Saturday, October 22, 2011

Can you make me love you if I don’t?

'Cause i can't make you love me if you don't
You can't make your heart feel something that it won't
Here in the dark in these final hours
I will lay down my heart
And i feel the power
But you won't, no you won't
'Cause i can't make you love me if you don't

Those are the angst-ridden words to a pop song that you may have heard. It’s about someone who wants to be loved by another and is trying to deal with the fact that it just ain’t gonna happen. You can’t make someone else love you, no matter how hard you try.

So, how can God command us to love him? What’s that about?

In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus is in Jerusalem during his final days, the religious authorities are coming at him with both barrels. Their goal is to trip him up so he says or does something that will justify having him arrested and killed. And he comes right back at them, exposing their hypocrisy and proclaiming the truth regardless of the consequences to himself.

A lawyer approaches Jesus with a let's-cut-to-the-chase kind of question: “Rabbi, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And, for once, Jesus doesn’t answer a question with another question. He offers a straight-forward answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That’s the most important commandment of all, Jesus says. Love God with everything you've got; don't hold back. But he can’t stop there, because there is another commandment that is so closely related to this first commandment that you can’t have one without the other. “A second commandment is just like this,” Jesus says. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If you get this, you get it all, Jesus tells his inquisitors.

There are hundreds of laws in the scriptures. And unlike us, good religious types back then didn't make a practice of picking and choosing which ones they would follow and which ones they could ignore. They tried to follow every single one of them. It was enough to drive a person nuts. How could you remember them all, much less observe them? But all the laws in the scriptures boil down to this, Jesus explains: More than anything else, God wants us to love him. And we show our love for God in the way we love other people.

God commands us to love. It's as simple as that. Or is it anything but simple? Can God make us love him if we don’t?

Well, if love is a mushy feeling we have somewhere in our chest cavity, probably not. If that’s what you think love is, no, it’s not something that can be commanded. But love is more than that. It’s not a mushy feeling. It’s a commitment to act on behalf of another in a way that goes beyond our own self-interests. Often, in fact, what we may call love is simply a symptom of our brokenness, a neediness we carry around inside us. We love another hoping they will love us back so then we can feel as if we’re somehow worthy of love. When they don’t reciprocate, we’re hurt and angry, because we needed it so much. But that’s not love. Not really. Love isn't a feeling that comes and goes. Love is a commitment to act on behalf of another in a way that goes beyond our own self-interests.

Knowing and experiencing the love of God in our lives seems to be the key to loving like that. When we know we’re truly loved by God, we can love ourselves and we aren’t so desperate to fill our need to be loved by another person. Real love is never born out of desperation. It’s not like a person lost in the desert who is dying of thirst and clawing at the sand for water anyplace they can find it. As Annie Dillard says, it’s like a person filling a cup under a waterfall. The water keeps coming and coming and it fills them to overflowing.

When we’re hurting and needing to have something or someone fill a deep hole we carry around inside us, it’s pretty hard to love. Really love. And yet, when we open ourselves to receive the love God offers us, that love fills us to overflowing.

This may be easier said than done for most of us. I know it is for me. I struggle to love. Really love. But I know it’s worth the struggle. God commands it for a reason. More than a heavy demand placed upon us to weigh us down, it is the way to true freedom. For it’s only in losing our lives that we gain them. It’s only in giving ourselves in love that we ever discover who we truly are. God’s beloved, created in God’s loving image -- worthy of God’s love, and capable of sharing that love with others.