We use the word love frequently in our lives. We say we love our spouse, our children, and even God. But we also say we love our pets, pizza, Lady Gaga, and our favorite sports team. Obviously, the word love doesn’t always mean the same thing.
As we begin the Advent season, let us reflect on the true meaning of love, love as free self-giving. Some of the ideas here are from the book Radical Optimism by Dr. Beatrice Bruteau, a pioneer in the integrated study of science, mathematics, philosophy, and religion.
What does free self-giving love mean? It can mean to give our time, attention, or emotional response to another. It can mean to share our creative gifts or part of our material life to help someone else. Self-giving love can also mean to procreate, to nourish, to teach. Bruteau says that self-giving love means to give what we are, and not merely what we have. She writes, “in order to give it, you yourself have to go along and be present—you can’t send it by messenger.”
Self-giving love must be absolutely free. According to Bruteau, this kind of love is not the result of something else. It is not necessitated by anything nor is it done under compulsion. In addition, self-giving love “is not even done for some good and sufficient reason.” This is the way God loves us—not because we deserve God’s love or we are lovable. And not because we don’t deserve it and are not lovable. God’s love does not operate in terms of “deserving” at all. Jesus himself taught this and lived this.
Remember his parable about the workers in the vineyard? (Matthew 20) They came to work at different hours, but all received the same wage. We operate under the belief that rewards are proportionate to merit. But the owner of the vineyard brushes that notion aside and replaces it with the notion of generosity—pure generosity. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also says that God’s rain falls on both the just and the unjust. And he directs us to love as our Heavenly Father loves (Mt. 5:45-48).
Looking at God’s love in this way has several implications. First, we have no grounds for thinking that God does not love us because we are unworthy. If we could just accept the fact that God loves us independent of our worthiness, we would rid ourselves of a lot of our angst. Furthermore, if we want to love as God loves, then we must disconnect our loving from the idea of deserving. I recall what the humorist Erma Bombeck wrote: “Our children need our love the most when they deserve it the least.”
What are some practical ways we can love as God loves, as Jesus loves? We can begin by not classifying people as deserving or not deserving of our love. We must also realize that our presence—and not things—is the greatest gift we can give to someone. (Hint: don’t just buy the game for your child; play the game with your child.) And finally, we must avoid turning our love into a quid pro quo contract: “I’ll help you out today, but I expect you to help me out tomorrow.”
Have you ever seen someone loving as God loves? I have. Every time I attend a wake or funeral, I see people loving in this way. Their simple presence in time of great sorrow is self-giving love. Similarly, when most young couples get married, they aren’t marrying because they have drawn up 10 rational reasons to do so. No. Their love for each other transcends logic. They are in love with each other. Period. Likewise, when a child is born, parental love gushes toward that child even though that child has done nothing to merit it. On the contrary, that baby will do some very unlovable things: cry in the middle of the night, poop on a regular basis, and cost a lot of money to raise. Still, good parents love their children in a free and self-giving way.
Free self-giving love is hard. Very hard. But it is possible. At the Last Supper Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This Advent let us ask Jesus for the grace to love others in a free and self-giving way.
Is there anything in this reflection that stood out for you? What was it? And why?
Can you give any other examples of free self-giving love?
Our music today is an instrumental version (piano and cello) of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” played by two of the Piano Guys. I hope you find it both soothing and moving…
What is your response to today’s reflection and/or music? Please respond below. We all would love to hear from you!