Searching For The Meaning Of Love

What is love? What is the difference between “I love God,” and “I love my dog Rufus,” or “I love the Ramones?” Is love the one common denominator of diamonds, Hallmark cards and child safety seats? What is love? How might a person such as me find it? How can I give it?

What about romantic love? Is this the best example of love to be found? I’m not so sure. Philip Yancey points out that in America—a place where romantic love is king of all things social, emotional and commercial—the divorce rate is much higher than in countries where arranged marriages are the norm. In America, we choose our spouses based on feelings of love; why do these feelings change? It seems that romantic love is often predicated upon the maintenance of a certain weight or a full head of hair.

Okay, maybe romantic feelings are not really love at all. What about love between parents and children? The love of a child is certainly a precious gift (although I’ve had children tell me they love me immediately before professing similar feelings for a coffee table). Equally valuable is the love passed from the hearts of parents to their children. My mother has loved me more than any other human being. Once, she went out of town for a week and left me her car key so that I could use her car; she even filled the gas tank for my added comfort.

And yet, somehow, even with people in my life who obviously love me, I still, like so many people, lay my head on my pillow some nights and wonder if anybody really loves me or if anybody ever will. On nights like these, I wonder if love is not some intangible thing given in vain, if it is not just a vapor that eludes our outstretched fingers.

As if my inability to grasp love did not irritate me enough, giving love is much worse! On every page of my Day Runner appear things like, “Ask Sam how he’s doing in his biology class,” and, “Buy housewarming gift for Ranae,” because I am incapable of remembering on my own the needs of the people around me. And if I make no effort at all to do something about the needs around me, I will invariably become sucked into the vortex of my own little world and my tiny problems—i.e., I never feel as close to God as I would like to, I have to replace various parts of my car as often as I cut my hair, and I have pointy toes, like crayons. Much to my dismay, I have to make an effort to find out about and love others. My heart is so easily rendered of steel, or at least of Teflon.

Why am I so selfish? Why do pictures of fly-covered Afghan children set my eyes watering and my hands reaching through my purse for my checkbook, while I have to force myself to show love for my comfy, well-fed American friends and family? Does this mean that suffering is a prerequisite for love? Great, so in order to be loved, a person has to maintain physical standards of beauty for romantic love or endure some terrible suffering? Forget love, then—it’s just like everything else in the world: too costly and yet too cheap.

All these musings are, of course, silly. Somehow I don’t think true love is necessarily found in a bowl of popcorn between a guy and a girl at the movies, or that a person cannot merit love without intense beauty or intense suffering. I think love is found in the slowing heart between the outstretched arms of a beaten man on a cross and requires nothing but desperation.

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God used a strange mix of physical, temporal things to show love—splintered beams, nails, 40-minus-one, hypovolemic shock. This was real love on earth; as Bonhoeffer puts it, “This love of God does not withdraw from reality into noble souls detached from the world, but experiences and suffers the reality of the world in the harshest possible fashion.” In time and space, God made a way for his love to be “poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” so that we can “know and rely on the love that God has for us.” The cross is a real-space, real-time pillar to which I am tethered, an anchor that gives me the thing I’m looking for but can’t seem to find anywhere else: security.

For some reason, it’s sometimes hard for me to experience love. But somewhere in history God has proven His love for me in a way that transcends my questions and experience. My quest for love—at times quietly heartbreaking—can be over, so long as I’m willing to rest my knees in the mud beneath the cross.

[Jessica Inman is a freelance writer/ youth pastor’s secretary who lives in Tulsa, Okla., and loves reading Philip Yancey and F.F. Bruce, cooking and playing Frisbee with domesticated canines.]

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