To have love for someone must there also be relationship? Is relationship necessary to maintain feelings of love? Can love manifest itself simply from biological connection? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve been challenged in more than a few relationships. Surely Jesus had to decide how to prioritize the time and effort he invested in his relationships. During his time on earth he took on the same human limitations that faced us all. We also see first century disciples making hard decisions when it came to those they loved.
It’s a complex thing for sure. The idea and emotion of love means many things to people. To me, it means a deep emotional, affectionate attachment to someone or in terms of my relationship with my husband Steve, it also carries romantic and sexual connotations as well. But for the purposes of this article, I’d like to stick with the affectionate attachment definition.
Relationship to me implies a connectedness, communication and give & take.
In the Message Bible, Paul says in his letter to the Christians in Corinth regarding ‘The Way of Love’;
‘Love never gives up.
Love cares for others more than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut.
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first”,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of the truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.’ – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
That’s a lot to live up to; and what about those difficult relationships? What are the deal breakers in your relationships? For me, it’s lying. I have a hard time coming back to love after that. Maybe for you it’s unreliability or extreme anger. We all have something. What about those people that are in your life that just rub you the wrong way? Those that have severed your trust many times over? Those that you want to love, but have a hard time being around? Or those that you really don’t trust yourself with or feel emotionally safe? How do you love them? Jesus says we’re to even love our enemies? Really?!? And what does that look like?
I think this is where the boundaries of relationship come into play. When I look again at what Paul wrote, he draws quite a few lines when it comes to what the give & take of love should look like; what it means for a relationship. ‘Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have’ – love doesn’t deal in petty jealousies. Love, ‘Doesn’t force itself on others’ – love wants acceptance but doesn’t demand it. “Love doesn’t keep score”. A great example of drawing lines in relationships happens in Acts 15, where there is a sharp disagreement going on between Paul and Barnabas over whether John Mark should travel with them. So great was the dispute that they eventually parted ways. The Bible never clarifies who was right or wrong – but what impresses me most is that Paul speaks with great esteem of both Barnabas and Mark in later letters. In love, he did not force himself or his opinion on others, he didn’t keep score. While at the time the only solution seemed to be separation, love remained. Have you ever had someone say they’ve forgiven you, but every time there’s some new offense they verbally add it to the pile? ‘You always…’ or ‘you never…’ Love, shown to us by Paul, always looks for the best, never looks back.
Jesus, of course, was the ultimate in setting the standard throughout his ministry for what a relationship should look like that is rooted in love. One of the best examples of this is Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Mark 10:17-23
The Bible says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. He ‘got’ this guy; he saw his struggle and his heart. Yet he did not run after him when he went away sad. Jesus didn’t stress out with the fact that people might have a hard time coming to terms with who he was and what the expectations of a relationship with him would entail.
When lines are repeatedly crossed in a relationship and attempts to speak the truth in love are rebuffed, perhaps the relationship unfortunately should scaled back so that love can remain. Perhaps it is time to consider that while you still love that person, you can no longer allow the negative affects of their sin in your relationship or in your life. It is not giving up, but loving the person to point that you would sacrifice aspects of the relationship so that neither party becomes a victim of it. In the end what you are doing is protecting them from sinning against you further and protecting yourself. It’s a difficult thing for sure and you can constantly second guess whether you have made the right decision. But these kind of healthy boundaries can be healing for both parties. Perseverance is key and seeking advice should always be part of the process especially when emotions are high.
So sometimes what a person needs in order to grow is less relationship. A perfect example of this would be church discipline which can result in disfellowship. Feeling the pain that sin has caused and being outside the body of believers can make one acutely see their need for God and for spiritual growth. In a completely different way, I also see it in my relationship with my kids. We’ve all seen/been those ‘helicopter’ parents. And I’ve had my moments of guilting my kids into being a certain way for my benefit. The guilt gene runs rampant on my side of the family! But I have noticed as they have gotten older, that the more I let go, stop forcing my insecurities on them, the more they grow and mature emotionally and spiritually. Does that mean I love them any less – absolutely not!
While we’re on the subject of biological love, does family equal love? I know we all want to shout a resounding, ‘Yes!’ But when you mix in relationship, the truth is much stickier. Familial relationships can be built on experiences of love, happiness, and fun that are more often than not mixed with pain, guilt, hurt and bitterness. As we get older, time and distance put a strain on the relationship. Sometimes again, but certainly not always, familial relationships must be scaled to a healthy level and boundary lines must be drawn so that love can remain. I love my family to death, I mean how can I not? They are my family! But at the same time, they are my family! The amount of relationship that is sustained varies greatly from person to person. I wish it didn’t, I wish they were all easy. But does family equal love? I’d have to say unequivocally, yes.
And loving your enemy? Again, yes, one can, because loving in this case, does not imply relationship – only love. Matthew 5:44 says to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. You can want the best for someone, without expectation of relationship, without recording their wrongs. God help us, but it’s possible.
In the end, love by God’s design is pretty amazing. I’m so grateful as I continue to build my relationship with Him that his “perfect love drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18) making it the most amazing fusion of love and relationship there is.