Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Spirit of Love Presupposes Love in the Heart of the Other

[This is a republish of a piece I wrote a couple years ago on another web site.]

Sunday morning between the first and second services I met my friend Randy in the usual place in front of the church. After talking some about his troubles and and some about mine, I "blessed" him with one of my cryptic comments. I said, "Randy, I know you believe other people don't love you very much, when all the time they are thinking you don't love them very much."

Randy said, "That's very true Joe, except that it's not me you're talking about—it's you."

And he's right, it is me. I don't think they love me and they don't think I love them. We are all under the distinct impression, most of the time, that we are not very well loved—while the remainder of the time we believe we are not loved at all.

In his pseudo-medieval romance, The Well at the World's End, William Morris illustrates this dynamic well and memorably in the flowery words of Ralph and Ursula as they set out on their quest.

...Ralph noted of Ursula that she was silent and shy with him, and it irked him so much, that at last he said to her: "My friend, doth aught ail me with thee? Wilt thou not tell me, so that I may amend it? For thou are grown of few words with me and turnest thee from me, and seemest as if thou heedest me little. Thou art as a fair spring morning gone cold and overcast in the afternoon. What is it then? we are going a long journey together, and belike shall find little help or comfort save in each other; and ill will it be if we fall asunder in heart, though we be nigh in body."

She laughed and reddened therewithal; and then her countenance fell and she looked piteously on him and said: "If I seemed to thee as thou sayest, I am sorry; for I meant not to be thus with thee as thou deemest. But so it is that I was thinking of this long journey, and of thee and me together in it, and how we shall be with each other if we come back again alive..."

She stayed her speech awhile, and seemed to find it hard to give forth the word that was in her; but at last she said: "Friend, thou must pardon me; but that which thou sawest in me, I also seemed to see in thee, that thou wert grown shy and cold with me; but now I know it is not so, since thou hast seen me wrongly; but that I have seen thee wrongly, as thou hast me."

William Morris, The Well at the World's End
Book Three, Chapter 7

And so we see Ralph and Ursula confused, and both for the same reason. Each thinks the other is drawing back, withdrawing their open-heartedness from the other, and because of this perception each begins to draw back even more from the other. We can sense in Ralph's words the germ of anger, while Ursula's quiet spirit is less volatile. Nonetheless her demeanor has been affected by her perception, even though it was off the mark. And so we have to be thankful for Ralph's frankness; he expressed his feelings truthfully. But we have to notice that the nobility of these two characters is exemplary. They are more noble than we would probably be.

Most of us would go on and on day after day in passivity, growing confused and bitter. It happens all the time. Chuck Swindoll addressed this dynamic.

"In relationships that begin to break down... We notice first an alteration in routine ...there are strained feelings—awkwardness, lack of eye contact, a rush to leave. There is no longer the free-flowing give-and-take in conversation. The sense of humor is decidedly absent. Things are definitely different. "Something is wrong," we whisper to ourselves.

Chuck Swindoll, Dropping Your Guard
Word Books, Waco, 1987. P. 106.

And so we perceive, rightly or wrongly, that we have been abandoned, to one degree or another, by some significant other, by groups of others, or even by everyone around us. And because we perceive that people are rejecting us, and, because relationships with people correspond directly with relationship to God, we very logically suppose that God doesn't love us either. This experience is common to everyone in the Western world, probably to everyone in the Eastern world too, so I don't think I have to prove it to you; you already know it because you have experienced it and have known others who have also experienced it.

So I think it's safe to say we agree that this deep-seated belief—that we are not loved—haunts most of us much of the time. Moreover, even during the good times, when we are feeling pretty good about ourselves and our relationships, we are nonetheless bothered by a low-grade anxiety, a chronic fear, that sometime in the near future, we are sure to find ourselves alone and unloved, confused, off-balance and hurting.

But what shall we do about it? I will submit that depends on our goals, dreams and motivations. If it is your goal to take all you can get by whatever means necessary, then you will want to manipulate, control, cajol... beg, borrow or steal whatever "love" you can squeeze out of the significant people (or gods) in your life. Notice I put love in quotation marks in the previous sentence—because if you have to get love by illegal means then it's not love, wouldn't you agree? (I thought you would.) And if it is real love you want, then there is no way you can get it by subterfuge. Wouldn't you also agree to that? (Again, I was sure you would.)

A greedy, manipulative person might think he has conned another into loving him. He might even be truly loved by the other, leading him to believe he has achieved his goal by his machinations, but he is mistaken. Love never comes from subterfuge—it will always be independent of it. There is lots of love flowing around, much of it flowing toward the outlaws, the con-men and con-women, so it is not surprising that the outlaws will think they have procured real love. But the outlaws of love, and the rest of us law-of-love-abiding citizens—if there are any—should stop and take stock. We need a lesson about love-economy. But to do that we will have to hear from love's companion, that less highly-valued virtue, faith.

About 160 years ago, in Copenhagen, there lived a melancholy man who never seemed to learn to live very well. He was a lonely man who wrote books and paid for their publication with money he had inherited upon the death of his equally maladjusted father. His books sold pretty well in his home town, but were not translated into German (the language of scholarship in his day) till after his death, and were not translated into English till long after that, nearly a hundred years. Nevertheless he wrote what he learned (and he learned much), enough to rouse us to consciousness if we pay attention to him. His name of course was Søren Kierkegaard. In his classic deliberation, Works of Love Kierkegaard (hereinafter called "K") lays out the treasures of love for us to receive, if we are willing to pay attention. It is in his exposition of 1 Corinthians eighth chapter, first verse that he addresses this fundamental flaw in our system. "Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up." I wonder whether Paul was using some sort of wordplay here—maybe a Greek scholar could tell me.

Further on, K continues by saying that every building requires a foundation. (who wants to build something without a foundation?) He says there already is a foundation for the building up of love in people's lives, and that is the foundation of God's love. K had previously taught us that all human love flows out of God's love. If you would look at the opening passages of this work you would see one of the most beautifully poetic descriptions in all of K's works. He writes of God's love as a hidden spring, deep down under the dark waters of a fresh-water lake. The fresh water of the spring fills the lake to overflowing; we know it's there even though we can't see it.

Love’s hidden life is in the innermost being, unfathomable, and then in turn is in an unfathomable connectedness with all existence. Just as the quiet lake originates deep down in hidden springs no eye has seen, so also does a person’s love originate even more deeply in God’s love.... Just as the quiet lake originates darkly in the deep spring, so a human being’s love originates mysteriously in God’s love.

Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pages 9, 10.

God's love is the same way; we know it's there but all we can see is the surface of the lake. I will add that in this fallen world the surface of the lake has many impurities and pollutions in it. The shoreline is covered with sludge and dead fish, but that doesn't change the fact that there is a clear-flowing, health-giving source of clean water underneath. The source is there; there would be no lake without it.

It's the same for love—without the source there would be no love of any kind, no pure love nor flawed love. Without God's love as source there would be no agape, no phileo, no storge or eros. They all have their source in the same hidden spring, the love of God. They are human loves and they can be impregnated with different additives, or poured out of different vessels, each with different blessings or cursings muttered over them. But I'm digressing I suppose (or getting ahead of myself), so let's get back to the building up of love.

K writes, "Love builds up by presupposing that love is present."

So if I take K's advice I should plan my actions on a presupposition, or faith—that the person in question has love in his or her heart. So, my behavior toward the person I love will be based on faith—the faith that they love also, even though it might be hidden. And, not only might their love be hidden, it is also most likely imperfect, weak, and infantile, as well as selfish and quite probably misdirected, or or at least not flowing toward me. But I have faith it is there and so I base my plans and actions on it. Mind you, the object is to build up or edify the loving character of the other person, not to capture the heart of the other for ourselves. That said, even if all evidence seems to be to the contrary, I must have faith there is love present in the other.

Now then, you might be thinking that K and I have got this idea out of thin air. So where is it written? In the love chapter—1 Corinthians 13, verse 7. "Love believes all things." So what good does that do?

Well, it might be easier to display it in the negative. We can be sure it does a world of harm to believe the opposite.We have all heard someone say they will not love someone who will not love them. "I'm only withholding my love from someone who is withholding love from me," we say. Back in the 1960's a black leader, Malcolm X, uttered a public statement to that effect. I remembered his statement for many years and was thankful that a large multitude of blacks and white did not follow that teaching.

Maybe we are not suprised when we are confronted with apparent evidence that we are not loved. Maybe we are actually looking for evidence to that effect. Maybe we feel we are not actually worthy of being loved so we easily accept the face of apparent rejection. "Just like I thought... might as well get used to it, they don't love me," we mutter in our bitter hearts. Or maybe we don't want to believe a particular person has the capability to love at all. He or she might have wounded us deeply and we are looking for an excuse not to love and forgive so we prefer to presuppose that they have no love in their hearts. We look for evidence that the other isn't even capable of love. We find it easy to believe We gather a cadre of friends and acquaintances to support our presupposition. Then, with all the presupposing they don't love us, we feel we are free not to love them. We feel justified resorting to hate, or even worse, to apathy toward them.

Most people who seem to reject our love, (after first accepting it), are most likely people who, for one reason or another, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of not being able to afford the expense of loving us back. By that I mean their love has been in some way hijacked by an enemy within—this is very understandable, considering all that we are subjected to as children (abuse/neglect, molestations), combined with the tendency to reject ourselves; self-hatred is the number-one enemy to loving others.

Still, we are commanded to love others whether we think they love us or not. Jesus taught us that we are obliged to find a way to love them—especially when they don't love us. And very especially when they are our enemies. [More about the love of an enemy later]

When faith cannot see any love in the response of the other person, still faith believes it is present in the foundation of the person's life, even though they don't know they are building on it. K goes on:

" believe all things means to presuppose that love, even though it is not seen—indeed, even though the opposite is seen—is still present in the ground, even in the misguided, even in the corrupted, even in the most hateful. Mistrust takes away the very foundation by presupposing that love is not present—therefore mistrust cannot build up."

pages 220, 221.

There is a lot of talk going around these days about affirmation. Maybe K would be at home with this popular concept. If we presuppose that our brother or sister has love in their hearts then we will want to find ways to affirm it. I'm not talking about affirming it to ourselves—we already believe it's there. It's the person who is being loved who really needs the affirmation. After all, he knows he is misguided, guilty, corrupted, even hateful, as K put forth in the quote above. The one who is being loved knows very well he is deficient in love; he knows he cannot love or be loved purely or righteously. He or she has been around the block a few times, tried all this before and, in his or her jadedness, quite naturally projects his bad motivations on the other, the one who loves, in order to find a reason to excuse himself from being loved and being obliged to return the love. He or she might also believe that being loved opens him to many kinds of temptations. And so it might, but that isn't love's fault, it's the fault of his sin-nature, combined with the impurities that have been mixed with love in his or her past experience. Still, all this does not negate the fact that love lives inside, hidden, covered, deep down under the surface of the dark-surfaced pool that is the human heart.

I have a few friends of whom I am absolutely sure of their love for me. A small number. Don't ask me how I know. Maybe it's chemistry. But then I have a much greater number of acquaintances and associates, brothers and sisters about whom I believe that they love me. I have to believe because I don't know of a surety, but believing should be good enough to go on. It is good enough to allow me, as a lover and a builder of love, to cultivate relationship in whatever form is appropriate. Often I have doubts about others love and I still will have doubts but faith is a substance and we can see and feel the results.


Anonymous said...


This is a very good point and well written too. Faith, as the presupposition that love is present seems a good definition of it. Of course this faith can be proved wrong. But without that risk, it is not faith.

From your use of Kierkegaard here it's easy to see how the absence of faith in one's life prevents them ever stepping out from the shadows of the already known. To the one with much faith, much is given, because only with faith can we take hold of life and live it abundantly.


OpenJoe said...

Thanks Bill. Would you believe you have blessed me with my first comment on this weblog?
Here's another twist. Often we are warned by well meaning friends not to expect too much in the area of being loved by others, particularly if there are factors which would tend to divide the folks in question.
Like race, color, creed, age, social barriers. Our friends often feel we are cruisin' for a bruisin' and want to head us off at the pass to protect us.
And often we internalize what they say because we are looking to be headed off at the pass.
I only came to believe I was worth being loved when I saw the amazing beauty and value in others, then by common sense applied it to myself out of fairness. I honestly cannot see it in myself directly.