May 18, 2006

Tough Agape

I used to have a booklet with 30 versions of 1 Corinthians 13. It was intended to inspire the reading of that important passage each day of the month. I remember setting a goal to practice the kind of love it described. I assumed that any apparent need that presented itself on my physical or emotional doorstep God intended me to fill. For the most part I had seemingly positive experiences.

But from time to time this line of reasoning backfired. Some people and situations absorb all the “love” they can get—leaving the “lover” sucked physically and emotionally dry. And they don’t seem much the better for it. Is that the way God expects us to love, enough to lay down our lives for others?1

We are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves,2 and to also love our enemies and those who would hurt us.3 That pretty much sets our loving field at infinity. There must be a balanced perspective from which to view this puzzle of how to love others appropriately. One that applies to everyone, whether they be very close in our daily lives, someone at a busy intersection with a crayon-lettered sign on a scrap of cardboard, or one of the “least of these” in the places God sends us—wherever the blind, naked, hungry, and imprisoned are.4

So what are the parameters for practicing Christ’s compassionate love? Are we to ignore the fact that sometimes the beggars at the intersection fold up their cardboard and head across the street and around the corner to their late-model SUV when their “working” day is done? Are we to take no notice that the hours of physical and emotional support we give to the addicts in our families leave them just comfortable enough to stay in denial about their problems?

1514 page13 I seek to keep two things in mind as I struggle with exactly how to go about bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things—without becoming a self-made, rather than a God-called, martyr.

First, I never have enough love to give unless I am constantly being filled myself. Human beings cannot conjure up Christlike love and compassion from their own tainted depths. Love from any human store comes from a stagnant pond and not a free-flowing brook. It simply adds to whatever dysfunctional relationship it enters. Only with God-love flowing through me can I impact others in a healthy manner.

Second, anything I do for others that they can and should do for themselves is harming them, not helping them. The love of 1 Corinthians 13 is agape, benevolent love. “Its benevolence, however, is not shown by doing what the person loved desires but what the one who loves deems as needed by the one loved; e.g., ‘For God so loved the world . . . that He gave. . . .’ What did He give? Not what man wanted but what man needed as God perceived his need. . . . God’s love for man is God doing what He thinks best for man and not what he desires.”5

But how can I know what is best for someone else? There is abuse that goes on in the name of “tough love.” It’s dangerous to turn human beings loose with that kind of potential for a “God complex.” The only safety is in making sure that “tough love” is “tough agape,” and not any tough form of love that originates in my personal needs.

So my first prayer must be for emptiness—emptiness from my need to have others love and appreciate me, from my need to control events and people, from my own “goodness” that stagnates inside me. Only this emptiness can be filled and overflowed with agape.

My second prayer must be for Spirit guidance—only God in His agape knows for sure what a neighbor, beggar, or prisoner is able to do for him- or herself, or needs from me. Agape is like a power source of which my human understanding cannot grasp the full potential. I am obviously to use my head while I pray for God’s wisdom to fill it.

Otherwise, I’m just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal giving my body and soul to be burned—for nothing.

1 John 15:13.
2 Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19.
3 Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27.
4 Matt. 25:31-46.
5 Lexical Aids to the New Testament, Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible.

Kathy Beagles is editor of junior, earliteen, and youth Bible study guides for the General Conference Sabbath School Department.