A child needs to be loved. Obviously.
Children experiencing love are on the way to becoming whom they are meant to be. They develop self-esteem, confidence, resilience, and the many qualities we identify as healthy in human beings.
Poorly loved children can be known by the paucity of these qualities. Inadequate love in childhood can result in life-long emotional deficits.
One of the dismaying things I encountered in a career in child protection was the parent who had a child for the purpose of being loved, who expected an infant to give him or her the love they craved. It was unrealistic, and dangerous for the child.
These were adults still seeking the love they had needed in childhood, who struggled to pass on what they had not experienced. No one can give what they haven’t received.
An adult needs to be a lover.
Perhaps not so obvious, but adults need to love to become whom they are meant to be.
The ability to love is probably the defining element of human adulthood. Adults deficient in this are not inwardly mature even though presenting as fully developed.
The love I mean is not the sort that concentrates on your own benefits from relationships, the advantages and satisfaction you get from others. It’s the kind of love that will sacrifice to promote the other, having the good of that person in mind ahead of what you get for yourself – especially when there’s no feeling of natural liking.
Christianity adopted the Greek word agape (ag-up-ay) to embrace this meaning.
The word ‘love’ is commonly used to mean many other things – from liking something, to admiring, to friendship, to romance, to sex. Agape love may include any of these, but goes beyond to stress the selfless, sacrificing style of love displayed by those who go out of their way (and out of themselves) for someone who cannot or will not return their generosity. Parental love for a severely disabled child very clearly typifies this.
So, why do adults need to love generously, selflessly, fully?
Because that’s where fulfilment lies. Loving, forgetting self while engaged with the needs of others, provides us the experience of knowing ourselves at our best and realising, ‘Yes, this is the real me. I was made for this, nothing less.’
This, I believe, is why Jesus commanded us – yes, actually ordered us – to love. He was insistent, not only for the benefit to others, but for our own very best outcome. He wanted our complete fulfilment. His ultimate word on the subject at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel was the command to love one another as he loved – to be like him in service, and so also in fulfilment.
This was just after he washed the feet of those who would betray, deny and desert him. It was just before he sacrificed himself and died for them. He set the bar very high, and told us to love as he did.
Jesus knew what he was about. He knew – from his own experience of agape-love as God-made-man; as humanity’s designer and maker; as the human blueprint and model – that the only way for us to share his completeness was by loving. Because we impulsively and doggedly think we will complete ourselves and find happiness in self-centred activity. Jesus insisted we turn around our thinking and behaviour, and love selflessly.
Jesus could not command us to be loved, and we can’t just decide to be loved. But we can decide to love. It is an ability we have been given. It is in our power, by God’s grace. And it is the one thing necessary for us to do. We would not have been commanded if we couldn’t choose to love and didn’t absolutely need to.
So here is the consummate command. Love! Not a random, senseless, despotic, imposition by a capricious deity, but rather the ultimate teaching directive from God who is love, who creates us in God’s image and likeness and who knows that agape, and nothing else, will provide fulfilment.
Our ultimate destiny – eternal life already underway – is as lovers. Heaven surely consists in giving love and being loved. When everyone loves, everyone is loved.
Best to heed that ‘commandment’. God is pleading rather than imposing. God is beseeching us to embrace our only path to fullness of life. God, the Lover, knows.