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Love Without Reward

Back in the days when I was a strange, humorless, hyper-sensitive, psychotically shy 8 year old with no friends, my mother offered me this time-worn advice: “if you want to have a friend, you have to be a friend.” Time must have really worn that advice out because in my experience, it’s is mostly a load. I didn’t start making friends until after I aquired the basics of humor from my math teacher’s “Insult a Day” book in 5th grade. If you want a friend being amusing goes a lot further than being kind, reliable and caring. But this idea of a quid-pro-quo between what one puts out into the world and what one can expect to receive back stuck with me. Unfortunately.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

We’re all taught that love is supposed to be selfless. And hopefully as we go along we are able and willing to behave lovingly without regard for reward or benefit to ourselves. But really, it’s only human to expect that eventually, at least some of it will come back around. Preferably this side of the grave. At the very least being a good, loving person ought to win you approval from the people around you, right? And some cash would be reasonable as well. It’s a kind of unconcious expectation that most of us have, I think.

Jesus said that there’s no greater love than to give your life for another. In the context it’s spoken, it refers to a willingness to die for another person. Not only is it a huge sacrifice to make, but it’s also one which by definition confers no earthly benefit on the one who makes it. Then again, presumably once a person dies for another, they reap a heavenly reward and are just fine. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, btw.) But given the fact that I’m a mom living in Wisconsin, the odds that dying for another person will ever be something I have to deal with are pretty remote. So, nice verse and all, but clearly not for me.

However, as I round the bend towards 40 and a really stellar mid-life crisis, this verse has started to challenge me. I may not be asked to give up my physical life for another person, but what if I’m being asked to live a life of selfless love which benefits everyone else except me? Can I be cool with that?

Frankly, this idea has been making me a little bitter as of late. I am by no means perfect, but I’ve genuinely done my best to live out the tenents of love, forgiveness, patience, and the rest which are demanded by my faith. The idea of doing otherwise in order to gain some benefit has always been repugnant to me. I’d rather be good than have more money or more friends or an easier life. But really, in my heart of hearts, I figured my day was coming. And who knows – maybe it still is. But I’m not going to count on it. And like I said, the idea has been making me a wee bit pissy as of late.

But as it happens, this is Christmas season. Which means it’s time to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again. And I’m really feeling poor George Bailey this year. He got to that icy river and there was a part of me hoping that Clarence would be late. Because George is right – you do the right things, you take care of other people and for what? For nothing. What’s the point? Jump, George! Jump! But of course when George jumps, it’s to save Clarence, not do himself in. Cuz he’s a shmuck like that. Most of the rest of the movie is George being confronted with the reality of the difference his life had made. And as crabby and bitter as I’ve been lately, I can’t help but think of how the lives of people I love – and more than I few I don’t care much for – would be different if I didn’t exist. If I have nothing else going for me, I do know that I’ve made a real difference in the world. Not on a grand scale, but in quite a few individual lives. Can I really claim to hold real love for others if I’d be happy to trade the good I’ve brought them for some ease and comfort for myself?

It has been said that God is love because his love is not dependant on anything else. He’s not Santa Claus – he doesn’t love us more when we’re good and hold back when we’re bad. He doesn’t love because he gets love back. He loves because that’s what he is. That’s the image we were made in – love that gives without regard to cost or benefit. Love that just is. So if the process of redemption is the process of being restored to that image of love, then yes, we really are called to love like Jesus said – a man who gives his life for another. With no promise of or expectation for any earthly benefit. Which isn’t to say that there’s no benefit to living a life of love for the good of others. As St. Paul pointed out, God tells us not to muzzle the oxen as it threshes grain – he’s not a God who expects his soldiers to serve at their own expense. Even Jesus faced the cross “for the joy set before him”. There are real benefits promised to those who follow God. However. they might not be the benefits we’re expecting. In fact, I’m convinced that the ridiculous, unrelenting crappiness of my life for some time now has been allowed, if not actually willed into being just so I could learn these things about life and God and love. (Did I mention that our truck needs a $2400 transmission that we have no way of paying for? And the company my husband was interviewing with forgot to tell him they had an interview scheduled with him earlier this month – they thought he was just a no-show and scrapped his application? And my internet has been temporarily turned off because of a mailing error? And that one of my sisters just had a baby and another is pregnant, but neither is talking to me so I only get to hear about it through the grapevine?) In God’s kingdom knowledge, understanding and wisdom are treasure, after all. But that’s our struggle – to live in this world according to the ways of a kingdom which is not yet ours. It’s an upside down world, indeed.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

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13 thoughts on “Love Without Reward

  1. If there is one reason to interpret Scripture by Scripture, it is the *balance* that hermeneutical approach provides.

    Jesus tells us that we should “love others as ourselves.” Our *natural* untransformed tendency is to love ourselves more than others. Although we are free from “malicious intent,” we become thoughtlessly predatory, pursuing our own immediate self-interests and indulging our own desires even when it is at the expense of others. We are childish rather than childlike.

    Loving others AS OURSELVES means not loving ourselves MORE than others; but it also means not loving ourselves LESS than others, either. A messiah complex is pathological; not spiritual. Jesus, who was without sin, often left the crowds behind to go apart to renew his energy.

    Then, there is the problem of sin in our human relationships. We not only have legitimate interests, we have wants as well as needs, disordered as well as healthy desires. Sacrificing one’s own legitimate needs and desires to meet the demands of another’s selfish wants or disordered desires is not *love* it is co-dependent pathology. A person who has not been transformed by Grace will always be blind to his/her selfishness and, in fact, will think that others are being selfish by not fulfilling their unreasonable expectations and demands.

    Nietzsche’s two fundamental criticisms of *Christianity* [actually churchianity] was that it encouraged a “slave mentality” and a “herd mentality” in people.

    I think he had a point. Too often the Latin/Western churches, especially those in the Augustinian tradition, have an anthropology that focuses on the effects of the Fall, ignoring the Creation Story which defines humans as being created in the image of God, with the potential to become godlike in our love for one another by the liberating power of Grace.

    Our God is a God of “Power and Might.” Power is not evil, it is morally neutral. We see power struggles, a dance of death, in our society as well as our individual relationships.

    It is how we gain and use our power that makes it good or evil. We can use our power to heal and help or to wound and harm. There is the coercive power of the “strong” (those who rule, using their power to gain socioeconomic/political advantage at the expense of the common good) and the manipulative “power” of the weak (those who withhold or give just as much care to get by unless there is “something in it for them). The most you can hope for, apart from Grace, is the self-interested moralism of reciprocal altruism, tit for tat, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. You can build a stable secular society on that; but it is a far cry from the loving *disinterested* (not to be confused with dispassionate) relationships in the Kingdom of God.

    So, the dying to self that we are to do is a dying to the Old Adamic false self, with its tendency to use others as a means to accomplish our individual selfish ends. Jesus did not kill himself; he chose to die rather than save himself by violent means. But even that cannot be taken as an absolute principle because, while Jesus was truly human, he was also God which made him uniquely human in a way in which we are not. His dying for others had a cosmic affect that ours can only have when united with him under certain circumstances. Not to defend our legitimate interests and desires is to deny our God-given human dignity and to encourage sinful exploitation. There is a paradox in most biblical principles. In this case the child of the King is also a servant and the servant is also a child of the King and to forget either is to be less than God intended us to be.

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    • Which is all well and fine, but it presumes a level of control and choice which may not actually exist. Loving shouldn’t be about obligation, imo. Rather it should come from a place of strength and without damaging one’s self. But once that is done and it doesn’t “work”, then what? Either you become less, you become bitter or you dig a little deeper, trust God a little more and keep going. The problem, I think is that many people are depending on things other than God for identity, worth and satisfaction. When the people you invest into aren’t able or willing to satisfy that need in response to your loving actions, it becomes harmful towards you. (And all this presumes a lack of abuse. The proper response to abuse is love of self, not more sacrifice, imo.)

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      • Hmmm, I thought that is what I said the Scriptures taught. Guess I’m not as good a communicator as I thought I was. Not the first time I’ve overrated one of my talents. Probably won’t be the last . . .

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      • LOL – I’m not always a good detail reader – it’s probably me. And I think I can be a little touchy about the idea that I bring my own suffering on myself. I come from a blame-heavy background. I was well trained in the fine art of tracking down the point at which one chose a course which lead to current problems. No matter how reasonable or innocent that choice was, the fact that it did not lead to a good outcome clearly means it was the wrong choice to have made. It’s a mindset motivated by an illusion of control, perfection and self-righteousness. “I have a good life because I made good, responsible choices. You have a hard life because clearly you didn’t chose and act as well as me. Your bad.” It’s a rather graceless mindset, but like all deeply planted, false belief sets, it’s a tough one to unlearn.

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      • I got a differenct sort of up-bringing. When my brother or I messed up, Mother would ask, “How could someone as good and smart as you do such a thing?!!!” She always held us responsibile without attacking our self-esteem.

        Of course, being just kids, dumb and impulsive rather than malicious, our answer was usually, “Uh, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

        Dear ol’ Dad would respond a bit differently. He would just sigh and say, “You know when you have kids that they are going to screw you.”

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      • The problem I’ve experienced wasn’t so much what happened with something that was actually messed up. It’s the second guessing, the “did you ever stop to consider . . . insert something which is obvious in hindsight” and the completely reasonable and innocent choices which through a long chain of events lead to less than great outcomes. It was only last year that I decided that if a bad outcome was a result of some choice made in good faith weeks, months or years earlier, I wasn’t going to beat myself up over it. I think that my experience was more of the “tell us who sinned that this man was born blind” or “tell us why those men died when the tower” sort of ilk. It’s good to be thoughtful and aware, but I think a lot of us tend to go to unhealthy extremes trying to find cause-effect relationships for why things work out the way they do.

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      • No matter how much we try to anticipate the outcome of our choices, there may still be something we do not know that can bite us in the butt. I am not a reckless person.

        On the big decisions I always do a risk analysis–best possible outcome, worst possible outcome. If the best possible outcome has a relatively high degree of probability and I think I can cope with the worst, then I usually take the plunge.

        However, the older I get the less risk averse I get. I still do my risk analysis; but I usually end up thinking, “This could turn out very badly…or it could be the adventure of a lifetime. Oh, what the hell, at your age go for it.” As I get closer to the end of my temporal life, numbering my days in “years, maybe” rather than decades, I know that even if things turn out badly I will not have long to suffer the consequences. Besides the older you get, the more you can get away with. People think that you are just getting senile, “You know how it is when you’re ‘of an age.’”

        Probably only excessively reflective people try to discern the cause and effect connection. When things go badly most people just pick someone else to blame. That is why, considering the god-given gift of reason, our species has a much lower learning curve than one would have expected.

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  2. I can only speak for myself, but I think you are absolutely AMAZING – bright, articulate, honest, spiritual, wise, I could go on and on…hope you have a wonderful holiday season with all the best to you and yours!

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