The Love That Is Changeless

Of late, since I’m about a third of the way through Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, I’ve been quite naturally focused on that particular parable in Luke 15:11-32.  I’ve written before about how the parable is a study of fundamental unfairness – and purposefully so – but what I’m noticing more on this current reading is the way that the story completely severs the link between actions and love.

I mean, look at it.  If we attempt to reduce this story down to a set of equations, we might end up with something like this:

Younger Brother:

obedience+duty+right actions+filial piety=father’s constant love

Prodigal:

disobedience+lack of duty+wrong actions+filial disregard=father’s constant love

The father of the parable loves his children.  Oh, he loves them deeply.  “Everything I have is yours,” he tells the younger, and throws a party for the return of the prodigal.  Moreover, that love does not waver nor change (much to the consternation of the younger brother!).  We know that the father loves the prodigal before he becomes a prodigal; he is willing, after all, to split his estate with his son despite the fact that he is still very much alive and such a request is culturally unheard-of.  And we know that the father loves the son before he hears the son’s penitence and his subsequent request for restoration: he is “filled with compassion” and runs to his wayward child before the words of apology ever fall on his ears.

The father’s love is always present.  The father’s love is always waiting.  The love does not disappear with waiting.  It is continually with the younger son who is there to receive it, and it remains continually for the one who has wandered off from it.  And so, obviously, with God: His love is there, waiting, and the only action that love requires is to accept it, to “come home” in the parlance of the story, and to remain in relationship there, to stay with the Father.

I know you know this.  I thought I knew it.  But I don’t, and here is why.  If we truly abide in God’s love in such a way, we’d have no need for other fulfillment.  How could we, when promised an eternal and abiding love that demands nothing other than that we come to receive it?  Yet I still live a great deal of my life as though that love is irrelevant; as though fulfillment on any scale is linked to my actions.  And so do you.

We do it with achievements: I am fulfilled at work if I am making progress toward something, getting bigger raises, or receiving approval for what I do.  I am fulfilled as an author if I achieve a modest version of success and if x number of people buy my book and if I receive no more than y negative reviews.  I am fulfilled in my career if I reach a particular set of milestones, accomplish a goal, or surpass previous success.

(Yes, we are eternally loved, but…)

We do it with relationships and identities: I am fulfilled in my marriage if my spouse is happy and content and we are engaged in the affectionate, warm intimacy couples share.  I am fulfilled as a parent when my child turns out to be “good.”  I am fulfilled as a friend if my needs are being met; I am fulfilled as a church member if I have a ministry that makes me happy and in which I feel useful.

(Yes, we are eternally loved, but…)

We do it with others’ approval: I am fulfilled if I am not in conflict with anyone.  I am fulfilled if I haven’t asked too much of anyone.  I am fulfilled when everyone around me is happy and pleased with me.  I am fulfilled when people like me.  I am fulfilled when people admire me.

(Yes, we are eternally loved, but…)

But, somehow, that’s never enough.

The truth is, for all that we acknowledge that God’s love for us is eternal and unchanging – forever deep, forever desiring, forever longing regardless of where we have been or where we will go or what we have done or did not do – many believers still live our lives as though our life’s fulfillment depends on a whole rotating set of external factors.  We don’t live as though the truth of God’s love applies to us in any meaningful way as far as fulfillment goes.

If God’s love is eternal and unchanging for you, and you have come to it and received it, your fulfillment is – or it should be – there.  Period.  And you are as blessed as you will ever be in spite of all that you have done or not done.  Right now, you are capable of being there in that, enjoying that, and disregarding literally everything else.  If that is the case, then the following ought to apply:

  • the job you work at where you toil away endlessly for no real recognition or intriguing challenges is not soul-deadening, because you do not seek fulfillment in it
  • the relationship in your life that just will not go right no matter how much work or effort you put into it will not break you down, because you do not seek fulfillment in it
  • the project you worked so hard on that had such little worldly or quantifiable success will not perturb you nor feel like a failure, because you do not seek fulfillment in it
  • the fact that people do not always approve of you or sometimes engage in conflict with you will not destroy your self-image or make you second-guess every choice, because you do not seek fulfillment in them

How untethered to the world we would become in so many ways if we only tethered ourselves tightly to God’s unchanging love.  How different our perspective would be!  All the things that in the moment matter so much would become so very small in the face of the love that is always there, that never stops, that longs, that watches the horizon, that becomes gleeful and giddy at your presence.

Oftentimes when I read the 1 Corinthians 13 “love” chapter, I read it to myself as a rebuke.  Here now is what love is supposed to be, I say to myself as I stumble immediately over patience, and this entire chapter is a fundamental breakdown of every single way you are doing it wrong.  And I do do it wrong.  We all do it wrong.

But I suspect that far fewer of us read that chapter and meditate on it as a description of God’s love.  If we did, and took it seriously, I suspect we’d never leave His presence.  Yet we certainly have, most of us, to go wandering about in the world and measuring ourselves by how well we perform, by what we do, by everything that we can control.  By whatever it is that we think we must do to earn love, because our feeble, wavering, small-minded hearts can’t comprehend of a love that functions in any other way.

But that’s just it.  In the end, we are not in control of how we are loved.  God loves you regardless, relentlessly, continuously, whether you are “at home” or afar, whether with Him or not.  We cannot tick off a list of boxes to make God love us more, or wear the right outfit, or say just the right thing, or plan the right sort of event. The truth of the matter is that the way we are loved depends solely on God’s character, and once we let that change our lives – once we come home, like the prodigal, to remain and receive it – we’ll be shocked by how little extraneous measures of worth matter at all.

 

 

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