Dr. Ben Witherington III: “Love’s Labor’s Won”
“FEELINGS, NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS”
Ours is an affective age. So much is this the case that even the best of counselors often begin their therapy sessions with the question, “How do you feel about…?” or “How does that make you feel?” Feelings are assumed to be the touchstone, the talisman as it were, of what is really going on in a human life, what really matters. This is so, in spite of the fact that we all know that feelings can be tremendously deceptive.
In the earliest days of aviation in America, planes regularly crashed. One of the puzzles was why pilots, when they went into a cloud would often come out of it in a spin and then crash. One pilot who survived such a crash was interviewed by a major reporter and he explained that when he went into the cloud his inner ear, indeed all his inner feelings, gave him the impression that the plane was not upright or level, and that he needed to bank to the right to be parallel to the ground once more. In fact this inner sense of his, this strong feeling deep inside him was all wrong, and it was precisely responding to this feeling which led him to bank in such a way that he went into a spin and crashed. Thereafter, altimeters and other gauges were installed in the planes so the pilots could fly even through clouds on a level plane without getting the urge to bank in some precipitous way leading to a crash. Human feelings, even profound ones, are often no good guides to what is true or what is good or even what is helpful.
Ah, but what about the feeling we call love? Surely that feeling is more true, a better barometer and guide to life? Sadly, it often is not so. We could all name persons who have spent, or misspent their lives following their feelings and their deep desire to be loved, and the result has been one train wreck of a relationship after another. In light of this, one has to ask: is the Bible really commanding us to live our lives based on our feelings, even our deepest feelings? Even more profoundly, is Jesus really insisting we do so in one of our Scriptures for today? In fact, as we will now discover, he is not. Love in the biblical sense, while it certainly involves feelings is nevertheless not all about feelings, indeed it is not primarily about feelings, as we shall now see. And then, too, the love which is being talked about here has a Christological shape, orientation, direction, and source. Jesus is the source, exemplar, director, and object of this love. It is not just any kind of love that is referred to here.
THE COMMAND TO LOVE
Have you noticed that in the Bible we are frequently commanded to love? It should have struck us as odd that love is commanded, if we are used to associating love with mere feelings. Jesus says that love of God and of others is the greatest commandment. He even commands us to love our enemies, which surely does not mean love them to death by killing them. But is he really ordering our feelings to march in lockstep in a particular direction? Have you ever said to your children, “I demand that for the next three minutes you will feel happy and cheerful!” That’s rather like that wonderful starfish in Finding Nemo commanding itself, “Go to a happy place, go to a happy place, go to a happy place” while the aquarium is being thumped, right where the starfish is attached, by a mean little girl. If you have tried such an experiment of commanding others’ feelings or even your own, doubtless you have discovered it is an exercise in futility, not fertility. Feelings cannot be commanded. They come and they go and they are subject to the vicissitudes of life, affected and prompted by a thousand different factors—whether or not we are healthy, whether we are hungry, whether we are sleepy and a host of other factors.
So here is where I tell you that in the Bible love is normally an action word. It refers to a decision of the will that then leads to an action. Most often it refers to an activity, not a feeling at all. This is why for example in the Christian marriage ritual the bride and groom to be are asked when it comes to professing their love to say “I do” and “I do,” and “I will” and “I will.” They are not asked to say “I feel like it” and “I feel like it.” This should have given us a clue that love is not mainly about feelings, from a biblical point of view. In fact in Jesus’ own words for this morning he tells us, “greater love has no one than he lay down his life for his friends.” That’s love in action, love as a self-sacrificial deed. There are of course lesser loves, but Jesus is not speaking of those in this text.
Too often we get real love mixed up with lust, or even just plain desire or loneliness. Young people often say “we’re in love” but alas all too often they are simply “in heat.” In fact the English lexicon is tremendously impoverished when it comes to love. Greek has no less than four or five different words for love—one for physical love (eros), one for family love (storge), one for brotherly or sisterly love (philadelphos), and one for divine love—agape. And the love that is being commanded in the New Testament is almost always agape. But now you may be saying, how in the world can Jesus command us to love as God loves? It’s hard enough to love like the best of humans, how can we be commanded to love as God does? Isn’t that a bridge too far? Should we all be singing now the theme from Man of La Mancha, “To dream the impossible dream…” Is this command the stuff of fairy tales? The task becomes all the more daunting when we realize that God’s love for us is so vast.
There is an old hymn written by a man whose last name is Lehman. He was a man who lived before modern psychology and its medications, and seems to have been bi-polar or manic depressive. There were times of lucidity and times he would lose his grip on reality. Not surprisingly, living in the early 20th century he was institutionalized. Now the man was both a musician and a devout Christian. Despite his institutionalization he wrote some wonderful joyful hymns, and the most famous of which has a story behind it. The most memorable verse of this hymn was the last thing Mr. Lehman ever wrote, for it was found scrawled on the padded wall of his cell, in which he was found dead. It reads as follows:
The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can tell; it goes beyond the highest star and reaches lowest hell… Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies a parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade, to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry. Nor could the scroll contain the whole if stretched across the sky.
Should we then despair of ever loving like God loves, or as God has commanded us to love?
REAL LOVE, A GIFT FROM GOD
In fact the answer is no. St. Augustine gives us the clue when he says to God, “give what you command Lord, and command whatsoever you will.” The capacity to make the decision of the will, to put love into motion, and even to make the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s life for others, is in fact a gift from God. St. Paul puts it this way when he says that if anyone is in Christ “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Rom. 5.5) So let us talk about God’s love for a moment.
Victor Furnish, one of the great New Testament scholars of our era, has put the matter in this fashion: “God’s love is not like a heat-seeking missile which is triggered by something inherently attractive in the target, the object of love.” Indeed not, God loves us when we are unlovely, indeed in some respects seemingly unlovable. God loves us whether we love God back or not. God’s love is unconditional, in the sense that it is given freely, and not because of anything we have said or done or felt. Indeed, God’s love is often given in spite of what we have said or done or felt. It is pure grace—God’s unmerited favor, God’s undeserved, unearned benefit freely and lavishly poured out by God into our lives. The key then is that for human beings to love as God and Jesus have commanded us, they must first be open to receiving that love from God. Paul says it is a matter of believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and receiving the gift of love by means of God’s Spirit who comes to indwell the believer.
Ah ha, you may say, “I knew it—so there is a catch. I must first believe, before I can receive; I must first trust before I can have such love.” Its not really a catch though. God is not requiring of you some herculean effort or any sort of quid pro quo. Its just that you must unclench your fists, and open your hands if you are to catch what he keeps throwing in your direction. No love has ever been received, even of the purely mortal sort without there first being some trust, some openness, some vulnerability involved. You cannot be loved unless you allow yourself to be loved, and that involves a modicum of trust. But oh what a wondrous thing it is when you allow yourself to be transformed by God’s love. Then indeed you are capable of even truly and totally self-sacrificial love. You want proof? I have time for just three brief examples—my wife Ann, Jim Elliot and Albrecht Dürer.
My wife, unfortunately, is afflicted with periodic migraine headaches, even the sort which leads to loss of vision for a while in one eye. When my wife has one of those headaches they are not accompanied by warm mushy feelings. But when she gets up and prepares a nice meal even in the midst of having such a headache, that, my friends, is love, even though she is feeling horrible. That is love in action, and in this case it is truly and freely given in spite of how she feels. It involves willing and doing, not, in this case, warm mushy feelings.
Jim Elliot was a missionary to the Auca Indians in South America. It was a dangerous undertaking. In fact on one furlough he was interviewed by a reporter who asked why he was dealing with such a violent tribe, especially since they seemed so hostile to him and his message. He replied, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He was talking about giving up his own life for these Indians, showing them the love of God in Christ, knowing that even if they took his mortal life, he could not lose the everlasting life God had given him as the ultimately gift of divine love. Shortly after offering this word of wisdom to the reporter, Jim Elliot was martyred by the Auca Indians. Several decades later, and in fact only a couple of years ago at a Franklin Graham Crusade, one of my good friends was present in Florida when one of the chiefs of the Auca tribe gave his testimony. He said, “Formerly, I lived badly badly. But now I live for Jesus, for Jesus sent Jim, and he laid down his life for me. “Greater love hath no one, than he lay down his life….”
Finally I must tell you a truly ultimate love story, the story of Albrecht and Albert Dürer.
Back in the fifteenth century, in a tiny village near Nuremberg, lived a family with eighteen children. Eighteen! In order merely to keep food on the table for this mob, the father and head of the household, a goldsmith by profession, worked almost eighteen hours a day at his trade and any other paying chore he could find in the neighborhood. Despite their seemingly hopeless condition, two of the elder children, Albrecht and Albert, had a dream. They both wanted to pursue their talent for art, but they knew full well that their father would never be financially able to send either of them to Nuremberg to study at the Academy. After many long discussions at night in their crowded bed, the two boys finally worked out a pact. They would toss a coin. The loser would go down into the nearby mines and, with his earnings, support his brother while he attended the academy. Then, when that brother who won the toss completed his studies, in four years, he would support the other brother at the academy, either with sales of his artwork or, if necessary, also by laboring in the mines. They tossed a coin on a Sunday morning after church. Albrecht Dürer won the toss and went off to Nuremberg.
Albert went down into the dangerous mines and, for the next four years, financed his brother, whose work at the academy was almost an immediate sensation. Albrecht’s etchings, his woodcuts, and his oils were far better than those of most of his professors, and by the time he graduated, he was beginning to earn considerable fees for his commissioned works. When the young artist returned to his village, the Dürer family held a festive dinner on their lawn to celebrate Albrecht’s triumphant homecoming. After a long and memorable meal, punctuated with music and laughter, Albrecht rose from his honored position at the head of the table to drink a toast to his beloved brother for the years of sacrifice that had enabled Albrecht to fulfill his ambition. His closing words were, “And now, Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it is your turn. Now you can go to Nuremberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you.”
All heads turned in eager expectation to the far end of the table where Albert sat, tears streaming down his pale face, shaking his lowered head from side to side while he sobbed and repeated over and over, “No…no …no…no.” Finally, Albert rose and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He glanced down the long table at the faces he loved, and then, holding his hands close to his right cheek, he said softly, “No, brother. I cannot go to Nuremberg. It is too late for me. Look…look what four years in the mines have done to my hands! The bones in every finger have been smashed at least once, and lately I have been suffering from arthritis so badly in my right hand that I cannot even hold a glass to return your toast, much less make delicate lines on parchment or canvas with a pen or a brush. No, brother…for me it is too late.”
More than 450 years have passed. By now, Albrecht Dürer’s hundreds of masterful portraits, pen and silver-point sketches, watercolors, charcoals, woodcuts, and copper engravings hang in every great museum in the world, but the odds are great that you, like most people, are familiar with only one of Albrecht Dürer’s works. More than merely being familiar with it, you very well may have a reproduction hanging in your home or office. One day, to pay homage to Albert for all that he had sacrificed, Albrecht Dürer painstakingly drew his brother’s abused hands with palms together and thin fingers stretched skyward. He called his powerful drawing simply “Hands,” but the entire world almost immediately opened their hearts to his great masterpiece and renamed his tribute of love “The Praying Hands.” These were the hands of genuine, painful, suffering love, the same sort of hands we see on the Christ with arms outstretched to the world while on the cross and words saying “Father forgive them they know not what they do.”
You see, in the end biblical love is all about action, not talk. When it talks about love it’s all about self-sacrifice not self-aggrandizement or self-fulfillment, though if you love in this sacrificial way one by-product is you indeed will be fulfilled, in fact you will be filled up to the full with God’s love, as God has an endless supply. In the end it’s all about love’s labor’s won, not lost. It is this sort of love which makes the world go round, and indeed makes life worth living. It is this sort of love which is both given and then comm