This may be because of the time I spent reading things with heavy Buddhist undertones, but I have come to see more and more that the source of all suffering I experience is love. I mean, circumstances only affect me because I care, right? If I did not love my body, I could be hurt and feel pain, but I would not really suffer with that. If a stranger dies and I have absolute apathy for him, I will not suffer with it. On the other hand, the more I care, the more I love, the more I hope and become attached to something, the more I suffer when I lose it. Even if it is my own pride, my love of self.
According to Jesus of Nazareth, as a first century Jewish rabbi, all religion that is worth anything is summed up in two commandments: love God with all of your everything, and love your neighbor as your( )self. This is pretty radical, and Christians have had a really hard time, specially nowadays, dealing with what that means. We have become very much hedonistic (hedonism is a way of life where you make choices based on the most pleasure and least suffering possible), which is a great philosophy if you want to live as an individual and just take as much out of life as you can, but it does not work well with Jesus commandments of love, because his commandments demand you to choose to suffer.
Jesus’ teaching was radical, and I have heard a lot of people distort it in order to moderate it. We want to make Jesus’ words more palatable, make it nice, something that is not the kind of thing that gets you on a cross at the end of your teaching career. It turns out, however, that people did kill him for his words, and so, in His honor, I will not be content with a moderate and safe interpretation. I am very sure Jesus meant what He said, not something else. Read the four Gospels and you will see the way he shows what it means to obey the two greatest commandments, but I will try to unpack it a bit here:
To love your neighbor as your( )self means to shift the center of your life from your self – you always see, experience, reason and decide things from your perspective, for your benefit – to your neighbor. That is what love is: this foolish willingness to sacrifice your own comfort and safety for the sake of other people’s good (their good, not your own nice feeling of “look, I’m a good person”). Imagine that in reasoning how your decisions affect you, you reasoned about the way it affects others, and that mattered just as much?
You see, if there is one thing God loves or cares about on this earth, it is people. Why do I say that? Because people are the one thing in this creation that He will keep for eternity. People have more value than anything else we know of, and so, as someone once said, love people and use things, not the other way around. I believe that if you love God (the first commandment!) you will love what God loves: people (the second!).
So in a way, Christianity does have a taste of hedonism: in loving God, you are loving that which is infinite and cannot be lost, that is an endless source of joy that cannot be taken away. The problem comes with the second commandment… I have met several Christians, friends, who when they start suffering because they cared for someone, start wondering if they are loving that person too much. After all, if I should have endless joy with God but I am not feeling it, I must be loving him less in order to love something else, no? There is a big problem in this reasoning: why should you feel guilty for loving, which is the highest Christian virtue? Having some level of care for someone but being able to be unscathed is just fondness, or duty, but not love. Love dies. Jesus never said “love God at the expense of other things”. Even though He told us to love God with all we have, he also commanded us to love our neighbors, and our enemies, and assumed we would already be loving our family and friends. The second commandment is not optional, and it does not contradict the first, it just happens that, yes, it includes suffering. It is ok.
Please allow me to bring this closer to home… I hate safe, hesitant love, because it is never really love. It makes compromise, but never the kind of free sacrifice that does not keep record or demand a return. I agree that living that way is just stupid. You become prone to get hurt, prone to give too much of yourself, too much of your time, too much of your care, for people who will most likely not appreciate and will end up hurting you. Before, I did these things out of naïveté, and I hated it: After getting hurt by people a few times, I thought “I should stop caring so much. I should start giving no f*s and live my life thinking about myself first. It seems to be what everyone else is doing”. Who has not heard “think of yourself first, because if you don’t nobody else will”? It hurts too much to care for people, after all. I am sure you can relate. What surprised me was that in the hardness and safety I started building around my heart, I started dying inside too. By avoiding suffering, I was also avoiding all joy: after all, people will only make you happy if you care about them. Without love there is no more dark, but also no more light, it is just blinding grey.
Here is where ol’ school Jesus’ Christianity gets crazy: As I thought about how much actually loving people sucks, I remembered my savior, the transcendent Son of God who needs nothing and nobody, the Creator who writes down laws of nature we are still trying to decipher – I remembered that He, because of love, became a poor man, and spent that life teaching and serving people He knew would kill him in the end. Ultimately, He laid His life down so that sinners could approach the Holy Almighty God and be absolved of their sins. He did it so that you and I, sinners, could breathe in God’s universe. I remembered that Jesus got hurt because He loved me as himself. He loved us and He died because of that. He was stupid by all human standards, I mean, seriously… God, You don’t need any of us, yet you choose to come down and love us like that? And to boot, You decided to make it a covenant, a contract, and keep faithful to it for the rest of eternity. Talk about not being afraid of commitment.
Yet that foolishness was wiser than we could fathom, it brought beauty and life to our brokenness in a way that we could had never imagined. Like Jesus said, in keeping your life you will lose it, but in giving it, you find it (Matthew 16:25).
I cannot save or rescue anyone for eternity. I do not know of a situation where my death could benefit anyone (some people do, it’s called martydom). Yet I can abdicate my comfort, give of my time, give of my finances to my neighbor in need. I can take longer to arrive home and exchange a few words with the poor old man who has lived far longer than I have, probably worked far more than I have, and is humiliating himself begging in the metro… Even if I gain nothing out of it. I can talk to the socially awkward. I can listen to the one whose problems make me uncomfortable. I can forgive and bless those who do not deserve it.
I can be foolish, because He was foolish for me. The beauty of it is that it is no longer naïveté, but choice. I can choose to live as if I still had my innocence and believe in the best in/for people, be a hopeless romantic, hope until the end, die to my self so others may live more fully, even when it hurts, because the God who is writing this whole history did those things first, and loving like that is the only thing that actually makes sense doing. Everything else is grey.
Sure, move on when things are out of your control. But do not regret having loved, even when you think that it was too much: You actually cannot love anyone too much and still live. Love for the other (not self, not things) is always worth it, because it is how we were created to be.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. …And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”