Love Lingers at a Locked Door

A Valentine’s Day Themed Reflection for Those Who Don’t Live in a Fairy Tale.

Ian Olson / 2.11.21

Does love make everything easier? There are enough songs that tell us this is the case, and the more we repeat their choruses to ourselves, the easier it is to believe it. “Love is an open door,” Anna and Hans sing in Frozen and the phrase rings in harmony with our experience of discovering another who oscillates at the same sympathetic resonance as us.

Love can be an open door at times — most of us have had just that exhilarating feeling. But is this all love is, if it is real? The irony of this song, of course, is that Hans is deceiving Anna: he is only giving the appearance of doors being flung open to honesty and fulfillment, luring her in through those doors to accomplish his own selfish objectives.

The sentiment is true as far as it goes, but if it is clung to as a guarantee of what must always be the case, it becomes a half-truth. And a half-truth can break us just as thoroughly as an outright lie can. Because the end of both is the same: we painfully discover the object of our faith can’t hold the weight of what we’re laying on it.

When we survey the events of our lives, we can recognize that love actually complicates things and makes life much harder. Not exclusively, and perhaps not even predominantly, but regularly. Love is sometimes resisted or rebuffed. Or the reciprocal trajectory of love’s gifting is recognized but rejected. To love is an overture to be hurt.

We who have an addict in our family, or a spouse who has wandered, a prodigal son or daughter, or a special needs child with violent tendencies, understand this in an especially pointed way. And we who have been these things apprehend it in a painfully concave form. But the cost of loving someone is always steep, even if circumstances never become as dire as these. Our capacity to care for others is bound up with our openness to wounding and manipulation. We can’t opt for one and not the other. That is the admission fee we are always implicitly paying.

Love is committed to the loved one’s good, however unfocused or only partially glimpsed the vision of that good may be. Love catches sight of it and can’t let go of it. If it could let it go, it wouldn’t be love (Frozen pun intended).

And therefore love laments the courses chosen by the loved one. Love often doesn’t comprehend the loved one or the trajectory they are taking. Love howls at its powerlessness to change the other’s decisions, to bring them back from the brink, to abandon the things that wound them and degrade them. Love writhes because it binds the lover to that pain. It hurts like a stinger deeply embedded in your flesh, connecting you to the actions and outcomes of another.

Love waits. Love knocks. And it waits again.

Life isn’t worth living without love. It is little more than a long, slow death if love isn’t a part of it. But the choice isn’t between love or death. To love always means dying to self and living another’s death. Love doesn’t stave off death: it transforms it so that it is not meaningless.

Following his return to Christian faith, W. H. Auden became dissatisfied with what he saw as the platitudes of his poem, “September 1, 1939,” especially in one of its culminating lines, “We must love one another or die.” When the poem was included in his Collected Poetry six years later, Auden had that section deleted entirely. Ten years following that, however, he allowed it to be reprinted in an anthology but changed the offending line to, “We must love one another and die.”

Critics have famously complained of the meaninglessness of this revision but have missed the substantive change brought about by this one little word. The contrastive “or” of the original phrase captured the urgency informing Auden’s composition as war was breaking out, but the gospel illuminated the woeful inadequacy of a glib call to love another as if we can make it out intact and in control in the end.

Because this isn’t an option if it is love that compels us. God is the exemplar of and the fountain from which our frail loves find their source and their guide. And he proved his love for the human race by dying on our behalf while we were yet his enemies (Rom 5:8, 10).

That may sound like sawdust trail blather, and whenever it isn’t epitomized in costly ways, it really is little more than that. But however glibly or unlovingly it may have been delivered to you before, that doesn’t nullify its truth. 

This is borne out by Mary, for whom the birth of her son would also be a sword piercing her soul (Lk 2:35), who would cling to her son’s words even when she did not understand and would be shattered by grief as she cradled his dead body. It was borne out by Peter, who swore he loved Jesus and when he was old stretched out his hands and was led where he did not want to go because of that love (Jn 21:18).

Love is a giving “where the giver strictly coincides with the gift,” Jean-Luc Marion writes. “Love gives itself only in abandoning itself, ceaselessly transgressing the limits of its own gift, so as to be transplanted outside of itself” (God Without Being, p. 48). And nowhere is this more fully demonstrated than in God’s coming near to his recalcitrant, self-destructive creatures as one of them.

He comes to his own to bring them back to the one who loves them with such prodigality, such fierceness, that he takes their doom upon himself and continually offers his love — his very self — over and over and over again in spite of the doors slammed in his face. He will not be who he is apart from his image-bearers. And so he stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3:20).

Sometimes love unlocks a door, and it opens onto serenity and wholeness. Thanks be to God. But other times love approaches the door and finds it will not give. But it knows who is on the other side and can’t give up on them. It doesn’t surrender its object in spite of the pain. It is prepared to help carry the other’s cross. It may cry out for help in carrying its own. But it persists. Love lingers at a locked door.