Or is it? Is what we commonly call "love" really love, or is it a cheap imitation of the real thing?
St. John the Apostle defines love for us in this way: "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). The Apostle Paul likewise explains: "But God commendeth His love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:10).
These two verses set before us the stark reality that love is measured not by how it makes us feel but rather by what it costs us. Very often our attempts to "love" others are really guided more by what we think we will get back rather than how the other will benefit from our loving actions.
The deal we make is simple: "If I do this, buy you flowers, take you out for dinner, say nice and kind words to you, then you will respond to my love by being nice to me, by sitting romantically with me by the fire, by being affectionate, etc." Whatever we want, we think we can get by showing "love."
How we respond when we don't get back what we want after we have shown "love" reveals the true nature of our actions. If we become angry, bitter, resentful, hurt, depressed, manipulative, etc., then we have not truly loved, but rather have used love to serve our own purposes.
While He was on earth, the Lord Jesus attempted to reveal to His disciples the true nature of love both by His actions and through His words. "When you throw a dinner party," He instructed them, "do not invite those who can return the favor by inviting you back to their house for an equally delicious dinner. Instead, invite the poor, the maimed, the homeless. Reach out in love to those who cannot repay you. Then you will know the true meaning of love."
Of course, Jesus does not mean that it is wrong to buy our wives flowers, or to give our children and friends gifts. Jesus is using this example to drive much deeper. He is addressing His words to the deep sickness of our souls. He is attempting to throw light on the deeply ingrained self-love that permeates every one of our thoughts and actions. The great tragedy of our human existence is that we care far too much about ourselves. And we expect far too much from those who are close to us.
Giving to those who cannot give back is an important part of our spiritual therapy. So also is giving anonymously. Giving without expecting anything in return, refusing to become angry and bitter when we don't receive back after we have given, is also very important. Each one of these actions breaks the "deal" implicit in most of our social interactions. Each one frees us from preoccupation with what we will receive and liberates us from the chains of self-love.
"You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free," Jesus promised. The truth is that God so loved that He 'gave.' The truth is that while we are yet sinners, Christ died for us. The truth is that we love because He first loved us.
Each one of these statements opens the door to the experience of pure love, precisely because it reveals to us the nature of love. Someone once said that love is finding joy in bringing joy to the other. Love is embracing the other, giving to the other without expecting or requiring that the other give anything back. Thus, love is freedom. There is no greater bondage than preoccupation with self, and there is no greater freedom than to be concerned only with the other. And, with this freedom comes the incredible joy of knowing love and being united to the One Who has revealed Himself to be Love.
As we look at the lives of the saints who have walked on this earth over the last 2,000 years, we find in them this fundamental characteristic: they loved completely and freely. They gave themselves over to the service of their fellow man; they found their joy not in manipulation, not in social contracts but in the complete abandonment of self. They gave themselves over completely to Love and in losing their selves they lived the fulfillment of Christ's words: "He who saves his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt 16:26).
The mystery here is very deep. It is explained beautifully in the following words:
"When one loves, expecting nothing,
One has the power to forgive anyone anything.
Therefore the Way, Who is perfect love and loves perfectly,
And Who came to earth out of love,
Came with power to forgive all people all crimes.
This was a gift He offered up,
But it can be received only by him who himself loves,
And thus forgives.
For when one loves, expecting nothing,
One will not only forgive everything
One will be forgiven everything.
Of those who love much, said the Way,
Much will be forgiven.
But of those who love little,
Little will be forgiven."*
*(Hieromonk Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao, Valaam Books, 1999, pg. 156).