This is the third post in a series on how following Jesus transforms our relationships.
My wife Joy and I spent our first year of marriage in Germany. I had received a grant to research my dissertation at the Ruhr University and she enrolled in German studies there.
We committed to speak only German in public. Joy is very studious. She thought this was a great way to learn to speak German like a native.
I was a newlywed. Since speaking only German in public would be quite a strain, it seemed the perfect strategy to spend lots of private time at home with my new bride. I didn’t actually have speaking in mind, if you get my drift…
Joy became a German translator, interpreter, and teacher.
Apparently all that time speaking in public wasn’t such a strain for her after all.
At any rate, we became friends with several students from China while we were there, as there was an exchange program between the Ruhr University and Tongji University. Some of them were fascinated by our Christian faith.
One woman in particular pressed us about love. “You say you love everybody. How can that be? You can’t love everybody! You love your family. Close friends. You can’t love everybody.”
After being clear that we weren’t talking about romantic intimacy, we readily admitted that loving our neighbor is a moral ideal and that we weren’t claiming to feel all warm and fuzzy about everybody.
Love, we explained, was an act of will. It has more to do with seeking another’s well-being than having warm affections, we said.
Feeling very satisfied with myself, I explained that Christian love is a devotion to justice, not a mere emotion. Our Chinese friend remained unimpressed.
As I look back, it occurs to me that she wasn’t questioning the extent of our ability to respect the dignity of others or our desire to be just in our dealings with everyone. She was challenging me to look more deeply at the nature of our most intimate relationships.
Loving another person is hard work and time intensive. Caring for aging parents and tending to little children—woven into an already full workday—leaves precious little time for a spouse, much less anybody else.
If you go about trying to love everybody, you might just end up loving nobody. At least, not loving them very deeply or very well.
Intimacy requires fidelity.
You cannot love every man or woman like you love your spouse. You cannot love every child like you love your own children.
This is not just a matter of how we might happen to feel about them. Spending time listening and working through conflict and planning for the future with your husband or wife is time you cannot invest elsewhere.
Driving your children to soccer, helping with homework, planning birthday parties, and arguing about cleaning their room occupies a space in your calendar that does not readily allow for multi-tasking.
A generalized respect for the elderly is no substitute for sitting with your mother as she slips into the fog of dementia.
There are lots of books and articles written to council us about how to get close without getting hurt. They tell us about recognizing who can be trusted and drawing healthy boundaries. In other words, they belong to the genre of romantic self-defense.
This is completely understandable. Many of us have been hurt in our most intimate relationships. Those wounds linger and they can make us very wary of investing our hearts in other people. Nobody wants a broken heart.
In fact, at first glance the book of Proverbs sounds as if it advocates precisely this kind of love strategy. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)
But on closer inspection, Proverbs teaches us that guarding our heart is less about protecting ourselves from those who might hurt us than protecting ourselves from our own tendency toward infidelity.
Again and again the writer of Proverbs councils us to steer clear of the adulteress and to choose wisdom instead.
To put that another way, the adulteress represents a way of relating to others. By belonging to everyone, she belongs to no one. She is unfaithful.
Fidelity is the commitment to give yourself reliably to another. You save yourself by guarding your time and your energy. You guard your heart in order to give it to the one to whom it’s promised.
While some do commit adultery, most of us indulge in infidelity in apparently innocent, even virtuous ways. We work long hours or volunteer for worthy causes.
But that can mean that we are absent for the small tender moments with our spouse or the daily discoveries and heartbreaks of our children. Even when we are physically present, we can be so exhausted or distracted that our hearts are somewhere else.
Wisdom guides us down a different path entirely.
According to Proverbs, we can give our spouse, our children and our parents their due by putting our primary focus where it belongs. As it turns out, that focus is not to be on them. Instead, we read, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10)
If we make any human being the center of our focus, before long we lay upon them the burden of justifying our existence. No one can bear that sort of weight. After all, it turns us into controlling, anxious nags and helicopter parents.
Soon enough we see the flip side of that coin. We resent the ones we love for exhausting us or for refusing to appreciate us properly or for failing to thrive in the ways we demand to justify all that energy we’ve been pouring out.
We guard our hearts first and foremost by being faithful to God. We do this as a response to his relentless fidelity toward us. Our lives are already justified by his love for us. That’s what happened on the Cross.
Now we are free from the fear that drives us toward infidelity. That fear is this: we are not the kind of gift that somebody else would really want. So we have to make ourselves something more. We have to justify ourselves.
On that path, we’ll never give ourselves away fully to another. There is, after all, always one more achievement to attain and one more person to impress. One more thing to give ourselves away to.
Because of the Cross, we don’t have to justify ourselves through our achievements or by winning the approval and admiration of other people. We are already a gift worthy of giving away to someone we love.
It is true that the love we give away can be rejected or betrayed. Wisdom does not prevent broken hearts.
Instead, wisdom teaches us to guard our heart by giving it first to the one who has given his own heart to us.