Three expressions of love
When Jesus says the world will know Christians by their love for one another (John 13:35) he is stating that their love will (1) have some common characteristics they share with all but (2) be uncommon and distinct in many other ways. It will be a love that will intrigue, attract, confound, anger, or repulse the one(s) taking it in.
There are at least three expressions (manifestations) and sequences of action in love. There is a give-take expression of love. There is a give-receive-give expression of love. And there is a give-resist (-refuse, -reject) expression of love.
I think it safe to say that the kind of love expressed Jesus says will identify his disciples to the world is of the second and third kind, not the first. It is not “Christian love” that takes for itself. The love belonging to and becoming of the Christian is the very love of Christ beating, breathing, living, stirring within them.
The give-receive-give expression of love is, of course, the most enjoyable and satisfying. It is this love that is the fulfillment of the love of God in eternity: the love of the Triune God shared and given to us, drawing us up into the life of God, a love that we receive and respond to by loving in return. It is this love that we experience and commit to in friendship and marriage.
But this third kind of love—give-resist—is the most painful and difficult.
There is a point where love can go no further
Love seeks the best, but when love’s desire is resisted (or refused, rejected, ignored) love sorrows over the best that is being lost. Love is always ready to give more. But there’s a moment when more is impossible. Love does not cease to exist at this point but at this point it can go no further. Though love makes all things possible it does not guarantee that it can accomplish all the things it seeks or longs to do.
There is a point of hurt in many relationships, a line breached, a wall built, where a friend can love fully and yet in loving can go no further, for his giving is resisted, his actions are rebuffed. Love never gives up, always believes the best, is creative and resourceful, but in the absence of what must be done there is only what can be done or what has been done.
Christ has loved us, the world, fully on the cross, yet his love can go no further where it is rejected. He can and does and always will persist, for although we are sinners, he died for us and seeks the lost to the ends of the earth and to the end of their days. But like all love given, it can be refused. Still, he loves us.
Love is a river
I find myself thinking, saying, doing, feeling things towards people that I don’t towards my own wife and children. As it should be, I believe. Yet I wonder: what kind of love is there for those friends, strangers, and even enemies? If it is not the same, should it be? Can it be? And if not, is it a lesser love?
Surely love in all its sincere expressions has this in common: it seeks the best for another even at a cost to itself. To be inconvenienced, to die to self, to surrender, to sacrifice for another is the price and cost of love. In this respect I can love, and should love. I do not expect my heart to love my friend as I do my enemy, nor my friend as I do my wife and children, but I do expect to love them all. If love is a river, it has many streams and tributaries.
Love never ends
All things have their beginning and source in God. God is love, loving even his enemies. What other God can be said to love those who don’t love him in return? And then to come for them, to die for them in their place, that they might know his love for them, and receive his love for them, and love him in return. While the fullest love is the love that gives and receives, the truest love is that which sacrifices itself and gives all that it can, although it may be rejected or despised.
When speaking of our love for another, we can speak about our love being able to go no further. But where our love can go no further for another, God’s love can always go further in us. Even when our love is resisted, our love for God and our knowledge of his love for us can grow deeper. Because we love God, we obey him, and because we obey him, we love others. Our heart is transformed through a love that leads to obedience and through an obedience that leads to love.
The goal, of course, is to go as far as you can with and for others. All of us could probably go a little further, if not now, then at some point, for none of us are completely aware of nor free from our selfishness. Still, if we have done all we can and can do nothing else right now for the one we love, God who is love is surely and always doing his work in us: perfecting his love in us. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) Love never ends.