Thursday, February 08, 2007


In his response to my comments about "tough love" in my previous post, David observed that love is more than merely "letting one alone," an important point to keep in mind as we note the broken lives and shattered faith that the "tough love" approach leaves in its wake. Just as there's nothing loving about using emotional and spiritual blackmail to force others to submit to your will, so it's no more loving to be so passive as to effectively be apathetic.

Where does the balance lie, then? As with anything else in this life, there's no simple answer. Just as each person is unique, so loving them will require a unique approach. There are characteristics that loving relationships hold in common, certainly, but they provide us with little in the way of formulas.

There is a time to express concern, but there's also a time to back off. Listening to the other person's perspective is at least as important as expressing our own. No matter how certain I am that the other person is making a mistake, they must ultimately be free to make that mistake. I may need to establish boundaries to protect myself and my other loved ones from the consequences of my friend's actions, but by committing to support him as a person regardless of what happens I'll be in a place to help him pick up the pieces afterward, if necessary - precisely when he needs me the most.

We could debate endlessly about where one draws the line, but that's getting into areas of wisdom and discernment for which there are no simple answers. In terms of love it boils down to unconditional acceptance of the other person. Unconditional acceptance is a costly thing to give, since it forces us to set aside our own priorities and sometimes even our own legitimate wants and needs for the good of the other person. But if we truly wish to follow the example of Christ how could we do any less?

The problem with "tough love" is that it places the giver's agenda ahead of the other person. That agenda may be cloaked in the guise of proclaiming what God wants for the recipient, but it's ultimately centered on me - what *I* think they need, how they can please *me* (since I'm the one defining what will please God), how they can assuage *my* fears for them. If they fail to live up to *my* standards, I protect *my* sense of holiness by cutting them out of my life.

Ultimately, only God can know what's truly best for any individual. Deferring once again to the wisdom of JRR Tolkien, Gandalf, in a similar situation, gave this advice:

Frodo: It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him [Gollum] when he had the chance!

Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

The parallel isn't exact, of course, since most of us will never literally kill another person, but in the situation in question Bilbo would arguably have been justified in ending Gollum's life, and his failure to do so left Gollum free to cause a considerable amount of misery for others. And yet if Bilbo had killed Gollum, it's almost certain that the One Ring would have ended up in Sauron's hands.

In short, no matter how noble our intentions, we do not know what consequences may result from our forcible intervention. It is at this point that the fundamentalist's restrictive definition of freedom creates a conundrum: we may genuinely want the best for the other person, but by blackmailing them into accepting our version of what they can and cannot do we may inadvertently prevent them from doing the right thing. It may even be that I'm largely right about what the other person needs to do, but if I force them to do it prematurely it may become the wrong thing to do.

Unconditional love liberates its recipients to do the right thing. Fundamentalists think that they must put conditions and limitations on love to motivate others to do the right thing, but it's only when we know that we're more valuable than any thing, doctrine or agenda that we're capable of properly valuing ourselves, and thereby free enough to examine all of our options and discover what is truly best. It doesn't guarantee that I will do the right thing, but at least I have a chance of eventually getting it right.

I feel like I haven't said much of anything in all of that; there's certainly little I can offer in the way of concrete formulas. But then again, it's our desire for easily defined absolutes, for formulas that reduce individuals to stereotypes, that's created much of the mess we find ourselves in. Unconditional love is very simple in a sense, yet in practice it's one of the most difficult, costly, complicated, painful and time consuming endeavors we could undertake, with rewards that we may not realize in this lifetime. No wonder it's so rare.

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