Two Faces of Love

Return of the Prodigal Son RembrandtI have believed for a long time now that love is an absolutely crucial, core element of Christianity.  All true spiritual life, growth, and practice must in some way be grounded in, arise out of, and flow towards love of God, self, or others, though ultimately towards God.

However, having spent the last several years working with Millennial teenagers, I feel like I have to scramble a bit to reshape or at least clarify my take.  It’s not that I’m wrong, exactly.  It’s more that the kind of love that I need, what I normally view and describe as love, isn’t what this group as a whole seems to need.  Many individuals within it, absolutely, but many not.

There are, perhaps, two faces of love.  The one seems to be a more maternal face, an unconditional, nurturing love that is gentle and tender at all times.  It is a nurturing type that holds, comforts, and assures.  The other seems to wear a more paternal face, one that encourages one forward, urging the loved towards better and better things.  This second kind of love, while still unconditional, can feel demanding because of its consistent push towards choosing what is good.  The first says, “I love you no matter what.”  The second, “I love you, and wouldn’t it be good if you did this or went there?”  Sometimes, when the loved is reluctant, this can look harsh and punitive, and sometimes it is, but it’s because the lover cares enough to push one towards the good.  “I love you too much to let you make that mistake or fail to engage with this good.”

Culturally, this age seems to have stressed the first as the only or primary kind of love.  The difficulty is that this love has a more stationary feel to it.  People do not feel the encouraging and urging and even commanding of the love that pushes one towards the good, so they don’t move.  Why should they?  They’re already loved, or so their hearts generally believe.  Or, perhaps worse, their hearts believe that no real good comes of taking action.  Where the first face of love has a feel that is still and unmoving, the second has a sense of motion and action, engagement with the world, but because it is missing, they stand still.

It seems that I can no longer lay out spiritual formation by beginning with a description and foundation of love the way I generally conceive of it.  But I find that it is difficult to present this second face of love, this motion and engagement with the good, as something that people are drawn to.  They tend to dismiss it as too much work or not worth it or simply undesirable.  Now what?

Of course, was I any different?  When I first heard love as nurturing and holding, did I receive it immediately?  No, I had my own tendencies to push it away.  My reasons for not accepting it are far different than “too much work” or “not worth it”, but I had them.  So maybe it’s not that different.

It seems that the manner in which love is presented depends on the person, and the manner in which they resist it, and we all do, is likewise variable.  But both (if you truly can boil love down into two varieties) are necessary and integral parts of love, and both are aspects that we all need at different points in our lives.  Two faces on the same coin…

Still, I’m somewhat unclear on how to deal with this.  The essence of the gospel is that we are loved and that God has already taken care of our needs, but that’s what people of this age seem to have already experienced at a surface level, so they don’t feel they need it.  The only solution I know is to take them deeper, but why would they be interested in going there if the surface seems fine?

Perhaps I’m just dealing with teenagers, and it’s not quite so extreme as I’m making it out to be.  Perhaps in time these teens will mature and grow beyond their irresponsibility.  I hope so.  But in the meantime, I still feel like our culture is overall dismissing this second face of love much of the time.

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