What’s Love Got to Do with It?

The extraneous nonsense becomes starkly clear in life when you find love where it was formerly absent.  As missionaries in Japan we had attempted, haltingly, stupidly, blindly, to bring a little light and love into a place where it was sometimes achingly absent. Eventually the effort, constant work, and for me the hard effort of navigating in a language in which I had very little facility (to put it mildly), wore on us. People live in certain registers of experience and emotion, and while there was much that one could admire in the gentleness and sometimes inherent kindness of Japanese, there was also the isolation of being foreigners and living in a muted or at least differently timbred emotional range. One example of the quiet desperation prevailing among many Japanese: when I would survey my university classes on issues like suicide, it was common that for more than half suicide was a continually open option.  The school secretary at our Bible college found her son hanging in his room. I performed the funeral for a family in our church (a very small church) in which the grandfather had killed himself. All of this to illustrate, joy was often in short supply. We had put our effort into building up a church and working to build a Bible college in Tokyo and we felt the former work was complete and the latter had come to a halt. We decided to return to teach in a Bible college in the States, thinking we would find a network of friends and fellowship – and of course the unarticulated thought: to find a bit of the love and joy we had been missing.

The rest of the story (below) follows the pattern Jesus laid out in the story of the Good Samaritan – we were robbed and left for dead, betrayed by brothers. The point is not the injustices suffered, or the fact the thieves arose from among those we counted on most, but the vulnerable condition in which this sort of betrayal leaves you. One way of understanding love is to eliminate what it is not or, worse, to experience what it is not, and then as we did with the Forging Ploughshares community, find that absence filled.

The experience can be summed up in the following biblical syllogisms which, in delineating love from what it is not or from that with which it may be confused, gets at its all-encompassing nature. (1.) The purpose of the gifts of the Spirit are fulfilled in love but love is not fulfilled in the gifts. (2.) The purpose of the law is fulfilled in love but love is not fulfilled by the law. (3.) The purpose of salvation is fulfilled in love in that love, in its most precise definition, is the undoing of shame, overcoming of pride, and defeat of death.

(1.) In Paul’s explanation (I Cor. 13), love serves the other and this service is through the gifts of the Holy Spirit but one must not confuse this giftedness with the thing itself. Knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, or any of the gifts of the Spirit without love, Paul explains, are a pointless nothing. The inverse of this is that all of these gifts have their point only as they serve the purpose of love. The gifts are not inherently attached to love, as exercise of the gifts may provoke burning envy, inflated importance, or pride and arrogance, in the face of which love is absent. The contrast between love, on one side, and the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, and faith, each without love, on the other side, points to Paul’s earlier contrast and warning that knowledge inflates but love builds up. Prophecy or supposed knowledge received or exercised without love ministers to a false self-importance as “without love, I am nothing” (13:2).

Pride and selfishness can apparently be fed by gifts of the Spirit, so that even our spirituality may feed our self-protective, sinful experience, over and against love. Our power, our self-promotional interests, our thirsty pursuit of life, in a zero-sum sort of economy cannot afford love. Love, in contrast, rejoices in the truth, it never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up (I Cor. 13:4-7). This is not a zero-sum economy but one in which there is an infinite supply of life and resources. As Paul says at the conclusion of the chapter, love never ends. It is enduring; it is spreading; it is inclusive; it is not seeking to horde the glory or the resources of life and the light.

(2.) Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) when he sums up the law and his own purpose in Mt 22:39. Jesus is not the origin of this idea but he is the fulfillment of its possibility. Love, per se, is not an impossibility before Jesus or without Jesus but neighbor love, which Jesus will define in his story of the good Samaritan broadens the scope of neighbor to include, as Jesus explains elsewhere, enemies.  Such an idea was not considered, let alone put into practice, prior to Jesus.

Kenotic love, or giving up life (“he who loses his life”) to find life and love (restated in all four Gospels as Jesus summation of the salvation he is inaugurating) fulfills the law and neighbor love in that it meets and moves beyond mere justice. This love means giving up on securing the self against the neighbor, preserving the self by means of the law, or sustaining the self through the supposed life in the law. Kenotic service of the neighbor, in which one finds life, is the movement of love. It is modeled in Jesus forsaking power and position (“legal rights” of one with equality with divinity) so as to take the role of a servant (Philippians 2:7ff).

Paul, along with Jesus, says love is fulfilling the law (Romans 13:8-13) but what becomes clear in Paul’s explanation, while love will fulfill the law, the law will not fulfil love. In George McDonalds description, if a man keeps the law, he loves his neighbor but he is not a lover because he keeps the law but he keeps the law because he loves. The law cannot fulfill itself apart from love any more than gifts of the Spirit, in themselves, fulfill love. We are made for love, not law, and love fulfills and keeps the law only because it is infinitely more than law.

(3.) Love is the very point of the Christian faith in Paul’s explanation, but how or why this is the case can best be understood with a shift of focus from guilt to shame as the underlying problem. God is love and salvation is being restored to divine fellowship in love while sin obstructs this fellowship, but the problem is not merely a guilt which requires a price be paid, but shame which requires a remaking of human identity. While Western theology focuses on guilt (as if the obstruction is ultimately with God), what became clear in my reading the Bible in the Japanese context, is the role of shame as the primary descriptor of the loss of self. The self, in Japan, is depicted as consisting of an outward self (tatemae) that serves as a mask to protect an inward self (honne), the exposure of which will provoke the worst sort of shame (equated with death in popular literature). As James McClendon describes it, “In genuine presence I am with another and she or he with me, and there is a Wholeness in shared act or fact of our being there. But shame is a failed Wholeness. Thus, face to face with one another, but ashamed, we sense a loss of presence.” Where one cannot be present for the other, love is an impossibility. The primal emotion of the fallen self is shame (as depicted in Genesis, reiterated in the wisdom literature, and taken up by Paul). Shame compels us not merely to hide from others, to hide the body, but involves hiding the true self behind a mask in the attempt to be invulnerable – creating the incapacity for love.

Pride is directly connected to shame as pride is the identity, the structure (individual, national, tribal, etc.) behind which we would ward off shame. Our greatest gifts and abilities may feed into the cover up. We may organize our entire religion, the Christian religion, as a kind of façade behind which we might remain invulnerable, protected, unexposed. Isolation, invulnerability, self-protection, is not simply a mask we wear, but is descriptive of human experience outside of love.

Romans 7 focuses on this universal incapacity (the dynamics of the body of death (7:24)) in a counter series to what Paul proposes in Corinthians. The “I” covets – burns with envy – but love does not envy. The “I” is deceived about the law due to sin but love rejoices with the truth. Sin is caught up in fear of death; a zero-sum game in which the self cannot establish itself (arrive, find unity, obtain life). The problem of the “I” is precisely that it is isolated in the struggle to constitute itself. “I am I,” not only describes human experience but describes a self-consumptive desire (“I do what I do not want. . . who will rescue me from this body of death”).

In I Cor 13 and Ro 6-8 Paul’s “I” is undone in a corporate identity – “baptized into Christ.” Envy, desire, and conflict are displaced by love, described as making a unity of a plurality, ultimately unifying and drawing in all creation (Ro 8:38-39; I Cor 13:13). If sin involves a dividing and alienating orientation to death (a cover up in pride that kills), then the death of Christ as a confrontation with death denial and slavery to fear of death, removes the obstacle to loving sacrifice. The love of Christ enables entry into love as we can lay down our lives in agape love as Paul, and Jesus before him, defined and modeled it.

In Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, perhaps the key story illustrating neighbor love, it is clear the religious leaders who pass by on the other side do not qualify as good neighbors. What is also notable is that the thieves are identifiable in their creating the need for a neighbor – putting the poor man in the ditch, beaten, robbed, and half dead. It is enough to note that the thieves who robbed us, though “Christian leaders,” were identifiable in that they played this role for us. “Bad neighbor” would be a promotion for those who put us in desperate need of the love of a neighbor.  In Paul’s description, the proud, arrogant, rude, those burning with envy, longing for power and position (in Corinth or the pitiful conditions of a little Bible college), may only be identified with the absence or “nothing” they generate as if it is an absolute something (Paul’s definition of idolatry).

I would name the loving Samaritans who found us, but as with all great lovers, I know they prefer anonymity. I believe though, that love has to be narrated, as one must either be the neighbor pouring the healing oil, curing thirst with precious wine, binding up wounds, or one must experience having his burden lifted, and the price paid at the inn, so as to know love. It does not matter what the original intent might be or whether it is mixed with duty or reluctance. Love is such that the performance of it is unmistakable and the truth of it requires nothing in addition, just as its opposite is unmistakable.

All gifts find their purpose in love; love fulfills the law; love is the purpose of salvation; love is the substance of life. Without love there is nothing but where it is present one experiences the summing up of the meaning of all things.[1]


[1] I dedicate this piece to the members of our little community sharing love and forging peace.

.


Discover more from Forging Ploughshares

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

3 thoughts on “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”

  1. So much I wish to ask.:

    The problem of the “I” is precisely that it is isolated in the struggle to constitute itself. “I am I,” not only describes human experience but describes a self-consumptive desire (“I do what I do not want. . . who will rescue me from this body of death).

    How would you (or WOULD you?) relate this to God “naming himself” in Genesis 3:14, “I AM?” I have always taught that an element of this is God setting himself over and against the Egyptian pantheon of Israel’s experience as the God who actually “is.” But, thinking about it this way, that our “I” is intended to be constituted in our participation in one another, could we see in that “I AM” a true “I” founded in the relationship of the Trinity?

    Also, it reminded me of a piece I wrote (somewhat bitterly, I’m afraid) last year around this time:

    https://jasonrodenbeck.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/post-easter-reflections-of-a-lapsed-minister/

    1. God in Exodus is the “I am” and Christ in John, multiple times, claims the “I am” which is clearly a claim of divinity, and the King of Tyre in the personage of satan claims the “I am.” Paul, in Ro 7, pictures disobedience, following Gen 3, as a grasp for this status which leaves us caught up in this death dealing isolation. So yes, in God’s case it is the description of a community into which we are called to participate which directly addresses idolatry in several senses. The image of the idol, like our own image, is unobtainable in its isolation and reification. This is what I spell out in my book.

      Your piece captures it. You could be quoting the explanations given to us – which was chilling in the event.

      1. The fact that those people are still there and everyone’s just gone on with their lives means that the people in charge simply don’t understand the difference between the Kingdom of God and the lies of the adversary. They’re completely lost.

        When we left Idaho, a few of the people who saw what happened to my wife expressed consternation and even anger. A few even shared that anger and their questions for the leadership and found their lies in response unconvincing and left that church.

        Others shared their anger and their tears but didn’t do any of that. They asked, “Why does this keep happening to people? What can we do about it?”

        Well, for one, you could stop pretending it doesn’t happen around Steve Moore, and the other lying ministry staff. You could say, “We aren’t going to continue putting up with this..” I told them, “It will continue as long as everyone puts up with it. But there’s no point being disgusted if you’re just going to forget about it next weekend.”

        Most stayed and it hurt that everyone just went on with their lives while we limped back across the country. That was when we stopped and visited you guys.

        A while back, the church did the same thing to one of their other ministers (someone who’d been there much longer). This proved to much for a few. One of the ladies contacted us and apologized that she hadn’t spoken up when we left. She asked if it hurt. And we told her it was excruciating.

Leave a Reply