I love key lime pie. And carrot cake and peach cobbler and butter pecan ice cream.
Some people will say, “You don’t love things. You love people. You like those desserts.”
But, honestly, I do love them. That’s what we humans do. We love. We love people, non-human animals, places, and things.
For instance, I love:
- Gazing up at the stars from my back yard
- Smelling bread as it bakes in the oven
- Hearing frogs peeping from the bayou
- Feeling flannel against my arms on a cold day
- Kissing my dog Gracie’s smooth, black forehead
Living as a human being is loving. Our challenge is that we can love the wrong things, and we can love the right things in the wrong way.
For Lent I am forgoing dessert. My point is not to deprive myself of something I enjoy in order to earn self-denial points. Neither do I think dessert is a bad thing that I’ll try, once again, to stop indulging in.
Instead, I’m taking a break from after-dinner sweets to remind myself what kind of love is appropriate to food, to other people, and to God.
Love is a way of being in this world. How we live and move and have our being in space and time. The Bible tells us that loving is the defining human activity. We are the image of God, and God is love, We actualize our humanity by loving.
A dog will be a dog. A dandelion a dandelion. It is not in their nature to betray their doggie-ness or dandelion-ness. But we humans can be inhumane. It’s not merely that we refuse to love. But we can love in the wrong way.
Our enduring spiritual challenge—as the image of God on planet Earth—is to love what God loves how God loves it. As it turns out, loving like that is how we love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. Jesus came to show us what this looks like and to enable us to stumble, scooch, and shuffle toward that infinite goal.
The story of Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness offers us a striking lesson about what and how we love. (Luke 4:1-13)
After receiving John’s baptism, Jesus spent forty days wandering in the desert in preparation for his public ministry. He was seeking clarity about his mission.
Having fasted for the entire forty days, Jesus was understandably famished. To throw him off his game, Satan says to Jesus, “No problem. Turn this heap of rocks into a nice bag of warm bagels. That’ll really hit the spot.”
To eat when you’re hungry is a good thing. Apparently Jesus loved food. Later in his ministry his detractors called him a glutton for attending so many dinner parties.
But Jesus recognized that Satan wasn’t actually reminding him to get his nutrition. Instead, Satan tempted Jesus to reduce love to consumption. To turn to things to fill his emptiness.
That’s why Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone.” You’ve probably heard the old saying that each of us has a God-shaped hole in our hearts. Trying to fill it with things won’t work.
While that’s an important lesson, there’s another one to be learned by this exchange between Jesus and Satan. Yes, we can sometimes love the wrong things. We can fruitlessly seek spiritual fulfillment by accumulating possessions. But there’s another, perhaps greater danger.
When we think that love amounts to filling our own emptiness, we may begin to treat other people as if they were things. We look for spouses or acquaintances to make us feel a certain way. We grow resentful or withdraw our affections when they fail to meet our expectations.
Thing-love is always self-centered. The first and the last question is always, “What’s in it for me?”
There is nothing in the world wrong with loving things as things and expecting them to gratify us in way appropriate to what they are. A loaf of bread should taste a certain way. It can fill my belly and restore my strength. But it will never give my life an abiding sense of significance.
Another kind of love does this. We learn it as we follow Jesus out of the desert, onto the dusty roads of Galilee, and finally on to Jerusalem.
“Jesus commits himself to the healing of the world. He does whatever it takes to make the world whole. He feeds the hungry, mends the sick, and restores lunatics to sanity. He breaks bread with streetwalkers and extortionists, drug addicts and con artists. By costly example, he teaches us to forgive the unrepentant, to resist the violent with compassionate truth, and to give the thief who steals your shoes the shirt off your own back.” (A Resurrection Shaped Life, p. 28)
By example, Jesus teaches us to love people as people.