Christianity, Love, and Hair Shirts

This is ‘newish’ thinking, and as yet only partly formed, so it may be a bit disjointed and rough around the edges.

The West in general has a problem with love; not least because, in most people’s minds it is associated, at best, with romance, and at worst (maybe) with sheer animal lust. The church has an even bigger problem (or maybe even a whole suit of problems) with love. I want to ramble around the word a bit. 

Let’s leave aside the whole romance and lust thing, at least for the moment - what is probably best described, in Greek, as ἔρως (eros) - and think about love in other forms, but particularly the unconditional, sacrificial, form of love called in Greek ἀγάπη (agapé), mainly associated with God and epitomised by Jesus’ death on the cross. Virtually everywhere English New Testaments use the word love, they are translating ἀγάπη.

But I don’t want to do a whole lot of theology, or etymology, or indeed any other ‘ology’. This is, I hope, going to be about experience, and practice.

We have a problem with a few words in English - cancer, death, and love spring to mind particularly. Cancer, we refer to as ‘the big C’ - as if mentioning the word itself is somehow tempting fate; death is a word we don’t use at all if we can avoid it - we have a whole series of euphemisms which substitute for the word itself - I’m sure I don’t need to repeat them - they’re all somewhat twee and faintly ridiculous. Love is the other word we avoid. Somehow, it’s acutely embarrassing - at least it is if you’re British. Maybe that’s because it’s associated strongly, in most people’s minds these days (and for at least the last fifty years) with sex... And, being British, we absolutely don’t talk about that!!

If I say to someone, “I love you.” then we’re instantly conjuring up all sorts of images - of sex, and marriage, and commitment, and... It’s pretty explosive - the effect is not unlike dropping a bomb into a conversation. Even people who are ‘going out’ or ‘seeing each other’ are reluctant to use that sentence, because of its connotations. It’s a serious word. 

And that’s a real pity. It’s a real pity we can’t use that little sentence in more circumstances (without, at the very least, embarrassedly hedging it around with all sorts of caveats and conditions and ways of saying ‘I didn’t mean it like...’). If we could use that word, and that sentence, in more circumstances, I believe the world would be a better place. 

And, as I said above, Christianity has an even bigger problem with love. Christians have all of the above. 

And then some more.

Just to add to the ‘fun’.

We have a big problem with ἀγάπη (agapé). That’s, primarily, God’s unconditional love for us humans; it’s the main sort of love referred to in the New Testament; it’s the sort of love we’re supposed to ‘model’ in our interactions with our ‘neighbours’ - those outside our families.

Somehow, we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner. It’s become associated in our minds, first of all with the idea that Christianity is about ‘faith not feelings’ - so that if we ‘feel’ anything whilst we’re loving our neighbour, it isn’t really love - it’s just affection; secondly, it has to ‘cost’ us something - if it’s ‘easy’ and doesn’t ‘hurt us’ somehow, then it can’t be love - again, it’s somehow less worthy... If we aren’t wearing a metaphorical ‘hair shirt’ when we’re loving others, then we’re not being Christlike.

And yet if we look at Jesus, he was indiscriminate with his love - he loved just about anyone and everyone, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. It is clear that he held great affection for Martha, Mary and Lazarus - remember, primarily, that he wept before Lazarus’ tomb - that’s not wearing a hair shirt - that’s raw affection showing itself in grief for his friend (not to mention his grief over the situation mankind is in - being subject to death). So many of the things Jesus did, when we examine his interactions with people, are marked by real affection. It’s not more worthy if you do it without putting any feeling into it - it just makes you look like some sort of emotional cripple. Really folks, we need to get our feelings involved. We need to take off our hair shirts and enjoy loving others. It’s much easier to show love to people if you actually feel love for them, and aren’t afraid to show it. Why is it more virtuous to love people without feeling it? That’s just perverse!

And we need to start some sort of revolution where the word ‘love’ is concerned. Personally, I want to be able to tell the people I love, that I love them. It’s that simple. I don’t want to have to hint at it, or to find ways of saying it, without actually saying ‘the L word’. And I want it to be okay to show my feelings - and for it to be okay for feelings to matter - because they do. It’s all exacerbated, I think, by the pandemic. We can’t hug each other - heck we can’t even shake hands (which is barely a sign of affection at all). We can do things for others - but only at a distance. It’s hard - really hard. And, personally speaking, I’m not sure whether I will ever again be comfortable hugging anyone I don’t live with. And then the words become even more important - hugely so.

Knowing we’re loved matters, hugely, for our mental well-being. And we do things to try to show one another, and say things, beating about the bush, to indicate it, without ever actually saying it - and hoping, desperately, that the person we’re talking to ‘gets it’. That’s a huge pity - it would far better, I think, if we could just say ‘I love you.’ - and each know that the other doesn’t (necessarily) mean that you’ve got the hots for them, but are just, sincerely, telling them that you harbour a good deal of affection for them. I’m sure that, being told we’re loved, and knowing it at that level, rather than just ‘suspecting’ that people may like us (but never really being sure), would have a huge impact on each of us. Not least, a lot of our insecurities and anxieties would probably evaporate. 

God bless you!

Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2021