My day began with a wonderful reflection on love by my good friend Geoff, wherein he talks about the dangerous tendency for Christians in our day to be very busy about loving their enemies, all the while their relationships within the church and at home are malnourished (or wither and die). You really must read his post: “Loving Your Enemies Does Not Preclude Loving Your Friends”
If Matthew 5:43-48 is your only rubric for Christian love, then you might be tempted (as Geoff points out) to only love your enemies, to the neglect of those closest to you. Indeed, if this, and only this, were the whole of love, then you could not even love Jesus, the most satisfying and rewarding of all lovers. Uncle Screwtape would be very pleased.
I didn’t set out to write about Lewis, but here he is again. In Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the satanic scheme is clearly set in the first couple letters: cultivate vices with those nearest and virtues with those furthest away. In letter 6, the ploy is explained thus:
Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train. Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy; but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable qualities inward into the Will. (from the last paragraph of Letter 6)
Essentially, the satanic ploy is for Christians to give a bunch of money to missions, send a truckload of shoeboxes every Christmas, load up on canned goods for the food drive, and then grumble all the days long with their family and fellow members in the body. Push all the “good stuff” to those furthest away from them (leaving them feeling good about themselves), and then have them become harder and more cynical in every other moment of their lives. This brings me to my thought experiment for today.
A Continuum of Loving
This is my proposed continuum of loving, from those people in our lives that are easiest to love, all the way to the hardest. Let me say at the outset that all of these avenues for loving are necessary; we need easy, reciprocated love and we need daily-grind, all-of-life love.
- Your Friends–In the continuum of loving, friends are the easiest in my estimation. You don’t live with them (how many friendships have crumbled when they had the bright idea of bunking together freshman year?). They share common interests, common loves. They don’t require “work” to maintain, but are simply always there, and always warm. Friends are the easiest to love.
- “The Poor”–The quotes are on purpose and they’re not meant to “scare” you. What I mean by “the poor” are the occasions when we love those near and far in easier ways. When I say “easier” I am not saying “unimportant” or “fake.” We must show the love of Christ in these ways. What are the easy ways? I listed some examples above: giving money to missions, giving to the church benevolence fund, Operation Christmas Child, and volunteering/giving to the local food pantry or soup kitchen.
- “Your Enemies”–Again, the quotes are not pejorative. As in the Screwtape quote above, we are called to love our enemies near and far, whether they be “the other” political party in Washington, liberals, fundamentalists, ISIS, or in the case of WWII Great Britain, Germans. We are called to love people we disagree with, those whom, from afar, persist in destroying your way of life. These are our “enemies” in the soft sense. (You can see, and if I’m making my point well, that the love command is becoming progressively more difficult to obey.)
- Your Family–You might be surprised to see this one all the way down here, but a quick look at divorce rates, daily familial strife, your average church pew, disobedient kids galore, and even modern TV sitcoms, that loving your family is a very difficult love to master. It’s far easier to love a friend with whom you don’t share a bed. It is far easier to love your grandkids than your kids because you can send them home at the end of the day. It is far easier to love a perfectly content infant or a (momentarily) perfectly thoughtful husband than it is to love a colicky baby 7 nights a week or a husband who chronically forgets everything, when his primary identity is “bump on a log.” Good people avoid and neglect familial love for the above “easier” loves all the time… and if you don’t sympathize with them then you might have sand in your eyes, ears, nose, and throat.
- Widows and Orphans–points 5 and 6 are directly related to points 2 and 3 respectively. By “widows and orphans” I mean to fashion a sharper point on loving, a more difficult call to loving, that kind of burden bearing that requires all of you, the kind that sucks you dry of all physical and emotional resources. This love not only provides for needs in the necessary ways listed above, but it goes further: adopting broken and needy people into your family.
When you love your biological family, and even in the most egregious home life, there is a measure of reciprocity, a measure of satisfaction and joy that comes even on sleepless nights with a colicky baby. When you love a complete stranger who is, for example, a drug addict, when you spend time with them that puts a stress on other relationships, when you spend money on them that actually means you have to give up something, when you persist in loving them as they go in and out of rehab, when they start out as 100% takers (like an infant) without any of the warmth, and only through many years of daily counsel, through countless ups and downs, and through much grief and heartache, only then are they even 50% taker and 50% giver. They are 1000% more a follower of Jesus than they once were, but that journey required you to compromise your physical and emotional well being along the way, and even then, they still might not be as “well adjusted” as your pagan neighbor after 20 years of intense, personal, and arduous love.
This kind of love is deeply personal and might only be possible with 2 or 3 people over the course of your life. If you are married with children this kind of love might not be possible at all. It does not somehow make you a better Christian to love strangers in this way and to neglect your wife and your children. As Mother Teresa, one the best models of this kind of love said, “If you want to bring happiness to the whole world, go home and love your family.”
- Your Persecutors–I will not labor my point for too long. Hopefully at this point you smell what I’m stepping in. More than loving “your enemies,” loving those who are actively persecuting you requires an every-moment-of-every-day dying to self and living to Christ. The capricious middle manager who makes your job hell, the insufferable church member who always wears a scowl and holds a grudge, and your friend on Facebook who hates your guts but still has the courtesy to goad you daily with memes and snarky comments. In this last, most difficult calling of love, you will reap very little to no tangible fruit; your reward is a crown of thorns and a cross.
This continuum of love is not of higher or lower loves but of more and less satisfying loves. As Geoff pointed out, the sense of satisfaction or the “reward” we receive when we love those who love us back does not preclude us from loving them. To love our enemies at the expense of other members of the body, our friends, and our families is not a virtue.
As with nearly every one of my internet miscellanies, this one has gone on for too long, but I pray that it will be useful for you in processing the many levels of love you are called to as you follow Christ.
We are finite creatures with finite capacities, but altogether, as the living body of Christ on earth, we can change the world one spouse, one child, one orphan, one enemy, and one heart at a time.