cannot be held responsible for their actions or reactions against you, only for your actions and reactions toward them.
That is what ought to make Christians stand out from the crowd. As Jesus said in Matthew 5, if we love only those who love us back, how does that make us any different than anyone else? Everyone loves people who love them. What sets Jesus apart is the call to love unconditionally. As the old hymn goes, "They will know that we are Christians by our love." Granted, a lot of Christians do not live up to this (none of them do, actually, since nobody but Jesus can). A lot of Christians have this false idea that it's their job to judge, but that's not what Jesus said to do. Judgement and justice are up to God, because only He knows what is really going on in others lives. We don't know what other people's hearts are - what they're thinking or going through or what traumas and pains they are holding inside of them. Jesus only ever commanded us to manifest true love.
So my challenge for you is this: love even your enemies as you love yourself - and hey, love yourself while you're at it... because Jesus loves you, and so do I.
* Scripture quoted is from the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) which can be read in its entirety here: https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Christian-Standard-Bible-CSB/#booklist