Love Never Fails

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (I Cor. 13:7-8)

What does it mean to say that love never fails? Surely the designs of love are often frustrated. The goals unmet, the desires unfulfilled. This is true even of the pure, self-emptying love that Paul is describing here. Because to love is to seek another outside oneself, it necessarily requires a relinquishing of control. It is risky.

So if it is true that love never fails, it must not mean that love is always returned, or that the good which the lover desires for the beloved always comes to pass. Indeed, it often seems to be the opposite. Broken relationships are more the rule than the exception.

There are a few ways that love might be said to never fail. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, a character tuned to love triumphs over self-righteousness and judgement and hate. Love is transcendent. Perhaps more to Paul’s point here, love is the one theological virtue which is forever. Prophecies, tongues, knowledge, even faith and hope are goods for this time. But love is for today and tomorrow and always.

Paul’s “all things” phrases cannot but pierce someone reflecting on how they have loved. Love never despairs, it never gives up, it doesn’t grow disenchanted and fade away. The words carry their full force only as we meditate on the failures of love in our own life. This is the love that God has for us - “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”.

But it is Paul's contrast of love with knowledge that strikes me the most. Surely real, objective truth will endure? But that is not the kind that we have: “now I see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am fully known” and “when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part shall be done away”. To claim that love is greater than knowledge is to accept the hazy limits of our own knowing, and our own judging, and our own discriminating. And when we depart from love, that is what we use our knowledge of people for - as a weapon, as an argument, as a way to place people in groups, as a stand-in for the full knowing which we don’t and can’t have. Love would be easier if we had that kind of full knowledge.

This kind of love is otherworldly. It rises above all of the power-seeking and jockeying for position and self-serving that characterize human relationships. Most of us only catch glimpses of it here and there. But to glimpse it is to know that it exists, and that is enough to seek it.


Death and Easter Resurrection

You can’t really feel the force of Easter and resurrection without first feeling the force of death. This year those two were particularly juxtaposed for me, as I attended my Aunt’s funeral on Holy Saturday and along with that sorrow reflected again on the still-recent death of my own father.

When I stare death in the face I’m struck by two things. The first is the ugliness and, really, wrongness of it. Stretched, gaunt, wasting, expiring - all the good and vitality and health in a person stolen away. And it’s not as if life itself is a picnic either. Aunt Leslie had a hard life - unmarried, struggling to make ends meet, lonely, dreams unfulfilled. But with hope and a church community and family that she cared for. Death is a final end to all of her suffering, but also a final end (here, with us) to those goods.

And that finality is the second thing. Death is a horrible, crushing weight that we can’t escape, for ourselves or those we love. I don’t know how you can look it in the face, really look, and not despair at the end, the finality that cuts us all off from the world. How can we stand up under such a terrible burden? How can we know, really know that we and our children and all the goods that we love in the world are passing away and will be gone, gone, gone - and probably sooner rather than later?

This is what resurrection means: it means that death is not the most powerful force in the world. It means that life is stronger than death. If this is not true, if death really is ultimate, then we are all doomed - there is no hope, no point. The Biblical taunt - “O death, where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting?” - is the taunt of a fly in the face of a nuclear weapon. It sounds crazy. But sanity really is what is at stake. If we can be allied with a force greater than death, if we really can know that life, that Christ, that God will bring us through death to a new life forever beyond its reach, then and only then can we really stand up.


Some thoughts about Jordan Peterson

I’ve been listening to some Jordan Peterson after that interview came to my attention. He is a really interesting thinker. He gets the problem of human nature almost exactly right - the evil within all of us and the temptation to locate it “out there” rather than “in here”, the grounding we need as individuals and cultures, the imperative of living well. What makes him so surprising and (to me) interesting is that he can start from broadly Christian premises and then veer suddenly off the reservation, and at other times start from a very secular place and arrive at something that sounds basically Christian. He’s not easy to categorize.

He clearly has a deep respect for Christianity, but it seems mostly to be because he is in love with the West and Christianity formed the West. He realizes you can’t just remove it without the whole edifice crashing down, and he thinks it would be a very bad thing for the edifice to crash down. He sees a deep transcendent significance in the Bible and the way it’s shaped the culture. But when he says “transcendent” what he really is referring to is a kind of ancient, shared wisdom that embodies tens of thousands or millions of years of our trying to understand who and what we are. He has a real awe for the deep complexity and mystery and hiddenness of consciousness and for the tenuous grasp that we have on ourselves, for the way we stumble around in the dark just trying to understand who we are, never mind anything outside ourselves.

He knows that man has a nature (a point first brought to my attention by Dallas Willard), that we aren’t infinitely malleable, that there is an enduring wisdom about who we are and how we ought to live that stands like a rock above the tide of individual self-determination. He has a great respect for the wisdom of the past and rejects the chronological snobbery that thinks it can discard all that came before and build something new and better (his critique of Marxism is central here). He has some good critiques of the popular atheist dismissals of religion on this point.

He is not an ivory-tower academic. He’s been a practicing psychologist, he’s worked with people in their messiness rather than just imposed theories on them from above. And if you’ve ever seen one of his lectures he clearly cares about his students. He speaks with a passion and an urgency, because he knows that how you live your life matters and you could very easily get it wrong and if you do the consequences could be catastrophic.

His ideas about how we form maps of the world to understand it, and the descent into chaos when we find some of our fundamental assumptions violated, sounds to me mainly correct. One thing that continues to strike me about people is that when describing their dark times they will often say they didn’t think something like this could ever happen to them - “I didn’t think I’d ever get divorced”, “I didn’t think that relationship could disintegrate”. There is a part of us that gets stuck in disbelief that such things could have possibly happened. And that seems to fit with his ideas about what happens when our maps fail us.

But for all that, the solutions that he offers fall short. The advice he gives is often based on Niezschean power dynamics or evolutionary psychology rather than anything resembling traditional western/Christian morality. His appreciation of the Bible centers on its status as an ancient repository of human attempts to figure out who and what we are, there is nothing transcendent (as I use the word) about it. His attempts to psychologize basic Christian doctrines more often than not left me groaning in frustration; for example this on the trinity: “The idea of the trinity is something like the spirit of tradition, the human being as the living incarnation of that tradition, and the spirit in people that makes relationship with those two possible”. Now, I certainly think there are deep spiritual truths in the stories of the Bible. But Jordan Peterson as often as not just sounds like he’s eisegeting his own Jungian psychology back into the text.

All in all, he’s an eclectic mix of right-on and totally off-base. But he’s one of the more eloquent voices pushing back against the progressive turn that society is taking, and his unconventional approach is thought-provoking and fascinating even when it takes him to obviously wrong places. For that, he’s worth listening to.


Emotional Memory and Relationships

There are two kinds of memories. The normal recollections of past events that we commonly call memories, and also emotional ones. And of the two of them, emotional memories are the stronger. An emotional memory is when you feel again some emotion, usually a very intense one, that you felt at some time in the past. And it is caused by some circumstance that reminds you of the circumstances in which you felt the first emotion. Just a smell, a phrase, or a particular situation can cause all of the original emotion to come flooding back to you. These are pretty sneaky, because they happen without your conscious awareness. You might not even know what it was that triggered the feeling. And because of that, it’s really easy to mis-attribute such an emotional response to your immediate circumstances.

Here is an example: I had a traumatic experience in a swimming pool as a child - in fact my earliest memory involves a fear of the water. And I happen to be particularly risk-averse. One day when I was examining my panicky reaction when contemplating a major life change, I thought “huh, it feels sort of like drowning”. Like being tossed about in the uncertainty of change with nothing solid to hold onto or to be grounded in. I can look back and think of several times in my life when I let a promising opportunity go by, and I always had a reason I gave myself for not pursuing it, but really I was just valuing solidity - stability, certainty, and familiarity over opportunity.

You can see kids misattribute their emotions a lot. One of the things that surprised me about parenting was that one of my jobs was to know my kids better than they knew themselves. Most of the time they have absolutely no idea why they are upset! I had one child who would just give me an endless string of unrelated circumstances when asked why he was feeling that way; it was clear he was just latching on to whatever happened to be present before him, when really he was tired or hungry or etc.

Well, it turns out that it is not just children who do this. Most adults at most times have no idea why they are feeling what they are feeling. This is not an exaggeration. But adults are usually very good at providing justifications for why the present situation warrants their full emotional response, and such justifications are strongly persuasive to oneself. After all, we have a powerful motivation for believing them - otherwise we would have to admit that the torrent inside us, sometimes unleashed on another person, was ultimately the result of our history and not the fault of the person or circumstance which happened to push a particular button.

These emotional memories have a magnifying effect. They can turn some provocation which could legitimately be moderately distressing into the end of the f’ing world. This is why relationship conflict can go sideways so quickly; two people are arguing about the present issue with emotional responses imported from much deeper sources which fuel the conflict but remain unaddressed. I’ve heard it said that most conflict in marriages stems from an overreaction to an overreaction; emotional memories are where those overreactions come from.

I’ve learned a few strategies for surfacing and addressing these kinds of memories within the context of a committed relationship; I hope they can be useful to you as they have been to me.

The first strategy is to realize that your emotions are your own responsibility. Completely. No one can make you feel a certain way, no one is at fault or to blame for the way that you are feeling. You own your emotional response. This is the sort of thing that sounded obviously true to me when I first read it, but it seemed very difficult to apply because identifying an external cause for my emotions was such an ingrained habit.

The second strategy is to do some introspection about your own emotions. When frustrated or upset at work, home, church, etc. take some focussed time to examine the way you are feeling. Bring it before your conscious awareness and ask yourself “when in my life have I felt this way before?” Weaker emotions are easier, so start with “the guy who annoys me at work” over “the thing my spouse does that infuriates me”. You won’t always be able to identify a time, and even if you can’t it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but if you are consistent with examining yourself in this way you’ll make some surprising discoveries about yourself.

The third strategy is to use a 1-10 scale as a way to find the deeper emotions lying behind a conflict. Use the scale as a measure of distress, with 1 being mildly annoyed and 10 being someone is about to die! Just asking your spouse where they are on the scale can be really illuminating. For example, “On a scale from 1-10, how important is it to you that I put the peanut butter back in the refrigerator after I use it?”. If the answer is “8”, stop talking about the peanut butter.

In case it is not obvious: this kind of knowledge is not for justifying your own behavior and explaining why you cannot change. Exactly the opposite! We tend to take our brokennesses, even when we recognize them, as givens and expect others to accommodate them. Now, to love another person and to see them for who they are, the good with the bad, really does require making allowances for the other’s faults. But often we communicate “I require you to change because I cannot” which is neither true nor helpful. Instead, walk together. You take a step toward me, and I’ll take a step toward you, and let us continue to love each other even when we fall down and to see in each other not only the depth of our brokenness but also the bravery of our tiny steps.


A Public Service Announcement on marriage advice

There was a time when almost all of the marriage advice I heard (and maybe you can relate to this) sounded really shallow - even some advice I knew had been personally useful to people. Now, some advice truly is terrible. But many years (and years of counseling) later I realized that most marriage advice and most books about marriage assume a base level of relational health. If you are really struggling with long-standing, unresolved conflict then going on more dates is not going to help. Sharing or taking turns or doing some specific couple activity is not going to help. Reading the Bible together is not going to help. And just being told to think about your spouse differently is not going to help. When you’re staring deeply into the void that separates one soul from another, when you can’t cross it and all of your efforts to do so only widen the gap, when you are lost and stuck, that is when you realize how superficial most of our ideas about marriage are.

But I don’t mean that such things are worthless, just that there is a level of stuck-ness that can cut much deeper. If that is the spot you find yourself in, you need a trusted third party to help you see things in yourself and each other that you can’t see on your own. Counseling has been really helpful for Emily and I. Done right, it hurts - because it hurts to be willing to see in yourself desires and motivations that you don’t want to see, and because it hurts to change. I remember reading somewhere that “people will change when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing”. And I hope it doesn’t always take that kind of a crisis, but I took it as an invitation to contemplate whether hanging on to my old ingrained, comfortable habits was really worth what it was costing me.

Relationships require constant vigilance, there is no safe state. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall”, as St. Paul says. I remember when Emily and I had just graduated from 2 years of counseling, things were going really well in our relationship for the first time in years, we had both changed and grown a lot, and I thought “this is great, we’ve done a lot of really hard work, left that dark time behind, and it’ll be smooth sailing from here on out”. And then a couple years ago we went through a storm and in the aftermath of that pain and hurt it felt like we lost all our progress and wound up back where we started. It was really depressing and we just looked at each other and said “wow, we suck at this. I thought we had learned to do better!”

We were better, but it was still 7 or 8 rocky months (and some more counseling, and some more looking hard at our own hearts) before we were back to relating to each other normally. And afterward we had more sobered and realistic expectations and we knew each other better. I originally thought we would be able to reach some kind of state where we had resolved all of our conflict and could just float along peacefully. But it doesn’t really work like that, life is messy and people are messy and it won’t stop being like that, but we have better tools for dealing with the mess so that it doesn’t feel quite as impossible as it did before, and we've built up a reserve of trust.

All that to say, if you’re in a relationship and feeling stuck and despairing because the sort of things that everyone says are supposed to work aren’t working, don’t be. It just means that the change needs to happen on a deeper level than most people talk about. That is the most worthwhile level anyway. You can’t do these sorts of things by direct effort - “I’m going to start respecting my spouse more”, “I’m going to stop being mad about that thing she does”. But you can make tiny decisions to open yourself up to your spouse, even in ways that make you uncomfortable. You can seek an outside perspective. You can choose to examine your heart and consider that your conclusions might be wrong, and the story you're telling yourself about your own motivations might be too (if this seems nearly impossible you're doing it right). You can bring Jesus along on the journey, because you're so screwed up that you need the help. You can give them the opportunity to respond differently than you expect them to - so much of marriage problems is in building a tidy-but-incorrect mental picture of your spouse as a stand-in for who they actually are. Real people are always surprising you.

On the other hand, if you have that base level of trust and you're not in the midst of a storm then now is a great time to put some effort into being and living together to strengthen what you have. It’s a lot easier to do now than it is to let your relationship languish on autopilot and then wake up one day to discover a huge gulf between the two of you.


Dealing with Grief

I am much more acquainted with grief than I used to be, and now that I’m acquainted I have a different experience reading about grief. I’m going through the Odyssey again and this time I’m really noticing how the Greek’s mourned and handled mourning. Reading the descriptions I can think “yeah, I basically know what that is like” and I can enter into that part of the story much more that I have before. And I know that nearly all the original listeners could have similarly related, at a deep level, to the sorrow felt by Menelaus on learning of his brother’s murder, or of Odysseus’ mourning the death of his comrades and his long years away from home. But their mourning was not like ours, grown men and mighty warriors throwing themselves to the ground or sobbing uncontrollably in public, with no shame. Really, they knew how to mourn and we do not.

This burden that we live under, we like to think that it has been lightened by science and medicine. And we have made real improvements. But the burden is still there and in some ways the lie that we’ve softened it only makes it worse. We are not in control, we are subject to forces compared to which we are ants and grains of sand. At least the Greeks knew it!

But, also in the Odyssey is the idea of lessening the pain by forgetfulness - the release of sleep and the intoxication of wine. These are temporary and not permanent, but even so I just really find the idea of dealing with pain by forgetting about it distasteful. I mean, I understand - death and broken relationships and betrayal and evil are these crushing weights and how could we ever look them in the face and stand up under that weight? Part of my distaste might be that temperamentally I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to. I especially remember a particular counseling session where I was talking about how I hang on to pain and my counselor said “wow, you’re going to be hurt by the world”. And oh, was he right. I just hang on rather than letting go. So maybe I am just trying to turn my dysfunction into a virtue.

But if I’m going to live in this twisted, terrible world, I don’t want to have to cope by pretending it is better than it is. I want to sorrow and grieve but still have the courage to stare it in the face and know that it didn’t break me. Only that sounds impossible. As small and weak as I am, how could I not be broken?

This is not the kind of post where I tell you I’ve figured out how to do that impossible-sounding thing. But the thing that gives me hope is Hope itself: a hope in the final victory of Good over all the crud that we go through down here; a hope that Life is as much stronger than death as death is stronger than me.

I’ll leave you with a song that expresses this crazy hope, and the confidence I’m searching for.