While sitting through the movie, “The Shack,” along with my wife, I was struck with an odd idea. Well, to be honest, odd to me. The main character was going through a dilemma which tore at his very soul. On the one hand, he blamed himself for the death of his daughter, and on the other hand, he was angry with God for not saving her life. The main point, I think, at least regarding him, was that he was blinded to what he was really struggling with because his anger and bitterness kept getting in the way. The “odd” idea which came to me was whether I was going through something similar.
At the age of 3, I remember playing in the living room of our West Dallas project’s apartment in which we lived at the time. Movement caught my attention, and I turned to the window and saw my father looking in as though he was looking for something. I walked over to the window and stood there looking up at him. After a while, he turned away and I never saw him again for the rest of my life. The point here is that the one thing which has stayed with me for over 62 years is that he never looked down at me, as though I wasn’t even there.
When I was around 5 years old, my mother had a “nervous breakdown,” whatever that is. I think she just became so angry at the world that she introverted herself, and dove wildly into an emotional depression. The result was that we (my brothers and I) were taken into custody by the state and placed in a foster home. I have no memory of being transported to the foster home, which gives me the idea that we may have been asleep at the time. I do remember the abuse we suffered at the hands of those people. During the whole time we were there, we lived in constant fear. And, to myself at least, it seemed we were there forever. Those foster “parents” should never have been allowed to get near children. Their treatment of my brothers and I was atrocious. I, as the oldest of the three, was the butt of their attacks. At least to the best of my memory, it seemed they enjoyed making me suffer. I remember them laughing at me, calling me names, and to scare me even more, they would mistreat my brothers in front of me to cause me even more fear. At one point, my youngest brother, George, pooped on himself, and the foster “parents” found it hilarious when they forced me to eat some of it because I had not taken care of him. I learned to hate while in that house. I learned to hate, and I learned well.
One day, after what seemed years (which was probably only a few months), we were cleaned up and dressed nicely. We were going to have visitors. Actually, two ladies arrived. One seemed familiar, but the second was completely unknown to me. I could tell that something was different from normal, the foster “parents” were behaving like nice people. That only made me more apprehensive, as I was expecting some sort of abuse to occur at any moment. I remember the three of us brothers standing together, huddled, and afraid. One of the ladies, the one that did not seem familiar to me, began speaking to us. She was speaking in English and I did not fully understand her. I could tell by her hand motions that she wanted us to come to her and the other lady, the familiar one. Our response was to huddle even closer. One of the foster “parents” came to us and grabbed my arm, and gently (but forcefully) pulled me forward to the ladies. My brothers came along with me. The first lady spoke again and said, “Mama,” as she pointed to the other lady. I looked at the first lady, then I looked at the second lady, and back to the first. I did not know what was happening, but I was beginning to catch on that she was trying to tell us that this was our mother.
Our mother smiled and called to us in Spanish. My young mind struggled to bring to memory her picture in my head. The abuse we suffered at that home left me confused and fearful. A part of my mind told me that we were being fooled again. She seemed confused that we did not just run up to her immediately. She stepped forward and reached out to us. I tried to back away, but the grip of the foster “parent” was stronger. “Soy tu mamá,” she said (I am your mother), and she knelt before us. It was then that I remembered her. My mother, the one we loved. The one we missed so terribly during those torturous months in that hell house. The one who sent us there. The one who was responsible for all we had suffered at the hands of those evil people. All of my fears, anger, and hate swelled up in me. I felt as though I was going to explode. “I hate you!” I screamed at her, “I hate you. I hate you.” I finally had the chance to release all that pent up fear. I was staring straight at the person who was responsible. I hated her so very, very, much.
I have scattered memories of abuses and violence which we suffered, too many of those memories are of things which happened to me personally. The way my mother handled all of that was with lots of screaming and yelling on her part. She had a mean streak. She blamed us for everything that went wrong in her life. Her favorite attacks were when she would scream “Hijos de su p**che padre (sons of your f***ing father). I had no idea what she would go on about, but I quickly learned that she hated that man. I have yet to learn the truth about all that happened between them, but I no longer care. At the time, though, it was her ammunition against us. He left her, and she was angry, and she was going to punish us for it. I especially took the brunt of much of her anger, because I was the oldest and was supposed to “know better.”
In those years I sort of remember trying to love her. I mean, come on, what other choice did we have? We were as stuck with her as much as she was with us, and she did not make that easy. My memory of her, during that time, was that she was mean. Her anger was her most obvious quality to me. Like her, my anger was my most familiar companion as well.
The trauma and abuse I (and my brothers) suffered at the hands of an angry mother, and a coward of a father who abandoned his children, left me scarred with an emptiness of the heart, and blindness of the soul, that to a point still haunts me to this day.
So, what is love? I have learned to rationalize things in my life. I compartmentalize, put things into separate “boxes” and learn to keep each thing in its place. I have specific rules I follow, which guide me in how to act and react to situations and circumstances in my life. The Bible teaches me that if I love someone I will do what is best for them, even if it means they must suffer consequences for their actions and choices. I understand that, I understand pain and punishment, so “suffering the consequences” of my actions and choices is not something altogether strange to me. Since I was little, I have known that when you do something that displeases those in control, they will make you suffer for it. I learned to accept that as a truth of life. So, when I first read in the Word of God that he punishes His children (Hebrews 12), I rolled with the punch and accepted that for what it says. I began my “walk” with God understanding that He was the Lord. By “Lord” I mean the Boss, the one in charge, the controller of my life. This meant to me that He can do whatever He wants with my life, and that there is nothing I can do about it. It means that He can choose for me to go through hard and difficult things, situations, and circumstances, and that I am supposed to just “grin and bear” it.
I first came to know “God” as my new owner. I was “owned” before by the hatred, fear, and bitterness which permeated every pore of my body, all the way down to my soul. Love had no place in my life. I want to believe that there must have been someone in my young life who actually loved me, but if there were, no real evidence comes to my mind. Now, don’t get me wrong, and misunderstand my words, I believe that there were people who “cared.” I know that I cared for my brothers and sisters, in fact I still do. I hope they cared about me as well, but when we were younger, all of us, brothers and sisters, suffered our own demons in various ways. None of us “children” of that woman came away unscathed. For many years, and maybe even to some point up until now, we drifted apart and dealt with our own separate lives. I, along with my brothers, Joe and George, tended to spend more time with each other. My brothers, Larry and Rick (sons of a different father), were often left to themselves. My sisters, Connie and Diana (from still another father), tended to spend more time with each other, and later on, with my youngest brother, Don, who had the same father as my sisters. We all care about each other, at least to the best that we are able while dealing with the traumas and emotional damage we suffered as children.
So, what is love? I know one thing clearly and without any doubt, before turning my life over to Christ, I had no earthly idea what is was. And, now as a Christian of about 35 years, I am still working on it. As I said I have learned to rationalize love. When I have been asked to define love, I always revert to my standard answer, “The Bible teaches that love is what we do.” I have always given that answer, because it works with my understanding of what I perceive love as being. But, what I rationalize and what the Bible actually says, may not be the same. The verse which always comes to mind is John 14:15 (NASB), “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” It does not say, “Keeping my commandments is HOW you love me.” It says, If you love me…” If you “love” me. “Love.” I have always seen this verse differently. To me it always read, “Obedience is love.” So, I committed myself to doing what God wanted so that I could thereby prove my love. The way I interpreted the instruction was that I did not have to concern myself with feelings, but only with doing something. So, I gave in to God, as He started working on me, out of obedience. I conceded to changes in my character, out of obedience. I responded to God’s call on my life for the ministry, out of obedience. I tithed and gave offering faithfully, out of obedience. I prayed for people, counseled people, and pastored people, out of obedience. I have lived a life of service to others for all of my Christian life, out of obedience. Why? Because this is how I have always understood love. Love is obedience, and obedience is love. This way I was never expected to feel anything, I was expected to obey, and that I could do without too much trouble.
Again, do not misunderstand my argument here. I am not speaking out against just obeying God for the sake of obedience. There are many benefits from that kind of response to the Lord. And, remember when I use the word “Lord,” I am speaking about the Boss, the controller of our lives. I am referring to the part of God that expects all of His children to do what He says regardless of how they feel about His orders. He wants done what He wants done, and He does doesn’t want us to do differently. When you do obey Him, the biggest perk is that He will bless (reward) you for your obedience. There will never be a time when you obey Him and He will not bless you for it. Why? Because that is one way He shapes your life, and mine. When we obey, He blesses us, so because we liked getting blessed we will obey Him again, and, every time we obey we change a bit more. So, because we change a bit more, we want to obey Him a bit more, and we will, which will result in Him blessing us again. Get it? It is not a matter of how we feel, but whether we obey. The benefits to seeing your relationship with God in this manner are obvious, when you think about it. On the other hand, it is also a great way to avoid having to deal with feelings.
So, what is love? The Bible clearly states that God is love, but is love God? I don’t know the answer to that one. I am also not one of those people who just accepts some nice sounding words, act like I actually understand them, and then start spouting them out of my mouth. To me love is still not what I feel, it is what I do. But, that should not be interpreted as though I am saying I am not open to learning the truth, if I am in error as to the truth. Though, I still want whomever it may be to use language (when explaining “love”), that is not just a bunch of emotionally meaningless terms and expect me to understand. Truth does not hide behind vague emotional drivel, though I will admit that “love” may not fully be explained with logical, rational, terms which have clear meaning. I am willing to listen to some emotional terms, as long as that is not to whole of the explanation. For example, the Bible teaches on many concepts and ideas. Thankfully, the Lord did not resort to using only ambiguous terms and language. Even the most difficult themes and arguments in the Scriptures can be studied and understood with time and effort. The reason being that God provides enough logic, rationale, reason, and evidence, along with the “touchy feely” parts of the Word of God.
The dictionary defines the word “love” as, “an intense feeling of deep affection.” Yea, that really makes it clear right? First of all, what is meant by “intense” and “deep?” And, tell me this, how does one “love” God “intensely” and/or “deeply?” These two words are subjective, in other words dependent on the feelings of each person as to how they would define them. The dictionary is of little help, you see it defines “intense” as, either (1) of extreme force, degree, or strength, or (2) having or showing strong feelings or opinions; extremely earnest or serious. The second definition may be closer to what we are trying to understand, but still we just have more adjectives to work with, and we are no closer to a clear understanding. So, let’s instead look at the word “affection,” in the definition. It means, “A gentle feeling of fondness or liking.” Gentle? What happened to “intense?” I’ve decided the dictionary is of no real help.
So, what is Love? Let’s turn to the Bible as our source for trying to get a clear understanding of this elusive word. The Scripture teaches that:
- It is as strong as death. (Song of Solomon 8:6)
- It is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 14:15)
- It is patient, kind, and is not jealous; it does not brag and is not arrogant, it does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not (easily) provoked, it does not take into account a wrong suffered, it does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
- Greater than faith and hope. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
- The fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22)
- The perfect bond of unity. (Colossians 3:14)
- It is from God. (1 John 4:7)
- It casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)
- “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments.” (2 John 1:6)
If I use only the above references from the Bible as my basis for deciding what love is, I have to conclude that it does not involve feelings at all. All nine of the references speak of actions and decisions. They speak of what is, not how something feels. None of the nine require a person to feel this way or that. So even by using the Bible as my sole resource for finding the answer to what love is, I still don’t seem to have a clear understanding regarding whether feelings are supposed to be part of the formula. If I follow the teaching from the Word of God, specifically the nine references above, I have to conclude that love is what I decide and choose to do, not how I feel about something. For example, 1 John 5:3 says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” John 14:24 says basically the same, notice, “He who does not love Me does not keep My words…” in other words, those who do “love” Jesus show it by obeying Him, not by how they “feel” about Him. So then if we “love” (obey) Jesus, we have to obey His commandment to “love” one another (John 15:14). It seems to me that it means that we show love to others by obeying the Lord. Hmmm.
So, what is love? It is the decision to treat someone else as more important than yourself. It is the understanding that someone else has priority over you, in this case it would be God, through our Lord, Christ Jesus. It is the decision to do what God has instructed us to do in regards to others, and not allow our feelings to cause us to choose to do differently. It is the decision to obey the Word of God, when our feelings tell us that we should instead do what we believe is right.
Even after writing almost 3800 words in this article, I still don’t understand love as a feeling. The idea of it is foreign to me. I understand hate, anger, rage, bitterness, frustration, depression, and vengeance. I understand those words, and I even have a personal knowledge of how they feel. I can stir up anger in milliseconds, and can feel the rage flow through me. I have lived with those feelings for so long in my life that I have an intimate acquaintance with each of them, but “love,” I have no concept of how that feels.
I love my wife. That means I make her my priority, treat her as more important than myself, and will always choose behavior and actions which will benefit her and not damage her. I will obey God, and His Word, in regards to what I will or will not do with or to her, or allow in our lives, regardless of how she feels. Her feelings cannot ever override the instructions of the Lord in my life. If I let that happen, then, according to my understanding of “love,” I will prove I don’t “love” her. The concept is a logical and calculated one. It is practical and clear. There is no ambiguity in that form of love.
When she is not around me, I miss her. If she were to die before I do, I would want to die as well. I know that this world means nothing to me if she is not here to share it with me. Because of her I want to be a better man. I treat others better because she has taught me how through her sacrifices and actions in my life. I have learned how to submit to God because she has taught me how through her submission to me. I want her to always be with me, and I am not as happy when she is not around. She makes my eyes to smile when I see her. She makes my heart feel better just because she is alive. I thank our Lord with all of my heart for allowing me to have her in my life.
But, my “feelings” of “love” for her are flawed. I sometimes don’t like her, just as she sometimes does not like me. We sometimes hurt each other’s feelings. We don’t always agree. There are many things we both like similarly, and there are other things we like differently. I talk more than she does, but I don’t listen as well as she does. I am more educated, but she tends to be wiser. I know she loves me, but I know this by her actions, choices, and decisions. I don’t always know how she feels about me, but I am aware of her behavior and I see her decisions in action. These two things prove to me that she loves me.
I may never learn how to love someone else by feelings alone, and I don’t know if that is really necessary. Throughout my whole life, my feelings have neither hurt nor benefitted anyone else, but my decisions, actions, and behavior have. No one has ever told me that they know I love them because they can tell how I feel about them, but many times I have been told by someone that they knew I loved them because of what I did, or did not do, to or for them. I guess I will leave things the way they are. I will probably have to wait until I get to heaven to “feel” love, and that is okay with me.