There Is No Such Thing As Selfless Love

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I had an idea of a supernatural love.  It was a love that would overcome differences in ambition, personality, experience, etc.  I had imagined a spiritual bonding of two people united only in their faith, going against their natural preferences and depending fully on God.

My pursuit of this greater love came as a result of what I had considered a spiritual experience and my desire to do God’s will.  I had a comfortable life and no real desire to disrupt my secure existence, but I sought to be uncomfortable and decided to step out in faith to pursue what was impossibility to me.

After a journey of a few years (and going against the flow of advice of people who claim to have faith yet live as if agnostic) I’ve realized something about love.  First, love is not supernatural, there is nothing inexplicable about love, and my chasing after more was a waste of time.  Second, we only love when we gain from it.

Not even Jesus loved selflessly…

Altruism, or selfless love, is an idea that doesn’t work in the real world and is not even a Christian ideal.

Jesus didn’t love altrustically.  Jesus loved as an investment, in a hope that he could gain followers, and with the intent to build a kingdom where he would be Lord.  He encouraged others to love as he did as a means of gaining his favor and inheriting eternal life.  Eternal life is a really big incentive.

All sustainable love is either a repayment for something already done or delayed gratification in hopes of future gain.  We love because we owe a debt or in anticipation of receiving a return on investment.  Yes, in some love relationships there is no balance sheet kept (because it would be cumbersome and ruin the mood) and yet all love is, at some level, about self-gratification.

We cannot live separate from our own desires.  Not even Jesus had an endless supply of unconditional love for those who went against his teachings, we see that expressed in his words of condemnation in Matthew 23, and his abiding love was only shown to those who continually submitted to his will.

Now, it can be argued that this demand of submissive love is only for our own good, as in a parent’s chastisement of their child in order to get the best from them, and yet ultimately the proposition was to love me or else you die.  That isn’t altruism nor is it extraordinary or inexplicable.

What love is and is not…

Love is a feeling of pleasure we get.  This feeling is a product of brain chemistry—the result of natural chemical substances, such as oxycotin, that underlie our emotional experiences and all human behavior.  Love is something involuntary, a natural attachment we get towards something or someone attractive to us.  Love requires no special spiritual explanation.

When a Mennonite woman told me she couldn’t love me as I wished to be loved it was true.  What I was hoping for was a supernatural love, the kind that is impossible by human standards, and only possible with faith in God.  I figured that two faithful people, equally in pursuit of God’s will, would be able to overcome their own differences and ambitions.

However, what I didn’t realize, despite my sincere feelings and delusion of faith, is that my love for her was nothing special or supernatural.  Sure, I believed it was something of God and was deeply offended when people would suggest I was driven by sexual desire.  Yet, at some subconscious level, it was all completely natural and my confirmations from God all hallucination.

What made it seem bigger was what it represented as far as acceptance in my birth culture.  There are first and second tier Mennonites.  The father and family that this young woman belonged to was squarely in the first tier.  They are popular, connected and sought after because of the pleasant feelings they produce in other Mennonites.

In reality, other than my being a second tier Mennonite and therefore not as pleasurable to her senses, I’m no different from the young man who did finally meet her criteria.  The only real difference is that he will be able to continue on in his delusion.  He can go on seeing her love as something supernatural and proof of God’s​ perfect plan.

Perhaps some day he will be oblivious (like her dad) and share, to a crowd of those craving love, that his dear wife made him who he is?

Love and conservative Mennonite idealism…

All that sounds pretty negative and depressing considering the high ideals that I had for love.

I believe we prefer to frame our love as a divine mystery because it makes us feel better about ourselves.  Who really wants to think of themselves as governed by their biological impulses and base desires?

And still, when we divorce ourselves from the reality of who and what we are, we do more harm than good.  The religious culture I was born into created many unrealistic expectations in me and this idealism has played a large part in my recent disappointments.

It was actually the father (of the girl that rejected my love) who had advised me against a relationship with a faithful woman outside the Mennonite denomination citing our cultural differences.  And, truth be told, it was advice that resonated only because I shared his ideals and was seeking after a perfect little Mennonite world like his.

Unfortunately that is the bad advice many Mennonite young people have taken and, in their uncompromising​ impractical pursuit of some kind of supernatural experience, they miss out on the best opportunities for love they may ever have.

One example is the attractive single woman who asked me to blog about how to fend off unwanted suitors.  This same girl later publically expressed her deep longing for children, as if she had no opportunity to make that happen, and yet she will go on rejecting the possibilities that exist because she is unwilling to compromise her own ideals for love.

It is sad that unrealistic ideals prevent so many Mennonite young people from taking those first steps that allow love to grow and why so many are choosing singleness over sacrifice—which is a trend will continue so long as we reject what is suitable to chase after our own grandiose delusions.

We can’t develop feelings because we are too carefully “guarding our hearts” to truly love people who don’t meet our own personal standards.  That is probably why we will never be very effective as missionaries.

The love I have found…

Over the past couple years, while in pursuit of a Mennonite ideal, I had opportunity to lower my barriers and be friends with people who didn’t meet Mennonite standards.

I have found true love in the crowd of misfits on the edge and outside of the Mennonite denomination.  I loved those who, like me, were lonely and in need of a friend.  As a result I feel I’ve gained more than I have in all my years amongst my spoiled and self-congratualtory religious peers.

The family of misfits I’ve gained might not know the right things to say and do to appear righteous, but they have a heart similar to my own.  My new friends, unlike my pretty-on-the-outside religious peers, are like me in the ways that really matter and that is why I love them.

Most Mennonites, like other religious fundamentalists, will not make a lifetime commitment to those whom they consider less than themselves and are not at all like the Jesus they claim to follow after.  They can’t love me because I am not like them and I’ve given up wasting my time with them because there are many others who do appreciate what I have to offer.

The irony is that I probably have more and deeper connections formed through social media than many who have had their face on a prayer card and spend thousands to fly around the world.  In fact, I pick up the pieces for the fly-by missionaries who seem motivated by passion for adventure more than compassion for people.  We could do more staying home using social media and MoneyGram.

We really only love ourselves. We love only the people who we can identify with and can only patronize those who we do not. This is why Mennonites are bad missionaries, their love (beyond their own clique) is often disingenuous or out of religious duty rather than true humility and real identity with the downtrodden, their love for the outsider is a fly-in-fly-out superficial kind.

I have found my twin, a special person who doesn’t meet a Mennonite standard and yet mirrors me in her simple devotion to love.  It is not supernatural or mysterious, nor is it adorned with the typical triumphalism of those who always get everything they want, but it is genuine.

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Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)

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Jesus was not harsh out of hatred.

Behind his sharp rebuke in Matthew 23 was a deep love and longing for his people to hear his message, repent of their foolish pride, and live in faith.
The love of Jesus is evident in how he brings the sermon to a conclusion:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23:37‭-‬39)

Jesus uses the imagery of a hen to describe his own feelings toward those who rejected him.  It is significant that Jesus describes himself with feminine attributes—it is significant in that it shows a divine nature that transcends gender and also in the contrast it provides.  

Jesus finished a harsh message about coming destruction by describing his desire to nurture rather than judge.  His words express profound sadness and deep disappointment before ending with a promise: “For I tell you, you will not see me again until…”

Until what?

Before answering that, there are a couple​other points that can be extracted from the example of Jesus:

1) Criticism is more loving than indifference…

We live in a time when legitimate criticism is characterized as persecution or hateful.  Be too blunt or honest and pretty soon you’ll have the niceness police on your case.  Criticism feels unpleasant.  However, rebuke can be extremely beneficial to a person who is truly humble and open to correction.

The importance of receiving rebuke is mentioned in Proverbs:

My son, do not despise the Lord ’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. (Proverbs 3:11‭-‬12)

And expounded upon by the Apostle Paul:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! (Hebrews 12:7‭-‬9)

Paul says that if we are not disciplined by God then we are illegitimate and not true children of God.  Rebuke, according to Proverbs, shows love.  

Good parents discipline their children because they love and want the best for them.  They realize that uncorrected attitudes and behaviors will cause more future pain for their children than a rebuke.  Discipline, therefore, is a preventative medicine against a deeper more permanent harm.

It is easy to be nice to someone in order to avoid trouble.  In confrontation there is risk.  Many prophets lost their lives for speaking truth to power.  At very least criticism can come at the cost of loss of popularity and friendship.  As a result, people play nice for their own sake, to keep people off their case, and not out of love.

I personally do not waste my time trying to correct a person I do not love.  Why would I?

A good rebuke is not a hit-and-run attack.  No, rather it is part of a true concern for the well-being of another and a part of a longer term investment to help another person reach their better potential.  Sometimes, when an audience is especially stubborn and unreceptive, there is a need to ratchet up the rhetoric until there is a change.

2) The future is being created by us…

Many religious people are fatalistic.  Yes, they might claim to believe in “free will” or choice, but then revert to an “it is what it is” fatalism and using God’s sovereignty as an excuse.  

In Jesus we should be free—free to overcome our human limitations and able to create a better reality.  That’s what it means to created in the image of the Creator.  That’s what it means to partake of the divine nature.  And, therefore, with faith, there is agency and choice.

Those whom Jesus addressed also had a choice, and that choice is recorded in the last words of the Old Testament:

See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 4:5‭-‬6)

The “or else” in the passage above indicates two options.  Either their hearts will be turned or there will be total destruction.  History was dependent on their choice and the future depends on our choice—repent or die.

We know that many did not heed the warning and that Jerusalem was destroyed.  Many of those in the audience may have ended up in Gehenna (the literal “hell” Jesus spoke about) because they refused to hear and repent.  Many of us will follow them to our own destruction unless we choose the abundant life.

In the end, fatalism is simply another form of faithlessness.  Often when we say, “It is what it is,” the truth is that we are simply unwilling to put in the effort or step out in faith.  Life is what we make it.  The future we get is always a choice and we should choose Jesus.

3) When will we see Jesus again?

I don’t know.

That is your choice.

I believe Jesus will return in those who choose to turn, who acknowledge him as Lord, receive his Spirit and follow him. 

 Jesus gave this promise:

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:21)

Jesus longs to reveal himself to us today.

(Artwork: Stanley Spencer)

Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

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Denial is our first line of defense.  Even the guiltiest person will plea “not guilty” in an effort to avoid judgment.  And when we read Matthew 23, it is easy to assume that the stinging words of Jesus apply to them but not us.

Denial is a natural response and therefore it was no surprise if we read Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and fail to make a connection between “us” and “them.”  Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys, you know, the ones with better understanding and more complete knowledge.  How could we be as wrong as those whom Jesus condemned?

And when we do have to admit our failures we tend to deflect and downplay them: Sure, we are imperfect, we make mistakes; but who doesn’t, right?

I should know.  I was once an ardent apologist for everything Mennonite.  I believed that by God’s grace, I was born into the church denomination that best applied the teachings of Jesus—which is a sentiment not uncommon among my Anabaptist peers who have not been sexually abused, the witness of a vicious church split, or excommunicated.

Unfortunately, this assumption of our having a corner on the truth is a position built on confirmation bias and arrogance.  Every religious zealot believes that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they are standing on it.  But, unless you believe that all paths lead to God, they can’t all be right.  Likewise, our own assumption that we are right, and our ability to defend it, doesn’t make us any better than them.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

The Pharisees and religious experts believed that they were on the right path; they proudly considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and resisted his message.  It would be easy to try to distance ourselves from them, to think of them as extraordinarily bad people and deny our commonality with them.

However, if we do that, if we are too proud to consider that we could be on the wrong side of history, then we have the same exact mentality of those condemned by Jesus:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (Matthew 23:29‭-‬32)

The teachers of the law and Pharisees, like us, identified with the good characters in history and distanced themselves from the bad.  They thought they were different from their ancestors who killed the prophets.  But Jesus turns their attempt to disassociate themselves around and uses it to create a link.  He taunts them, telling them to finish what their ancestors started.

The sad reality is that the proud religious fundamentalists of Jesus’s time did not see themselves as repeating history.  They imagined themselves to be the preservers of a pure religion passed down from the prophets before them and heroes of their own story.  To them, Jesus was a dangerous and false teacher, so they wanted him silenced and conspired to have him killed.

What was so wrong with the Pharisees?

“Pharisee” has become a pejorative word in our time, and yet in the time of Jesus it was a proud distinction.  They were the devoutly religious people; they held themselves to a high standard and kept the law better than their neighbors.

Jesus once told his audience:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

It might seem odd that Jesus uses the Pharisees as a benchmark and then lambastes them later as hypocritical.  Was Jesus inconsistent and changeable?  Moody or bipolar?  I doubt it.

Actually, I believe the Pharisees were the “good people” of their time and trying their best to live righteously.  And, as people respected by their religious peers, they were not accustomed to being called out and condemned.  But, despite their diligent efforts, they were missing something and it was because of that that Jesus poked and prodded them.

The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were extraordinarily bad people.  The problem was that their success in surpassing others had made them into entitled brats who thought themselves superior to others.  Sure, they were pristine on the outside, did the right things to be regarded well, even thanked God for all their advantages, but were they living in faith?

Or were they content to simply do better than others?

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47‭-‬48)

A faithful person is not content to simply do better than others; they realize that their advantages are a gift from God and not deserved.  There is no room for arrogance when this is understood.  The Pharisees may have feigned reverence for God, but a genuinely humble person does not try to create distance between themselves and people of a social lower order.

The Pharisees rejected faith.  They were so outwardly successful that they were able to delude themselves into thinking that they could actually impress God and save themselves.  In their zealous pursuit of knowledge and religious fundamentalism they forgot one thing, and that was faith.

Are we better than the Pharisees?

Probably not.

The Pharisees knew their Scripture extremely well and lived the law more carefully than most of us could even imagine.

That said, good Mennonites have much in common with the religiously educated and traditionally-focused Pharisees.  They were middle-class businessmen—not as political and compromising as the Sadducees, nor violent agitators like the Zealots… and not too different from us.

The disciples Jesus called to follow him were a motley crew by comparison: a mix of poor fishermen, a tax collector, and other losers of their time.  They would probably not even be second-tier Mennonites and certainly not the ones we would select to be missionaries and future leaders.

However, unlike the rich young ruler, who kept the law perfectly and placed his security in his wealth, the disciples put everything down to follow Jesus.

Perhaps it is because they had less to lose?

Whatever the case, nobody is beyond hope and that is why I write.  Many Pharisees did eventually come to faith in Jesus and many Mennonites do too, despite our religious and cultural baggage.  As long as we have breath in our lungs, I believe we can be saved.

But a journey of faith must start with repentance, and I’m not talking about the ritual repentance that wins the approval of parents and religious peers, either.  We need the true repentance of those who know that outside of God’s grace, we are no better than a Pharisee.