“If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.”
– Hymn by William R. Featherstone
The line struck me the other night, popping up unexpectedly in my head, because love is still a stark mystery to me, and because I know my love for Jesus is not what it used to be. It’s taken me back to an old debate: is love a feeling, or a choice?
Is it right that my love for Christ would fluctuate, never leaving entirely but existing in highs and lows in response to circumstances? It doesn’t sound right, does it? A verse came to mind: “He who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47) And I concluded that my lack of love could be from Elder Brother Syndrome (Luke 15:23-32). My gratitude for Christ’s forgiveness could be directly linked to how much I feel I’ve been forgiven, and although I’m not perfect, I have managed in my life to avoid a lot of the more obvious, more damaging sins.
The great equalizer to this line of thinking is to remember that whoever breaks one commandment is guilty of breaking them all (James 2:10), meaning that although we may have all sinned to varying degrees, we are all equally screwed. Being a Christian my whole life, I don’t know the kind of life that Jesus saved me from, saved me from having to go through, and damnation is something I can only understand in abstract ideas. I have nothing practical to look at and say, “This is how grateful I should be.”
On the contrary, for over a year now I’ve been in one of the darkest periods of my life. (I’m a technical person, and don’t like to over-dramatize things by saying, “This is the worst thing ever,” unless I mean it. Growing up, there were maybe two periods of my life darker than this.) And I’m not feeling the love.
Compounding this is the feeling that God is being inattentive and uncooperative. Letting things slip. Refusing easy prayers where I’m just asking for help carrying out His will, and receiving no such help. To put it in the closest human terms that I can conceptually relate to, I feel like I’m in a marriage with an emotionally distant spouse who refuses to work on the relationship. I’m trying and trying, but they won’t have any of it. This is not like the God that I’ve come to know. This is not the Jesus that I “married”. Theologically speaking, God is unchanging, but my present experiences disagree. What do I do with that?
There’s a number of easy answers. At least, they sound easy at first.
1: Suck it up, Wuss.
I can carry on as if everything’s fine, accept my lot in life, and declare that even the crap I’m going through is “good” and never complain again. That would turn me into a machine (I mean, more of a machine than I am now). It would be dishonest, and I would lose the ability to talk about anything authentically. It would be out of pious servitude, and yet I don’t think God would want that.
2: Conclude God was never real in the first place and carry on as if He doesn’t exist. This would also be dishonest (for me). I’ve seen too much. More importantly, I have felt His love. The fact that I don’t feel it now does not disqualify everything that’s happened before now.
3: Lash out at God because of what I’m going through. He obviously isn’t intending to take care of my needs, so through sin I can take care of my own needs and spit in God’s face at the same time.
That last one is the most appealing, and I have gone there from time to time, but I have not settled into that lifestyle.
Well…because I still care about Him.
Sin hurts Him. Through some mysterious process I don’t fully understand, every sin I commit today has been laid on Christ two-thousand years ago, adding to His suffering. It hurts Him. And I don’t want to hurt my friend.
Does that seem childish? Maybe it is. Maybe it’s just because loyalty is such a big part of who I am. Maybe I’ve just been through too much suffering myself and just don’t like the idea of inflicting any amount of it on anyone, even someone I feel has deeply hurt me or even betrayed me. Is that how some married people feel after a while? Hurt and betrayed, yet in spite of that they still care?
“Love isn’t a decision, it’s a feeling.
If we could decide who we loved, it would be much simpler,
but much less magical.”
– Mr. Twig
Who’s Mr. Twig? If you know then you simultaneously get a high-five along with my sympathy. If you don’t know, don’t worry, it just means you have better sense.
The Twig makes a good point here, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Admiration, captivation, that kind of thing are all feelings. You can’t force yourself to feel those things. You can’t decide to feel those things. And if those feelings were never there then relationship wouldn’t work – just partnership.
But feelings fluctuate. Spring fades. Feelings alone won’t make a relationship last. So what do you do when feelings of love are no longer enough?
In the midst of my own struggles I’ve come to realize a new kind of faith is required. A new kind of love.
Fidelity is not a feeling, nor does it fluctuate because of circumstance. It is a decision. An act of love. Unconditional. Do I feel a love for God with all my heart? Honestly, not nearly as strong as I have in the past. Am I choosing with all my heart to act out of love for Him? Yes. Currently, that’s the best that I can offer.
I don’t presently feel like I can trust Him either, but in my daily life I’m still making decisions based on an act of trust. I’m choosing to trust, in spite of my feelings. I’m choosing to love when I don’t feel loved. I’m choosing faithfulness, though my heart tends to wander.
Some think the message that “God loves you” is irrelevant, because God loves everyone. It’s His job. If love was either a feeling or a decision, then yes, it would be less reassuring, but it isn’t just one or the other. It’s both. The atonement of Christ was an act, not a feeling. It was an act performed because God had promised salvation long beforehand, and God chooses faithfulness. That does not automatically mean that He loves you, the fact that He loves you is independent, based on the feelings of His own heart, and His feelings of love for each of His creations are unique and personal.
If God’s love for me was based solely on how He felt at the time, then I would worry about Him revoking my salvation whenever I pissed Him off. And if it was purely a decision because it’s His job, then it wouldn’t feel real to me, and I would worry that there isn’t anything about me to love. But God’s love for His people is both a feeling and a decision.
God’s decision to love us (to act with love) did not come on its own but was led on by His feelings of love for us. And my choice to remain with Him did not arrive on its own, but was made out of feelings of love for Him. If I had not seen God act in my life in the past, I would not have chosen fidelity. My choices would be based purely on the feelings of the moment. And the moment is quite dark. And the moment is often overwhelming. But the things I have experienced in the past assure me in the moment that there is also a future.
“Help me not forget in darkness
The things that I believed in light.”