Offering a Love Free of Expectations

If I go to the great trouble and immense bother of offering love to someone – in any form – my all-too-natural inclination is to expect them to “respond appropriately,” and of course this is entirely consistent with the impoverishment of the typical human heart. Accordingly, then, when the object of my affection does not respond in a manner consistent with my preset expectations, there is present a strong temptation to 1) withdraw that love, 2) pull back somewhat, 3) decide that showing love to that particular person was “a mistake,” or perhaps all of the above.

For example, if I offer comfort and solace to someone suffering with alcoholism, my natural (unspoken) expectation is that they will “get their act together” and sober up within a few weeks…perhaps a few months, at most. If I pour myself out in the service of someone recovering from a particularly appalling divorce, it is my (again, unspoken) understanding that the person I assist through this difficult season will not repeat the myriad stupid mistakes that brought him to the Well of Pain from which he now drinks.

There are two serious mistakes that come deeply embedded inside a love offering wrapped up in our human expectations, though. One, anyone alive for more than 10 minutes knows full well that sinners are exceedingly prone to repeating their mistakes over and over and over again, so tying our love to some standard of human performance/desired outcomes is a recipe for burnout and heart-killing cynicism. Perhaps more serious, however, is the deepening conviction that Jesus does not teach us to offer love to one another “on a contractual basis.” He, more than anyone else who has ever lived, knows full well what it is like to offer love to hard-hearted human beings who stubbornly refuse to return it, and yet this is exactly what He calls us to.

It is with these thoughts lodged firmly in mind that I reflect upon my experience with Wendell Berry’s novel, “Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself.” As the extended title implies, the book purports to be an autobiography written by a fictional character, one of the many inhabitants of the also-fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. In previous weeks here on ESI, I have reviewed the short-story collection “That Distant Land” and Keith Simon has offered up his take on “Hannah Coulter.” If you have yet to experience – I believe the word “read” is entirely insufficient – any of the Port William works of Wendell Berry, then I would strongly urge you to pick a volume, whichever seems best to you, and get to it.

Space limitations prevent me from offering up a full list of everything I loved about this novel, and in any case I doubt that I would be able to convey with words the lasting impressions left on my heart. What I can tell you is that in “Jayber Crow” Berry has provided to me perhaps the most accessible portrait of soul-converting, unselfish love that I have read to date. Where time, scholarship, controversy, and thousands upon thousands of exposures may at times serve to (paradoxically) distance us from the love story of the gospel accounts, Berry instead breathes life into someone we might meet at the local bait-and-tackle store today, and then provides us with an account of love offered with absolutely zero in the way of practical expectations, something roughly akin to the kind of love that we are offered in Jesus Christ.

Without giving away key elements of the plot line, what I can tell you is that at one point along his journey, the character of Jayber resolves to love someone with all his heart, not withholding an ounce of his energy in his love and dedication to that person, all without informing even one other human being…for life. He does this with the full advance understanding that his love for this woman can never, ever “play itself out” in this life, according to the ways of the flesh. Although his love is more complete and all-encompassing than even that of most marital relationships, he will not be able to give full earthly expression to his feelings this side of Christ’s second coming. In short, he resolves to commit himself to a lifetime of emotional pain for the good of another.

I can find plenty of conviction with regard to the way I offer love to people – or not – from a cursory reading of the Scriptures. Indeed, well-versed as he is in the Word, Jayber himself often meditates on the Bible as he stumbles his way through life as the Port William barber, privy to nearly all of the town’s secrets, trying to figure people out and scratch out a place for himself in the membership of love into which he has been initiated in rural Kentucky. What Berry offers up in this volume, though, is a fully-fleshed-out portrait of what it might look like in our age to give oneself over to the love of God and man with absolutely nothing in the way of what we might cynically refer to as “advantage” or “benefit.”

It might perhaps be too simplistic to say, “The selfless love of Jayber has taught me several things about the love of Christ,” but perhaps simplicity is, after all, one of the elements most lacking in the way we offer our hearts and lives to one another. Perhaps it becomes simpler to love one another, and thereby add more and more people to the mix, if we repent of the “math” that oftentimes enters into how we decide if another human being, carved in the image of our God, is “worthwhile” in our personal pursuit of a happy, trouble-free life. Please believe me when I say that I condemn myself by even asking this question, but…how are you doing with 1 Corinthians 13 these days? After reading Berry, I can now see what the Apostle Paul was saying with a few, sharper degrees of clarity.

1 Corinthians 13 (ESV, emphasis added)
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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