Written by Geoff Colmer
In November 2019, I had the privilege of taking the funeral of a friend, Keith Roberts, who was one of those formative influences upon my life over thirty years earlier. He introduced me to a book which has shaped how I understand love: Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, by W.H. Vanstone. On that occasion, it was a privilege to speak about love as I understand it, and as I experienced it lived out in Keith’s life, informed by Vanstone.
The thing about love is that it is a lovely word that is used in a whole range of ways. I love my wife and my sons. I really love my grandchildren. I love music and there are particular pieces of music that I really love. I love Italy. I love Italian food and wine. Sometimes, someone posts on FB and the response is ‘I love it’. Now there is a world of difference between loving a person, an interest, a place, and a FB post. While all of them have something in common, the love of a person is the nearest to what love really looks like, because it makes a connection and, in turn, invites a response.
Probably one of the most well-known passages in Scripture is what is commonly known as the Great Commandment. A scribe, impressed by Jesus’ responses in what was probably a lively discussion, asked Jesus, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ And, as you know, Jesus responded by quoting the OT, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Mark 12.28-35.
Paul, the apostle, in another well-known passage much loved at weddings, writes in 1 Corinthians 13 a soaring paean to love. Both passages leave no doubt that to love, to really love, is no small thing, and that essentially to love is a verb, a doing word, an action word. It’s been said that ‘Love is as love does.’ It’s no good just feeling it or saying it, it’s something you do.
It is here that I return to W.H. Vanstone. In Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, he interrogates the nature of love and does so by setting out three marks of inauthentic love, before comparing them with three marks of authentic love.
The first mark of inauthentic love is limitation. That which professes to be love is exposed as false if it is limited. By contrast love that is authentic is without limit, and a total giving of itself.
The second mark of inauthentic love is control. When a person who professes to love is wholly or even partly in control of the object of his or her love, then the inauthenticity of love is exposed. By contrast, with authentic love, the activity of love is always precarious. It proceeds by no assured programme. That which love would do or give or express, may fail to, as it were, arrive. Love may well be frustrated. And the progress of love must always be by tentative and precarious steps.
The third mark of inauthentic love is detachment, a self-sufficiency which is unaffected in the one who professes to love. By contrast, authentic love opens itself to vulnerability, because to give of one’s self is by very nature to make oneself vulnerable.
Authentic love, true love, is a love which is without limit, which makes itself precarious, and is vulnerable. I believe that this is the nature of love that we see in God, supremely in Jesus Christ, who shows us what God is like. It is a love which knows no end, a love which walks a precarious path, and a love which becomes so one with us as human beings, that it makes itself thoroughly vulnerable. It is the love that is captured in the title of Christina Rosetti’s Christmas Carol, ‘Love came down at Christmas.’ And as I reflect again upon the Christmas story, it strikes me that there is no part of it which does not display these three marks.
It is the love, two thousand years later, which holds us, here and now, in all the mixed circumstances of our lives. And it is the love that we are called to express, however imperfectly we might do so.
This post is part of an advent series. Twenty-Four diverse voices have been invited to share some thoughts on one of four themes (Hope, Peace, Joy and Love) each day during the season of Advent. Each contributor has been given just one theme and no further parameters – they may write as much or as little in the style of their own choosing.
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