They were beautiful. So beautiful I started to cry.
An older couple I’d noticed before at church. Noticed but never really noticed.
What made them tear-worthy beautiful?
I don’t always know what the word means. But I recognized it.
I know there’s too little of it in the world, but I struggle to answer the question… What is love?
How much does my answer matter?
At the Altar
Our first official Sunday after starting at a new church, I was surprised by the open altar during prayer time of opening worship. Not so much by how everyone was invited, in need or praise, but by how many people went forward. Un-self-consciously.
I was impressed. I thought it as beautiful. I didn’t know it was like that every Sunday.
On the Sunday of my tears over the beautiful couple, I was sitting on the opposite side of the church from where we usually sit. Slightly further up. With fewer people between us and the front. Pretty much a straight shot to that critical section of the altar.
I vaguely noticed them walking across the front of the church as we sang the final song of the worship set, the song that opens prayer time. The tall white-haired man and his wife in a red top.
The singing continued. I looked at the screen. I glanced down toward the platform. And I saw them, saw them. There at the altar.
He was down on his knees. It must be too hard for her to kneel. She stood. They held each other. His arms around her waist. His head resting against her chest.
There was earnestness in their posture as they sought the Lord together. And a natural… togetherness… unity… in the way they knelt and stood together.
This. This is how it’s supposed to be.
But it’s not usually like that, is it?
When I looked at them it wasn’t an Oh, aren’t they cute moment. It was Wow. They have weathered storms and survived intact.
The Difference Between Falling in Love and Love
Affection, attraction, infatuation, lust. They’re all things that can fall under the umbrella of what we call love between a man and woman.
It can make us brave, foolish, sappy, giddy. Make us feel invincible, or hopelessly clumsy.
It can make our heart soar, or smash it to a million pieces; fill us up, or empty us out; make us feel complete, or utterly broken.
But sometimes what we call love really isn’t, especially when it comes to romantic love, and the falling part.
How do we recognize love? Our perception is twisted up with our experiences of what people in our lives have called love, what we mistook for love, and the general unloving nature of our society that deifies sex and tolerance.
I could see love in the posture of the couple at the altar, their love for each other and for God.
But how do we define love? We could survey any number of people and get as many different responses as those who tried to put it into words.
It’s not easy, is it?
So how do we live it? That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? The Greatest Commandment, and the second that is like it…
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
Matthew 22:36-40, NASB
Romantic love is just one type of love. And the falling part doesn’t last. Despite affection, attraction, biology, and psychology, lasting love is… a choice.
Making the choice to love
We like warm feelings (and some hot ones in our marriages). But ask the sleep-deprived parent up with the crying baby at 3am, or the wife who just fell in the toilet her husband left the seat up on, or anyone else in any type of relationship with anyone… which is all of us… if we always have warm, pleasant, comfortable feelings toward our loved ones (and time, um, changes those things we found sexy in our partners, not to mention changes in interest and… ability). And yet…
We don’t have enough words for love in English. The love that matters most is the type of love God has for us, the type of love God is. It’s the love He calls us to have for Him, and for each other. Agape.
It’s the love that wants what’s best for its object, and doesn’t need a particular response. It is the 1 Corinthians 13 love that is patient, kind, humble, and loves truth; that isn’t easily angered, and doesn’t envy, hold grudges, or give up.
Real love isn’t dictated by feelings. It can lead them.
The most important people in our lives can be the ones who push our buttons like no other, and who can hurt us the most.
But love requires forgiveness – the choice to forgive and not hold a grudge. Lasting love requires the choice to carry on together instead of apart. A couple can stay together, but be separate.
1 Corinthians 13 love for our spouses, our families, the Body of Christ (We’re meant to be known for our love, right?!?), our neighbors, and our enemies (Oh, man, them, too?!? It’s hard enough to love my loved ones!) doesn’t happen without effort. It doesn’t come naturally. We have to choose to be patient, kind, etc., even when we don’t feel like it. We also have to choose to abide in Christ, so He can produce love, a Fruit of the Spirit.
What does love for God look like?
If the Greatest Commandment is to love God, how do we do that when we can’t see Him or touch Him, and can’t even always feel His Presence. How can we love Someone so vast beyond our ability to comprehend? How do we demonstrate our love for God when He’s not giving us all the feels? Well, it’s simple… yet not always easy. We obey. Another choice.
In fact, this is love for God: to keep His commands.
1 John 5:3a, NIV
Well, that sounds… dull. But…
His commands are not burdensome.
1 John 5:3b, NIV
In fact, they’re all for our good. Our personal good, and the good of others.
And it’s not like we never experience the exhilaration of a feeling we’d call love. I mean, come on, He redeemed us, and anything good we have comes from Him, so, yes, there will be pleasurable feelings.
But there won’t always be.
It’s the same in our earthly relationships.
Our obedience to God not only fills in the gaps of our good feelings with Him, but with others.
God is great that way.
Love is our February 2018 Listen When He Speaks theme. What is Listen When He Speaks? Learn more here.
What about THAT couple?
I’ve gotten to know that couple that made me cry. And they often make me laugh! They love each other, and are full of energetic love for God, and for our church family. They love to serve. Here’s something you can rejoice over with me, with us, her cancer was recently declared in remission.
I’ve never told them about my first impression of them, of the impact their love had on me. We’ve never talked about their relationship through the decades. But I know it wasn’t always have been easy. Hard times, like cancer, come, and they don’t always draw people closer together. And things can get less-than-easy between two people with strong personalities. Or not-so-strong, for that matter.
Whatever storms their relationship has weathered, I don’t know if it ever crossed either of their minds to quit. Either way, I know their story is a good one.
Love may sometimes be reduced to just gritting our teeth and choosing to hold our tongue, yield our wants to someone else’s needs, or forgive when it feels as if we’re saying what can never be made right is okay. In a marriage, it can mean using energy we don’t think we have left… to stay.
We can’t control another’s behavior, only our response.
It may not always feel like it, but choosing love is always worth it. That doesn’t mean being a doormat, or accepting abuse, but it does mean relying on God’s strength to give others what we’re not capable of on our own.
So, what is love?
Love is a choice. And sometimes it’s a hard one.