Loving Others: Giving Life or Causing Death?

On his album, “So Runs the World Away,” Americana folk singer Josh Ritter has a beautiful but tragic song entitled, “The Curse.” It is a story of an archeologist who uncovers a mummy in an anonymous tomb. Her presence lights a spark of life in the theretofore dead being. He falls in love with her at first sight.

As the drama unfolds we see that what begins as a beautiful tale of the power of love to raise the dead, ends as a tragic caution to the destructive power of selfish “love.” In short, over time, the mummy gains strength and life as the archeologist slowly fades towards death. His increased vitality costs his love her life.

Check out the song/video here.

This cautionary tale reminds us of the destructive power of ego-centric, disoriented love.

We have all, no doubt, experienced in life both sides of this tension. We have known times when we have loved out of our needs, requiring others to pour into us that which we cannot muster up in ourselves. And we have known times when we have poured into the needs of others, even at great cost to our own heart and spirit.

True love gives life. Disoriented love takes life.

It is deceptively easy to love others from a selfish motivation. “Tell me I’m important. Show me I matter. Carry me when I’m weak. Make me happy, make me healthy, make me whole. Meet my needs!”

Ministry, in particular, creates an environment conducive for this self-oriented type of loving. It is the one profession that trades exclusively in love- sharing it and receiving it. Our individual and congregational capacity to give and receive love is the greatest measure of our success. We must constantly examine if our love is life giving or life taking.

Consider then three lessons on love from Thomas Merton as your discern your motivations to love and be loved in return.

Love God First

“All sin is rooted in the failure of love. All sin is a withdrawal of love from God, in order to love someone else.” – Thomas Merton

While this failure may be the most obvious in principle, it is most difficult to overcome in practice. Jesus instructs his followers to love God first and then, as an outpouring of that love of God, love their neighbors as themselves. When we miss this proper orientation towards God’s life-giving love, we begin to seek life from other people, life that they cannot provide. We will exploit their charity for our needs until they have nothing to give. They will be left exhausted and used; we will be left dissatisfied and frustrated.

Because our well-intended needs-based ministries primarily focused on meeting the needs of others, we can easily miss our proper love orientation. Paradoxically, we will do more harm by focusing first on meeting needs. We will love more authentically by focusing first on God’s love for us.

What is your launch pad for love? What motivates your loving? Do you begin by pursuing a deep and abiding life in Christ? Or are you moved by compassion for the other? Allow compassion to become a consequence of your love of God, not the other way around.

Receiving Love Well

“Love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.” – Thomas Merton

Sacrificial love does not begin with hating ourselves, but loving ourselves enough to receive love well. Too often, false humility and self-loathing motivate our desire to give ourselves away. These gestures ring hollowly. They lack a full appreciation for the richness of the love that we have received. As Nouwen writes, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved’.”

As we read John chapters 13-17, we see that Jesus’ understanding of his entire mission begins with his confidence in the Father’s love.

John 17:24: “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

Don’t think this is hubris. It is humility at its best. Jesus is sure of his Father’s love. He knows it; he receives it daily. It is from this place of knowing that his Father loves him, deeply and unconditionally. Therefore, he can give himself fully, out of love, to the world.

Until we can see and embrace completely our belovedness, we will never know how to see and call out belovedness in one another.

Loving God’s Family

“If I am to love my brother/sister, I must somehow enter deep into the mystery of God’s love for him/her.” – Thomas Merton

You are a child of God. I am a child of God. Every person we meet and relate to is a child of God. Entering into the mystery of God’s love for the other means to know them as brothers and sisters, as our adopted siblings in the Holy Family of God.

To be adopted is to be chosen. God chooses me and God chooses you and God chooses every person in the world to invite into God’s Holy Family through the work of Christ (Romans 8:14-17). “When love chooses, it chooses with a perfect sensitivity for the unique beauty of the chosen one” (Nouwen). This is God’s compassionate choice.

Ideally, we don’t love family out of pity or duty. We shouldn’t be compelled to love our family. We love them because they are family. This is how we are to love the world.

How would this change your perspective on those you relate to each day? Friends, colleagues, parishioners and strangers, what if you knew each of them as brothers and sisters in the Holy Family of God?

Daily we are challenged to expose our hearts before God in prayer and allow God to convict, forgive and redeem our intentions. We so rarely love well. Too often our love is manipulative, controlling, narcissistic, hungry and destructive.

There is power in love: power to give life and power to take it. God’s love gives life. Oh, that we would love God first in our lives, receive God’s love and love our neighbors as our brothers and sisters in the Holy Family of God!

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Welford Orrock
Welford Orrock is the Coordinator of the Kairos Initiative where he helps equip and encourage young adults through connected, vibrant collegiate and young adult ministries that are Developing Leaders, Building Community and Moving Missionally.
Welford Orrock

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