Thursday, October 31, 2013

Perfect Love

In my work, I meet a lot of people who have to face fear head-on. They or their loved on is in the hospital with serious illness, sometimes even near death, and this brings out a lot of fear. A few weeks ago, I was sitting with a mother who worried about her daughter's fear as her daughter laid in the hospital bed. I noted the cross around mom's wrist and said, "But you know what God says. Perfect love casts out fear."

And for the first time in my life, I had a tangible understanding of that verse.

Because here's the thing - in the throes of fear, love (perfect or imperfect) doesn't practically mean butkus. It means nothing. If my car is sliding off an icy road, I'm not really thinking about love. If there's a coyote growling at my feet ready to pounce, I'm not thinking much about Jesus. If the elevator doors won't open, I'm not singing Jesus Loves Me. This is not comfort. The perfect love of God does not alleviate my fear when I am trapped in fear. Rather, can I be honest? It kind of stings a little. It stings a lot. It smacks me in the face like it's saying, "If you just believed in or loved God more, this fear wouldn't matter." (See yesterday's post for what I think about faith in response to fear.) But fear matters! I'm afraid! Perfect love or no perfect love.

But that morning, I said those words that I've read in the Bible so many times, and I believed them. This morning, I still believe them. My realization is that it's not that Jesus loves us (in saying that He is perfect love) but rather it is how Jesus loves us - perfectly - and what perfect love really looks like.

Perfect love, and if you're married, you know this, is not mutual adoration. It's not that I love Jesus and He loves me and somehow together, that is perfect. It is not two equals coming together in harmony and synchronicity. That's romance. That's lovey-dovey. It can seem perfect sometimes, but it's not what perfect love is.

Perfect love on one side requires the strength and acceptance and embrace that we often associate with love. But on the other side, it requires vulnerability and trust. To paraphrase another teaching of Jesus - how perfect is love if you only love someone who loves you back? It is perfect only when the other is in need of something you can give them.

That's what I see in my dying patients. I see them in this place of fear, not knowing what it will be like on the other side, not knowing what death feels like, afraid to die. And I see just as clearly on what I call "the other side of their world" (the non-physical piece of their in-between existence) Jesus holding them firmly in perfect love. They have nothing but their vulnerability to give Him, nothing but their trust. They must simply come to rest in His arms and in His strength and acceptance and embrace, I believe they finally understand perfect love. When I think about what this must be like, what it must be like to see Jesus face to face and to know the warmth of His arms, I just can't imagine them being afraid any more. It's just not spiritually possible.

So Jesus was right. Perfect love casts out fear.

Then what does that mean for the living? It's easy to see perfect love from one side of the living world to the other, easy to see how we get there when that love is all we have. But what about the times when fear is strong, death is nowhere in sight, and it seems our insecurity is the dominating force in our lives? We have to make perfect love all we have. We have to make Jesus the very thing we have. We have to be the other half of perfect love, if we ever want to find it - we have to be vulnerable, trust, and embrace our reality so that we can feel the embrace of God. In His arms, on this side of our world just as much as the other, we know the words He spoke are true. If it doesn't seem that way, we are not in perfect love. And maybe it's because we're busy trying to a) be too loving in return or b) be afraid anyway. Only when we abandon ourselves to Him, all of ourselves including our very fear, do we understand the strength and embrace and acceptance that is perfect love. And in that moment, when we see Jesus face to face and know the warmth of His arms, I can't imagine us being afraid any more. It's just not spiritually possible.

Perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)

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