How to love?
I remember asking my father when I was quite young, how it was possible to fulfil ChristÂs commandment Âto love one another,Â including the most difficult of charges, to love your enemy. After all one could not will to love.
My wise Dad responded that although it was very difficult to love some people, we could and we should always treat people as if we loved them. That answer was good enough for me as I entered the tortuous territory of adolescence and went on being my touchstone for some years afterwards. But as I have got older it will no longer do. Christ calls me to love and this from the heart. Good behaviour on the outside, however well meant, is not in the end, enough.
A little while ago I came across this lovely quotation by the 13th Century Persian poet, theologian and philosopher, Rumi.
ÂYour talk is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built built against it.Â
It came as an answer and as a bit of a relief. I was no longer charged with loving someone out of my own inadequate faith, ability and energy. Instead I was invited to seek and find, as honestly as I could, all the barriers inside me that stop me either giving or receiving love.
When I started to think about this at more depth I realised how manifold and slippery many of these barriers are. For example, I might just avoid someone or some situation that makes me uncomfortable: easy to do and no one is ostensibly offended or hurt. But if I do this I fall short of JesusÂ pro-active command to love and I remain blind to and in the thrall of the barrier, whatever it is. The challenge goes the other way, too. What barriers do I put in the way of allowing God and others to love me? It is strange how similar the barriers are that stop us loving others and being loved: fear, distrust, pride, anxiety about coming out of oneÂs comfort zone; all of these are alive and well whether we are trying to love or receive love.
The invitation, as always, is to self knowledge; to recognise the moment when the barrier is raised, to stop, to observe, to question and to challenge oneself. It is to resist what seems the easiest line of defence, blame of others. It is, as Jesus said, to stop looking for the mote of dust in the other personÂs eye and to face up to the plank in oneÂs own eye!
I would not, however, want to suggest that this is a recipe for self-help. Everything we know about love teaches us that we learn to love by first receiving, experiencing and learning to trust love. The first letter of John puts this succinctly,
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10)
Christ first loved us. Our job is to try to seek and find those barriers which we all have that stop us from believing this and acting on it. As we understand what stops us from loving and receiving love we are healed and freed to love as Christ commanded.