"Love" is one of those words we all think we understand. "I love you" is probably one of the first phrases we learn to say as kids. It's a phrase we hear all the time in media and pop culture: in fact, if Hallmark movies and young adult novels are any indication, it exists at the center of human ambition in today's individualistic, overly romanticized Western culture. We all want to be loved.
But let's flip that around and put it into its less selfish inverse. Do we all want to love others? And for all our talk of "love," do we really know what it means?
Look at little kids. To be more specific, look at little kids with a tendency to misbehave. I happen to know from experience that the really smart ones get their misbehaving out in a maelstrom, take the punishment, and follow up the tantrum with a particularly adorable, "I love you, mummy."
To which the parent (or auntie), if they're really smart, will respond, "Next time, show me you love me by doing what I ask." If the kid's a little Einstein, you can put it in KJV terms: "Jesus said, If you love me, keep my commandments."
Sometimes the child will understand the concept. Oftentimes, they won't. Love is easy to take but more difficult to reciprocate genuinely, especially for a child whose entire world revolves around themselves. The problem is, that doesn't always stop. In fact, I'd say it rarely does. As we grow and mature, the world continues to revolve around us—it's just a more complex world with more moving parts and more obligations to keep us entirely focused on our own needs.
But what about the needs of others? What about "love"—the kind Apostle Paul talks about in Corinthians 12 and 13, the kind that suffers when someone else suffers and celebrates when someone else is successful?
Let's think about that for a moment. Let's step outside of our self-centric view of life and think about the implications of that command. When I hear that someone is in pain, am I in pain? Do I pray for them fervently, out of fervent love and compassion, or do I pray for them because it's my Christian duty?
It's a tough question to ask. I've spent some time looking in the mirror recently for the answer to this question, and I wasn't thrilled with what I found. Because my love needs work.
I was listening to an incredibly convicting podcast recently (Real Christianity) and the speaker, Dale Partridge, cited a quote, something to the tune of "fervent prayer comes from fervent love." I've known for a long time that prayer was an area I wanted to grow in, but this quote really drove to the heart of my problem. I need deeper love. I need the kind of love that flows out of an intimate understanding of what Christ did for me—the kind that suffers when my brother or sister suffers and is glad—truly, genuinely, ecstatically glad—when they are honoured (I Cor. 12:26). That kind of love is completely selfless. It is a natural and irrepressible byproduct of our gratitude for Christ's work on the cross. It is the mark of true transformation because outside of Christ, it doesn't exist.
Duty-based prayer is still prayer—but that shouldn't be the goal. Duty-based prayer or worse—halfhearted prayer—may make us feel good about our Christian discipline, but to the subject of our prayer, they basically say, "I'm pretty sure I love you."
I want my prayers to say something stronger. I want my prayers to be an outpouring of God's love for me and my consequent adoration for Him and everyone made in His image. If someone heard my prayer for them, I want them to hear, "I love you."
Can I get an "amen"?