GodWeb Home


Finding God on the Web

Bible | Movies | Hot Topics | Holidays | Humor | Gallery | Sanctuary | Sermons | Prayer | Quizzes | Communities | FAQ

The Lengths and Limits of Love:
Is Christ's love ethic relevant in a time of conflict and war?

Shortly before he died, a great philosopher summed up the wisdom of a lifetime when he said: "Love is the only practical solution to the problems of humankind."

This might be the same conclusion that many of us would draw after listening to a lifetime of sermons. So often we preachers seem to be offering love as the single, comprehensive solution to the problems of life. As the song writer put it, "What the world needs now is love, sweet love, that's the only thing there's just too little of." But is sweet love relevant at all in a time of conflict and war; whether that be armed conflict, or culture war?

There is a simple truth in those sermons and love songs of course. Love is one of the most powerful motivating forces that we know of. Love can carry us to great lengths and great heights of achievement. To this day I remember the message that my grandmother used to write on the cards she sent out with her hand knitted socks and sweaters at Christmas. "There's love in every stitch." And clearly there was. For it was only the power of love which could possibly have motivated her to continue knitting long after her joints were swollen, nearly frozen stiff with pain that resulted from her rheumatoid arthritis. There's the love that knits the members of a family together in the face of conflict and problems that would tear apart any lesser bond.

There's also the work we do out of love. For those of us who work in the not-for-profit sector or in the church, the motivation is not primarily money, or fame, or power. It's love that motivates. In the case of ministers such as myself, it’s the love of God that keeps us going.

And I’ll wager its true for most people who are reading this right now. Whatever your occupation or avocation, if you do it out of love, you're much more likely to succeed than if you're simply in it for the money.

Clearly love can carry us to lengths that nothing else can.

And this is equally true in areas of life where we might least expect it, like politics or international relationships. For example, love of country can accomplish what the force of law never can in motivating young people to enlist in the armed forces of a nation. To fight, even to die, in defense of one's country. Yet here we run up against the first of love's great complications.

For while our soldiers go into battle motivated in part by love of God and country, there are those around the world who are fighting against us with the same motives moving them into battle. The leaders of insurgency movements in various places understand this very well. And they could utter, exactly the same words our own leaders use in a time of war: "Nothing can give life greater meaning than to fight, and even to die out of love for one’s country or religion."

We can see it in places like Afghanistan or Ukraine, but it's harder to see when it happens here at home, how love of country can be manipulated by political leaders to intensify conflict and widen the divisions between nations and peoples. Especially destructive is the blind love that does not stop to ask hard questions of a nation's leaders. Blind love is no better than blind obedience when it comes to the task of building a better world.

Is love part of the problem?

When you really think about it, rather than seeing love as a solution to all the problems of life, we might just as well see it as part of the problem, as when two men love the same woman, or when you love someone who does not love you in return.

In this day and age it is ironic that love remains so great a problem. After decades of training in how to improve our interpersonal relationships, after years of psychotherapy, after a whole revolution in our thinking about gender and sex, love remains the number one problem of our personal lives.

Some of the most tragic situations in life result from our sometimes frenzied search for love. Consider the number of teenage pregnancies or the spread of various venereal diseases. So many of our problems arise out of the need and the hunger for love. As we reach out for the affection and simple human contact that we all need, desire and deserve, we sometimes stumble and fall. Love not only fails as a solution to the problems of life, love creates new problems of its own.

Yet it is precisely here, where we face the greatest paradox of life, that the teachings of Jesus offer the greatest help. Jesus did not push love as a panacea. When he spoke of love, he was aware of its strengths, he was also aware of its weakness. He understood both the lengths and the limits of love.

Note the words of Jesus that were addressed to that small circle of his most intimate disciples. "This is my commandment, that you love one another even as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that you lay down your life for your friends."

Jesus knew what a tall order he was giving when he commanded these twelve to love one another.

Yet if they could at least accomplish this, he knew there was just a chance that others would be able to see what they meant when they began talking about the love of God. To be sure, Jesus believed that the love which the disciples shared would eventually spread. It would extend its reach to every family, race and tribe.

Jesus went as far as anyone in demonstrating the length and the reach of love. But he was also aware that there are very clear and necessary limits in our loving. In the Old Testament, the Great Commandment reads: "Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Instead of might, Jesus said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind." And that simple four letter word, m-i-n-d makes all the difference.

Jesus clearly saw that blind love is no better than blind obedience or blind faith. If asked to choose among these three: blind love, blind faith, or blind obedience, to be true to the teachings of Jesus, we would have to answer, "None of the above." For real love is not blind at all.

The fulfillment of love requires the deliberate use of all the critical and creative talents we possess. This is a lesson which the secular world seems surprised to discover just now.

By way of illustration, a professor of psychology at Yale, Robert J. Sternberg, published the results of an exhaustive study on the nature of love. Dr. Sternberg's research has already won him the honorific title: the Love Doctor. After years of painstaking research, here's what Doctor Love has discovered: "The way I look at it, love has three elements. One is emotional, another is motivational, the third is cognitive, if you have only the emotional, that immediate gush of feeling, then its simply infatuation. If you have only the motivational, its probably more like a close friendship. But if the emotional, the motivational, and the cognitive all exist simultaneously, then you have complete romantic love."

Learning to count the cost.

Nearly 2000 years before the Love Doctor was even born, Jesus said much the same thing, only he did not limit himself to romantic love. He spoke of love in its widest dimension when he said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. And thy neighbor as thyself."

When he added that crucial word, MIND, Jesus was speaking of what Dr. Sternberg calls the cognitive dimension. But for Jesus the mind was not simply the seat of intelligence, it was also the seat of conscience. In addition to the cognitive dimension, Jesus saw that love has an ethical and a moral dimension.

"One does not set out to build a house, or a tower," said Jesus, "without first sitting down to count the cost." And this is especially true when we begin to build the house of love.

Most of us learn as parents that we cannot set out blindly to raise the maximum number of children. Real love requires that we give thoughtful consideration to the quality of life that we are able to provide. A reasonable parent must weigh the love of children against the added costs of a college education, for example.

Likewise, as we set out to build a network of friendships we must ask realistically, how many different human beings can we relate to closely enough to number among our true friends? In searching for ways to express our love for country, we must be equally discriminating. Especially as we come to grips with problems as intractable as those of the Middle East.

For the love of humanity, people should renounce evil for good, but they don't. In fact, more often than not they justify evil by appealing to the good.

So its a long and tortuous road that leads from the love we experience within our closest circle of friends, to that larger love which could bring peace to a war torn world. But the journey of love is one which each and every one of us is called to take. In fact, it is the only journey that really matters much at all. For God is love.

Realistically, as we begin our journey we must confess, love is not something we possess. We do not have such an abundance of love that we can spread it around like so many tons of surplus wheat to feed a love starved world.

In fact, love is not a thing we possess at all. Just the opposite; it takes possession of us! It rises up in our midst despite our best efforts to stamp it down. Often when we least expect it. When we have done nothing to deserve it. Love takes us by surprise; it takes us by storm, it strikes us to the root and core of our being, changing us forever.

The greatest of the saints have said it, from St Paul to Francis of Assisi; from St Augustine to Bishop Tutu. Love is not a virtue to be attained by training, not an accomplishment to be achieved by fiat of the will, at bottom love is a gift of God's grace.

"All the world needs now is love, sweet love", said the song writer. But just how we are to move on out form that sweet song into this world of bitter-sweet experience is neither simple nor easy. True love requires more than an outburst of feeling; it requires a disciplined application of energy and imagination. Love requires a realistic assessment of one's own strengths and weaknesses. But more than anything, love requires faith. Not blind faith, but a faith informed by all the knowledge and wisdom we can acquire in a lifetime of searching.

We believe that God is love. And this makes all the difference in the world. For what the love of God requires God empowers us to give. As God has called us to be love's faithful servants, love's servants we shall be!

Charles Henderson

Other related and recommended sites you might want to visit: 

Please take a moment to let us know you were here!  
Use the mail drop to indicate your interest in being included in our free newsletter.

First Name:
Last Name:

If you want to talk with someone in person,  please feel free to call: 917-439-2305

The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles P. Henderson.