Unforced Love

The Harder We Try, the Less it Happens

Amanda McMillen / 6.11.21

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit — fruit that will last — and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other. (Jn 15:9-17)

Love is the kind of thing that everyone wants, or “needs” as the Beatles might sing. It’s what makes the world go round and gives meaning to an otherwise dull and dreary life. Love is the color that animates the black and white of the everyday. But needing is one thing; getting, getting’s another (Ok Go). Jesus famously once said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another.” Now this might sound familiar: Jesus also affirmed that the entirety of the law and the prophets can be summed up in the command, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is pretty essential to whatever Christianity should be.

But as a command, we run up against a problem right away, which is that love cannot be something we conjure — we know this from experience. If I am trying to love someone, then, let’s be honest, I’ve already failed. If I have to try to love someone, then I am probably more concerned in my efforts with getting that person to like me than actually showing them love.

When we are trying to be loving, we often just say the thing that we think someone wants us to say. In the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray (i.e., Phil) finds himself in an endless cycle of repeating the same day over and over again. While doing so, he learns new information about Rita, Andie McDowell’s character, on each repeating day in order to perfect his date with her and get her to fall in love with him. For example, after learning on one date what her favorite drink is, he orders that same drink before she does on the repeating date — and it’s a weird drink. Or, after scoffing at her comment about being a French major on one date, he perfects his response with the most beautiful French accent for the next date. It’s absolutely hilarious. The entire perfect date seems serendipitous according to Andie McDowell, but meanwhile Bill Murray has been crafting the perfect date with the information from dozens of dates that she doesn’t know about. Bill Murray is trying to love — and it comes across as highly manipulative.

So while Jesus commands that we must love one another, we have come to the problem of being unable to force love. Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t end there, with a commandment. He continues on with a promise: “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit.” Jesus chose us, and called us friends, and appointed us to bear fruit of love and call one another friends. The key here is that Jesus is the protagonist of the story of love, not us. That we have been chosen — that we have been loved — is what allows us to love another. And the kind of love that God has for us is not just love given in order to save face, to seem loving, or to get us to like Him; it is simply that God actually cares about us.

When we find ourselves truly loving one another without trying, not just acting like we love someone by doing nice things because we know we should, but when we really love someone, it’s not because we are trying our hardest. Instead, love is something that happens to us. Love overwhelms us so that all we want to do is care for the object of our affection. It is a gift of grace when we are able to see past one another’s shortcomings and annoyances and love them for who they are, not who we wish they would be.

And when Jesus says we ought to love one another as he loved us, remember that that is no small statement! Jesus died for us! But Jesus is describing Gospel love as the kind of love that allows us to meet each other where we are, leveling the playing field and causing us to want to lay down our own freedoms for those of someone else. It’s the love we are given by Jesus Christ, and it’s the love that God creates in us (God being the operative word here). We love because we are loved — that is not a prescription of how we should try harder to love but a description of the reality of what Gospel love does to people when we have the security of knowing that we are first loved. That is the real-deal kind of love that we are gifted by God.

Before the command to love, Jesus also tells his followers to abide in his love. Love and abiding seem to go hand-in-hand. When Jesus say abide, he’s not talking about any particular spiritual discipline, as wonderful as those are. Abiding is a passive verb. When he says abide, he means being held the way a branch is suspended above the ground as it connects to the trunk of a tree. When we are held by God, we experience the love of God within us — loving us exactly as we are right now, not as we wish we were. That love comes from the roots of a tree whose source is endless — the roots of the tree that held the body of Christ, who died in love.

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says that when we white knuckle our way through loving others because we think we should, when we try to bring about the fruits of the Spirit, like love, we are just duct-taping fruits onto a dead tree. It’s just not the real deal when we are trying to force the fruits of love to come. That force is often pride and resentment rather than care. Instead, we can put down the duct tape and enjoy the feeling of being held like a branch by the God who cares for us.

At the end of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray has resigned himself to abiding in love. He is tired. He has given up trying. He says to Andie McDowell, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now.” In that moment, the curse is lifted and they finally fall in love. In abiding in the love he has, he is finally freed from his endless cycle of trying to control it. As Gerhard Forde once wrote: “[The gift of love] breaks into our dreary lives and just announces flat-out that the old has passed away and the new is here.”

Jesus gives a commandment, to love one another, and then he fulfills it on the cross, making friends out of enemies, and securing for us the abiding presence of God. There is nothing special that we do to conjure God to abide with us. God is here. There is no life without God. Because of Jesus, you are abiding in God with every breath. Whether we are loving the people in our lives or trying but failing to, what matters most is that we are loved by God. In whatever joy or pain this day might bring, we are being held like a branch on a tree by the God who loves us fully as we are today. With God, the “need” of love becomes something we have — forever.