On a New Year’s Eve, the well-known author Michael Harper was sailing solo on Lake Taupo in New Zealand. Suddenly his boat capsized in a particularly violent squall about a mile offshore. Clinging to the side of the boat and unable to right it, Michael was rescued after an hour in the chilly glacial waters. He nearly died of hypothermia.
When Michael recovered, he asked God why He had saved him and what God wanted him to do. The reply came something like this: “I want you to learn how to love people the same way as I do.” Michael learned that very day that life is meant to be a love affair, that life is meant to be dedicated to learning how to really love each other in a genuine way. The famous ethicist Joseph Fletcher wrote that the opposite of love is not hate but rather indifference. Fletcher writes, “… There is one thing worse than evil itself, and that is indifference to it.” The lowest point to which our society often seems to sink is when it says, I couldn’t care less.
As Michael Harper struggled with learning how to really love people, he became aware that there are few words in the English language that are more open to abuse than the word “love”. “Love is swampy” is how Joseph Fletcher describes the problem. Much of what is called love today is little more than making sure that our needs are met. Need-centered love, however, is self-centered and narcissistic. True love, said Karl Barth, is when a person gives themself to another with no expectation of a return, in a pure venture, even at the risk of ingratitude, and of that other person’s refusal to make a response of love. That kind of love is very scary because it involves the possibility of being rejected and hurt. That is why we so often prefer self-centered love to other-centered love.
Harper comments that “the widespread identification of the word love with sex indicates that most people think that sex ought to be an experience of love … and that is where the frustration comes in. People feel cheated because sex has not delivered the goods.” A good marriage, says Harper, in which both husband and wife delight to give each other pleasure, and thereby reassure one another of the love that they have for each other, does more for the reestablishment of true love than almost anything else. The bible calls this kind of true love “agape love.”
Most of us have been to weddings where a passage is read from the bible telling us about true love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13). It would be helpful for all of us, whether churchgoers or not, to regularly measure our marriage relationships against that standard of Christian love.
I am more convinced than ever that love is what it is all about. That is why the bible even says that God is love … not self-centered love, but rather other centered love. Harper reminds us that “Jesus did not come to present a new set of ideas to us. He came to show us the meaning of love. He revealed what love is. He manifested love. The secret of Jesus’ revolution was not the love of power but the power of love.” When Jesus, hung on the cross, he stretched out his arms and said in effect, “this is how much I love you.” And most amazingly when the Roman soldiers were torturing him and humiliating him, Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus has taught me that the finest quality of true love is its power to forgive. As the late Michael Harper puts it, love without forgiveness is meaningless.
May Christ’s true love so invade our lives in this New Year that costly forgiveness will become normal for us in our daily lives.