Sometimes, love is agony
by Sharon Simpson
Have you ever wondered where the ideas came from for the famous love passage in 1 Corinthians 13? Paul, who wrote this letter, had tracked down new Christians, torturing and killing them. His presence filled people with fear and trepidation. How did he ever figure out what to say about love when he wrote this letter? It’s not just good writing, it’s one of the most loved passages of Scripture.
In his letter, Paul chooses an interesting Greek word for ‘love’. We have so few words for love in the English language that we can’t nuance our meanings the way he could when we talk about this emotion. Paul chose the best word to describe the love that is the gold standard for Christians, for couples, for all of us.
Paul used the word agape. As one commentary describes, “It is a love that loves without changing. It is a self-giving love that gives without demanding or expecting repayment. It is a love that loves even when it is rejected.”
Well known British pastor and evangelist Alan Redpath argued that we get our English word ‘agony’ from the Greek word ‘agape’. ‘Agony’ means mental or physical anguish or suffering. It can be a challenge to see how love and agony go together but I am reminded of one elderly woman who I watched live the agony-agape love.
I’ll call this 90-year-old woman, Abby. One day, Abby enthusiastically beckoned me. She was giddy with expectation and joy. She told me her son was parking the car and would soon be here for a visit. I had not met him before and she wanted to introduce me to him.
When Abby’s son came through the doors, I could tell that he was living a very different life than she. He was flambouyant, wearing flashy pink clothing, very tight pants and carried something like a purse. If ever there was a stereotypical gay man, he was it. Abby was all over him immediately, hugging and kissing.
I chatted with Abby and her son for a while, during which I learned of his move to a well-known gay community when he was a young man. Soon they went off for lunch. She was delighted and proud.
I was left mulling over what I had just experienced. Abby, a devout Christian, likely held the belief that it is not in God’s plan to practice homosexuality. She either didn’t realize her son is gay or has completely overlooked it. I was trying to process it all. Abby was a really bright lady. The more I thought about it, the less I wondered. She knew. Of course she knew.
As a woman in her 90’s, the Christian community around Abby would likely have been shocked and unsure how to manage her son’s lifestyle some 40 years ago when he first came out of the closet. There may have been shaming comments for Abby and her husband about their parenting. They may have felt they couldn’t talk about him when they were with their Christian friends. They may even have been advised never to see him again. I wondered if they were ever disappointed in him, angry or hurt. I never met Abby’s husband, but I heard that he was gruff. That probably didn’t help. I wondered how much pain and processing (agony) this brought to Abby over the years.
I do know for certain that Abby was full with agape love for her son. She was a living example of 1 Corinthians 13. She was proud, she was delighted and she was eager for others to meet him. I loved that about Abby.
Paul teaches that agape love is “the way of love.” It is the path, not one path of many. Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 13 are the guide to living well while we still live in a fog of not seeing it all clearly. Without this kind of agape love, we are bankrupt people.
How did Paul know about this kind of agape love? How did he figure it out? I know that God’s word is inspired by the Holy Spirit, so Paul’s writings are from God’s heart to us. I know that God is directing our understanding of the way of love through Paul’s words. I also know that Paul’s experience of Christian community was one of extreme grace and kindness. Agape love. Love in agony. I think Paul saw it in action among the new followers of Jesus in Damascus.
For parents, there is a natural turning point when our children enter adulthood and we realize how very little control we have. We have tried our best to manage their circumstances, but now they are on their own.
This turning point can be especially difficult for parents who see their children, and children’s children, facing significant challenges. For Abby, it was her son’s lifestyle. He had to find his way and she did, too. For others, it may be a child or grandchild who has divorced, or walked away from their faith. Others suffer from addictions or mental illness. Some descendants are living in ways that will bring hurt to their own children. It can be agony to not be in control.
1 Corinthians 13 teaches us what to do when there is agony in our heart for the ones God put in our lives; this is the path for all of us – a way of living when we are trying to understand life in a fog – the way of love is the way to live.
Abby took the way of love. Her love never failed. It was greater than her faith or her hope. The greatest of all of these was her agape love.