At church today we were discussing what love is, and I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts on the matter. So what is love? What an ambiguous word. It can mean so many disparate things, that often have little to do with one another. Granted, the English language severely limits our expression in this regard. It's not the only language that forces such a general vocabulary for endearment, but there are certainly languages that provide a richer lexicon on the subject.
So many things are called love that are, in fact, far from it. But then, how do we define love? I'll use divine love as the defining standard here, which should provide some clarity. Some call it “unconditional love,” but it is never described this way in the holy scriptures. I've never liked this term because of the baggage that it tends to carry with it. It's too often distorted to accommodate personal and institutional agendas.
Instead, the scriptures refer to God's love as “perfect love.” As John tells us “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.” Mormon - the Book of Mormon prophet for whom the book is named – is even more explicit: “I fear not what man can do; for perfect love casteth out all fear.” This implies that whatever fear we have in us, is a reflection of the imperfection in our love. Of course, Jesus is the only person who ever truly possessed perfect love, but here Mormon gives us a glimpse of love's power.
Love is far more than simply caring about another person, or just being nice. C.S. Lewis described this paradox eloquently, when he pointed out that, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; that the mere kindness which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” Of course, this is something that greatly differentiates us from Christ, in that we are so readily inclined to shield those we care about from suffering, not always seeing the big picture.
This human sentiment has become increasingly prevalent in our contemporary society. In fact, it has gone far beyond the point of being a mere foible of mortal imperfection, but its effects have accelerated with destructive force. In history, we are not alone in our shortsightedness, though that is not to say that we are in good company. We are like the ancient society to whom the prophet Enoch was sent, of whom it was said, “ their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes cannot see afar off.”
Whatever your religious outlook, it is difficult to argue that civilizations, or individuals, grow strong by indulgence. In fact, the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary. Our reliance on polls and statistical studies to prove this to ourselves only underscores how dull our senses have become. We are a society ever more willing to indulge those, who are ever so willing to be indulged. Many of them might have lived more disciplined lives, if they'd had any idea what discipline is. And so in our selfish need to be kind, we have deprived them of the love that might have saved them. Much like a parent whose only concern is giving their child food that tastes good. What does it matter, as long as they are happy?
This leads back to the idea of God's unconditional love, which has arguably become the new religion. A sort of “pop Christianity.” Again, Professor Lewis puts it so profoundly, with these words:
“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness - the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does it matter so long as they are contented?' We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves', and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, 'a good time was had by all'.”
I believe I gained my first glimpse of what love really is the day my daughter was born. When I looked at her, so small and helpless, and felt that nothing in the world mattered to me besides her happiness and well-being. Our life had completely shifted from what was, in a sense, a selfish focus. Our thoughts and actions were now dominated by the love we felt for someone we barely knew, and who could do nothing for us, or for herself. She couldn't work or play, or barely move at all. She certainly wasn't much good for conversation. All she could do was eat and provide us with a seemingly endless supply of dirty diapers. She also helped us to forget what sleep was for awhile. And yet we'd give anything for her.
All I could think about was how to keep her safe, and help her reach her fullest potential. Whether it was learning how to roll herself over for the first time, or getting a college education, I wanted her to have everything.
Of course, there was always the temptation to want to spare her of any kind of pain. We experienced that when we took her in for vaccinations, or to get her blood drawn. It was hard to watch the nurse put that big needle into that tiny little body. We knew she completely trusted us, and relied on us to protect her, and couldn't understand why we allowed these things. Later I had to learn to stand back when she started to walk, and let her fall down a few times. Well, more than a few. My wife can attest to how hard this was for me. Especially, when she was so certain it was daddy's fault when she skinned her nose on the sidewalk. To her we were still all-powerful, and anything bad that happened in the world must certainly be our fault.
Through all this I gained a glimpse of the love God has for us, and understood him better than I ever had before. “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.” He certainly understands pain. As a father, I know that nothing I suffer is more painful for me than it is for him to allow. Nothing is more agonizing than watching your child suffer. And also his Son, who loves us as his children. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” I am able to better appreciate the fact that, when Jesus bore the burden of our sins, his Father truly bore it with him.
I remember when we found out that our daughter had Down Syndrome. After the doctor called, I went and looked at her in her crib, lying on top of a jaundice light. I so wanted her to have everything we had and more. I wanted her to reach her fullest potential as a woman. I felt the weight of this sudden realization pressing down on me. The realization that there would be things she would want to do, but wouldn't be able to, and might not understand why. I imagined her asking me, “Why am I different?” I thought of the cruelty of others, and the things they might say to her. Of the loneliness she would feel at times.
My wife and I felt very heavy for a day or two. But as we knelt together, and prayed for comfort, and to understand the Lord's will for us, we were filled with a peace that passes all understanding. We were able to see the tremendous potential our daughter still had, and knew that she would yet be a force for good in this world.
I said before that I gained my first glimpse of what love really is the day my daughter was born. But that's not entirely true. Even before that day, was the day that I was born; or reborn, anyways. Because it was that day that I came to know the love of God. Not because he loved me too much to let me suffer, but because he loved me too much not to. Because he allowed me to know the remorse of guilt, and the joy of redemption. It was on that day that I first came to sing, what the prophet Alma called, “the song of redeeming love.”
That's when I first came to know that love gains its greatest manifestation through pain. I believe nothing makes that point better than these words of the prophet Abinadi, from the Book of Mormon:
“Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father. And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men.”