Written By Abigail Lai, Singapore
I watched the third and final instalment of The Hobbit recently and this part of the plot surprised me because it wasn’t part of the book: the female elf, Tauriel, had fallen in love with Kíli the dwarf somewhere in the story. But after an epic battle against the Uruk-Hai (a powerful race of orcs), Kíli laid slain and Tauriel sat weeping, cradling the body of the dwarf gently in her arms. She looked up to see her elf lord approaching, and cried aloud in brokenness:
“If this is love, I don’t want it! Take it away from me . . . Why does it hurt so much?”
We read in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is long-suffering, persevering, kind, and humble, but it never quite hits us that love is all these things because it can hurt. I find that often times when I give to people, thinking that I’m loving them, deep inside I secretly want something in return—affirmation, companionship, appreciation, anything. I feel hurt when my acts of love are not reciprocated with at least a word of thanks. It’s worse when I’m misunderstood. I can’t help but be bitter and resentful about the lack of trust and lack of understanding.
I wonder if I’ve loved at all?
I wonder if I can say I’ve put myself in places where I know people can hurt me. I wonder if I’ve been in places where I am completely vulnerable—places where I stretch out my hands to give and at the same time, open myself to the possibility of rejection and abuse.
I’ve realized that so much of what I call “love” is transactional. We say, “We are social beings with needs; we can’t expect not to receive anything back! How will anyone survive with only giving and not receiving?” Is unconditional love even possible? The idea seems absurd to us.
Transactional love is a love that expects something in return, even if subconsciously. We transact, we trade—affections, time, emotions, even gifts. People often “love” for as long as they are able to get what they want from the other. Transactional love can even say, “I will die for you, but . . . I really need to know you appreciate it.” It is a love filled with “but”s and “if”s, with terms and conditions. It is a love that gets tired and worn out when it is not reciprocated.
Humans are all fallible, and more often than not someone will fail us somewhere along the way—spouses who cheat, parents who abandon, friends who take us for granted. Chances are if we are to love, we will hurt. Likewise, we will cause hurt to those who love us.
Yet love doesn’t have to hurt. But on this side of eternity, love hurts because humans fail. We fail one another, and we fail God. Jesus offers us a better love and teaches us a better way to love. He loves deeply and truly, and He demands we learn to love in the same way. Jesus does not expect any less of us; He demands a love that is whole and complete.
What is whole and complete love?
Jesus gives us whole and complete love not because He needs anything back. Jesus gives Himself to us simply because He loves us. This is a love that caused Him to feel hurt, and led Him to endure betrayal, desertion, torture, and a cruel, painful death. Yet He declares: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). The cross and crucifixion, the meek laying down of one’s life—this is the picture of love demonstrated by love Himself. If we proclaim this is our God, how can we expect to love in any other way?
What then must we do?
When I complain about and resent people who do not understand me, parents who push their way, or friends who take me for granted, I reject my death. It is the act of rejecting my death that makes me dissatisfied. I refuse to die to my rights to be angry, or even to be understood. I refuse to die to my expectations of returns, of wanting to be appreciated and acknowledged for the efforts I put into loving.
I heard a friend share about his relationship and how his partner and him have been struggling to work things out. He summarized his thoughts this way: loving is dying to let her live. Loving is dying to our needs, dying to our wants, so the recipients of our love can flourish and live. Loving is dying. Love led Jesus to endure pain and suffering and death, so that we can flourish and live.
Jesus commands we love one another. Let us not think about love without also thinking about dying. True love expects to hurt, yet continues to trust and protect. Jesus made the way, He even paved the way. From our sitting down to rising up, going out to coming in, Jesus shows us perfect love and draws us close to choose the same. As German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer understands: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
Can we die?