What Love Is

Jacinta Lu, STAFF WRITER

Dear Heavenly Father.

“How do I know that I love God?”

My Sunday School teacher gave me a weird look.

“What do you mean how? How do you know you love your sister?”

I shrugged. “I guess I would die for her.”

“Well, there you go.”

I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead.

The world generally agrees that the most genuine demonstration of love is the act of sacrificing your own life for another when you have done no wrong. Christianity is the only religion whose God claims to be Love and then demonstrates it by coming to Earth in the form of Jesus and literally dying for us.

In my eight-year-old mind, it made sense that this act was worthy of honor. Adoration. Praise. Devoting my life to following this man Jesus (whose life on Earth was very noteworthy and admirable in itself) made sense. But that’s all this act was for me—fantastically altruistic, truly worthy of recognition and deserving of myself. I was duty bound, obliged, to pay this man the respect he deserved in return for his sacrifice. But duty wasn’t what Christianity was asking for. Christianity demanded this strange concept of a relationship with a God I didn’t know and couldn’t understand. I was called not only to obey and serve Him but to love Him—with all of my mind, my soul, my strength.1 With all of me. But how? I couldn’t even understand what love was. With martyrdom as the test for true love, I didn’t think I could really know whether or not I loved Him until a gun was pointed to my head.

And even then, I feared the reality of my so-called love. With a gun pointed to my head, sure—I could die for my beliefs. Not because of some radically intimate relationship I had with my God, but out of a sense of duty and honor as a proclaimed Christian. Even then, would I hold up under torture? If this imaginary terrorist threatened my family or other innocents? The more I grappled with these thoughts, the more uncertain I became. My claim that I could die for my God was slowly being unveiled as shockingly, terribly, honestly shallow. And it became clear that the real question I was grappling with was whether I would be able to surrender my life to Him. Not understanding what love was, but becoming increasingly conscious of what it meant to give my all, I sought for another answer. Anything that wouldn’t involve opening my heart up to God and surrendering control over my mind, soul, and strength to Him, because this sort of intense transformation terrified me. Ronald Heifetz, a renowned leadership expert, argues that the reason people are so resistant to change is because of its “potential for loss.”2 Whatever God had in store for me, whatever was to come after, I couldn’t bear the loss of control.

I know that I am a sinner.

Type A.3 Perfectionist. Practical idealist. Ambitious. Growth-oriented. All words I have used to describe myself, good or bad, as an attempt to pinpoint the correct euphemism for the fact that, when it comes to my own life, I’m a control freak. I take pride over having ownership of my life and being independent, for being the reason for both the successes and the failures in my life. Admitting that I was imperfect, that I was a horrible person, that I was a sinner, was not difficult. My future didn’t have to be exactly the way I wanted it to be, but my own happiness was something that I could earn and deserve in the end. Happiness was achievable. Therefore my own perfection, as it coincided with my ideals, was achievable.

But there was no room for God in this picture.

The most fundamental tenet of Christianity that every Christian must believe and admit in their heart is that they are a sinner. I believed this and admitted it in my heart. Admitting this to the church, however—to my family, my friends—was different. Revealing to them my deepest, darkest sins, that I had anger and trust issues, that I struggled with lust and pornography, that I was a habitual liar, was not okay. I would go to the grave with my sins before allowing others to see me at my dirtiest. That was my hypocrisy. I was terrified of admitting my sinfulness because I was afraid of the world and its accusatory stare, of being judged and seen as dirty and broken, even though that was who I truly was. I was afraid of being completely vulnerable and being rejected. I was haunted by this terror and clenched my fist tighter over my sin, more determined than ever to have control over the reputation and security that I believed would inevitably come to ruin once my sins were revealed.

So I would give him everything except my deepest, darkest sins. Except my career aspirations. Except the people I loved. Except the things that mattered to me. Except me.

I ask for forgiveness.

I couldn’t be vulnerable with God. I couldn’t open my heart up to receiving His love nor learning to love Him because I believed that love would expose and destroy me. But I also could not run away, because it was becoming clear from the disastrous state of the relationships in my life, from my struggles with lust, that I had a serious misunderstanding of what that love was.

In a moment of utter insanity, I paused my whirlwind of control-centered concerns, gave God a cursory glance and asked him, “Show me what it means to love.”

You’d think that an all-powerful God who had just been treated like a genie in a lamp, a part-time supervisor, an afterthought in this oh-so-busy and important life of mine, would take this opportunity, this little open door in my heart, to rebuke the hell out of me. Bring down the thunder and the destruction, for who does this little girl think she is, to take the God of glory for granted?

Incredibly, unspeakably, He wasn’t like that at all. I mean, He wrecked me. But He did it in the most gentle way. I stumbled upon a preview of the book of Hosea and something stirred in my heart, so I opened my Bible with something more than just duty in my heart for the first time in my life and was absolutely taken off guard by what I found.

Hosea, a prophet, is called by God to love a prostitute named Gomer, who he brings into his home, marries, and builds a family with. Despite his love and care, she eventually abandons their family and goes back into prostitution. Yet God calls Hosea to go and bring her back. So Hosea goes to the market, and he buys his wife back. A hauntingly familiar story that parallels God’s relationship with Israel and humanity, Hosea added depth to my understanding of love that I had never realized was lacking.

Throughout the book, the wrathful God of the Old Testament (that I had never been able to reconcile with His identity as Love) rages for pages on end about Israel’s sinfulness and adultery against Him. What was so powerful about His anger, however, was that it came from a place of vulnerability and suffering. Vulnerability? Suffering? God couldn’t experience either of these things, not as I understood Him. Yet if God is a God of love, is that not what love opens you up to? Love makes you vulnerable, and out of that vulnerability comes the possibility for suffering. And God was suffering, willingly surrendering to absolute anguish because of His love for a people that was committing adultery with other idols and languishing in sin instead of walking alongside Him in a loving relationship. Just like Gomer had left Hosea and the family they had built together, Israel had run away from this incredibly loving God and had chosen temporary gratification. And it broke God’s heart. Because He’s a just God, He calls for the punishment they are due. But in the midst of His call for justice, He cries out, “How can I give you up?”.4 A God who needs nothing, who is complete perfection, loved us so completely that in the midst of our inadequacy He still cries out in His anguish that He could not willingly destroy us despite the punishment we deserved.

I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and my life.

My heart that had been closed to Him for so long, that had held onto my sin and my life and my own control and power for so long because I could not fathom giving up control over my life, broke. I hadn’t been willing to become vulnerable and relinquish power over my sins and my soul to some God whose very essence I could not understand. But God ever so gently, ever so intimately, radicalized my understanding of what love was. He showed me His heart and helped me to empathize with Him.

This heart, that I suddenly knew on such an intimate and personal level. This wreckage that was both my heart and His. The radical realization that He was overwhelming me with, the things that I had known so well for so many years finally being etched onto the pieces of my broken soul.

This was an everyday kind of love.5 A love that actually touched me. A love that I could entrust my fears, my worries, my life to. This God became irresistible; as I fell deeper in love with His warmth, I slowly began to loosen my grip on my own heart, to surrender myself to His embrace. Because love, as it turns out, is surrender.

I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior.

It wasn’t easy. Opening up my heart to a God who was allowing me to empathize with His incredible heart was beyond anything I have ever experienced, the most genuine intimacy I will ever experience. Yet in my inadequacy I caught myself searching for love elsewhere when things got tougher, reverting to old habits and sins like Gomer had in Hosea. But now, in my relationship with Him, I daily bring myself back to the cross and His heart for me and deny myself6 before Him with as much of me as I can muster, to say that I can no longer play god. I, alone, cannot live a life worth living. I, alone, am not enough. I am not enough. I am not enough.

You are enough.

In Your Name.

Amen.7

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

— 1 John 3:16 (NIV)

_____

1Mark 12:30 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (NIV)

2Ronald Heifetz, Leadership on the Line (Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002), 5.

3A popular psychology term regarding personality type. http://www.apa.org/research/action/glossary.aspx?tab=19

4Hosea 11:8 “ ‘Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah or demolish you like Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows.’ ” (NLT)

5“This Love” (Housefires)

6Matthew 16:24 “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ” (NIV)

7Billy Graham, The Sinner’s Prayer

Jacinta is a junior at UC Berkeley who enjoys shaved snow, bad puns and long walks at IKEA. She prays daily to be a person who fully entrusts her life to Jesus.

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