Erich…or Elsa? Rethinking How We Define Love.

I normally do a pretty good job of keeping up with celebrity obituaries, but – for whatever reason – it completely escaped my attention that Erich Segal died over a year ago (on January 17, 2010, to be precise). I only just became aware of his death this past week when The Washington Post published an online slideshow of “Notable Deaths of 2010.”

Yes, I am well aware of the possibility that I may be revealing far too much by saying that these types of news items tend to catch my attention.

Perhaps one needs to be over 40 (or maybe even 50?) for that particular name to ring a bell, but author/screenwriter Erich Segal’s name was forever etched into my brain in the early 1970s when his novel “Love Story” burst onto the scene. According to the New York Times, it “spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list. It has sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into many languages.” If memory serves, there was at least one paperback copy floating around the Mayer home in the early 1970’s; I saw the movie tie-in book laying around our house so often that my middle-age mind is quite capable of accurately reproducing its cover artwork, even 35 years later.

If you happen to mention the title of this hugely-popular book (and subsequent film, starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw) to anyone over a certain age, it is almost certain that their response will carry with it a quote of the film’s memorable tagline: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Even as a punk kid far more prone to buying Who records and blowing stuff up than spending any time at all reading a romance novel, I remember thinking this catchphrase was completely wrongheaded. That two people who really love each other already know that the other person is sorry – thus making a spoken apology redundant – seemed to me, even as a teenager, exactly the opposite of what love relationships in the real world demanded.

Far from Erich Segal’s premise, Martin Luther famously stated that the Christian is to live out an ongoing lifestyle of repentance, that submitting ourselves to God and seeking to serve others should rightly cause us to be constantly aware of those areas in which we have fallen short. Confession and repentance, therefore, play major roles in the authenticity of our relationship with God (Psalm 51) as well as other people (Romans 12:18; Matthew 5:23-24). Even as a rebellious teenager far more interested in buying firecrackers than seeking after biblical truth, God had imprinted His truth in my heart sufficiently well that I had zero interest in watching “Love Story” – let alone reading it! – and dismissed it out of hand. (I may well have had a passing interest in Ali MacGraw by that time, but that’s an entirely different story.)

So if Segal had it horribly wrong, whereas Luther had it right, does that mean that faithfully living out the Christian life is to be marked by forever moping about, crying “Woe is me!” aloud whenever we fail others, or find ourselves unable to serve without complaint, and/or beating ourselves senseless every time a sinful thought enters the mind? Hardly. To be dragged down into utter depression by our failures, both past and present, is to make ourselves functionally useless for the kingdom purposes of Jesus. Remaining “stuck” in the awfulness of our own sins is, in fact, one of Satan’s most effective disabling devices in the life of a Christian believer (Revelation 12:10). It’s hard to love others well when we’ve got our eyes firmly fixed on ourselves – even when in repentance.

So then, what are we left with? How do we live out a life of love that isn’t hopelessly misguided by pop-culture aphorisms or mired down by self-focused sorrow?

This past Friday, author and speaker Elsa Kok Colopy spent the evening at The Crossing talking with about 90 other people about what she believes it truly means to enter into a permanent love relationship that will not only pull us out of our past lives of sin, but also open us up to be used mightily by a gracious and loving Lord. (If interested, you can find my wife Shelly’s previous blog about Elsa here.) As a featured expert in the DivorceCare recovery program, I have had a chance to review Elsa’s contributions to the series five or six times by now. The one thing that has consistently impressed me about her is the utter disregard for “what people might think” as she honestly unfolds various episodes of sin, folly and rebellion in her own life, as well as the lasting impact that these sins have had in the lives of others. Perhaps most importantly, however, she shared how God has used those very same shortcomings to work powerfully in the lives of others, all of those gifts coming in the wake of her surrender to the Person of Christ.

As Elsa herself admitted on Friday evening, it is absolutely mind-blowing that an all-powerful God would use her (of all people!) to write a book on purity targeted to teenage girls, having fallen herself so early and often in this regard. “Only a mighty, loving God could possibly redeem our own darkness in this way!” Pointing out this tremendous irony while having delivered her manuscript on purity to Zondervan just a few days ago, Elsa invited everyone in attendance on Friday evening to see these unique, unplannable events in our lives as, as she likes to say, “God kisses,” those brilliant moments when a gracious, loving, and merciful God reaches into the messy realities of our lives and tweaks them so perfectly that we get, perhaps, a small glimpse of how deeply He loves us, and what life with our passionate Creator God might be like in His eternal kingdom.

At the end of her presentation, Elsa invited everyone to help themselves to the dessert table, grab some more coffee and come back to share with others any moments from their own lives in which they were absolutely certain that they had experienced the guiding hand of the Lord, a divinely-orchestrated set of circumstances that had the soothing effect of reassuring them that they were, indeed, not alone in the universe. I actually found this to be a rather brave challenge to issue to a room filled with people, most of whom were single and at least some, perhaps, who would rather not be. As far as I could tell, though, relying on God’s faithfulness to enter into the room and pour out His Spirit paid off handsomely. People who walked into The Crossing nervous and unsure of themselves quickly entered into lively discussion with one another. So lively, in fact, that we had trouble clearing the room when the time set aside for the event had long passed.

There is a strong, obvious craving in almost every human heart for loving companionship; God created us in His image to be in relationship with others, just as He is in perfect relationship within the Trinity. True, while some among us are content and at peace with “the gift of singleness,” I think it’s safe to say that the majority of us strongly desire to share our struggles and achievements with a caring spouse. As one of the unwillingly-divorced ladies bluntly states in the DivorceCare curriculum, “I just wanted flesh…I really wanted someone to hold me, to love me, and to tell me that things were going to be OK.” People who have been plunged unexpectedly into a period of singleness can have a really hard time hearing us when we encourage them to begin a love relationship with an invisible Creator God. Having walked this path myself for over seven years, I can readily relate to that feeling, and so (apparently) could Elsa. Looking for God’s intimate, loving hand in our lives through His “God kisses” brings Him closer, and makes it more “real” to be in relationship with him, even as we also struggle with that longing for a relationship with flesh and blood.

Will we trust God with our singleness, unexpected or otherwise? Even more importantly, will we trust God with the timing of our next relationship, if there is to be a “next?” Will we listen to other Christians (such as Elsa) who have made it through dark periods of estrangement and loneliness and reassure us that the best thing we can possibly do is surrender ourselves to Jesus? Or will we instead allow our longings to effectively block out the gentle call that God is placing on our lives? Do we really believe that it is only by surrendering everything to Christ that we will find all of the desires of our heart (Matthew 6:25-33)? Maybe, as I have seen many others do, we will try to “hedge our bets” with God, i.e. throw ourselves into yet another human relationship and hope that in doing so, we will somehow find God waiting for us there, or bump into Him eventually, “somewhere” further on up the road?

Back in the 1970s, millions upon millions of people allowed their thoughts about true love to be influenced by the musings of a Yale classics professor as he shaped our society’s vision of what a perfect love relationship looked like through a romance novel. Still more of us rely upon our friends, relatives, the TV show “Friends” and Kate Hudson films to help us define what a rewarding love life should look like. Almost none of these romantic stories bear even the slightest resemblance to what a biblical commitment to another human being looks like this side of Heaven. True love, the Bible says, looks more like a solemn covenant, a stated willingness to love someone even when they are being unlovable (or even hostile). Clearly, this is how God loved us in Christ while we were yet his enemies.

So today is Valentine’s Day. Our culture would have us believe that we can only adequately demonstrate love for another by making several purchases on this day; flowers, chocolates, cards, and so forth. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with going that route, should one choose to do so. Speaking from experience, though, I can say that passing by the long shopping aisles festooned in red this time of year can feel like “rubbing salt in the wound” for those among us who would really like to be in a love relationship…but are not. Those bright-red aisles will soon be replaced with the green and gold of St. Patrick’s Day, the chocolates will have been eaten, and the flowers will be thrown out. Ultimately, every human love relationship will end, as well. Can love really be so temporary, so quick to fade? (See below.) Happy Valentine’s Day!

Psalm 136 (ESV)
“His Steadfast Love Endures Forever”

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and brought Israel out from among them,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who led his people through the wilderness,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who struck down great kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and killed mighty kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and Og, king of Bashan,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and gave their land as a heritage,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
a heritage to Israel his servant,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and rescued us from our foes,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
he who gives food to all flesh,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

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