“Active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it – at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you … “
— Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
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We seem to have reached a place where “love” and “hate” can be defined largely in terms of political alignments. A “loving” or “compassionate” person is one who votes for the right candidates or supports the correct social measures. Those who don’t follow suit are instantly labeled “haters.”
Real love isn’t that simple. To see this, we have only to remind ourselves that love is available in several varieties, some of which come easily to the average person while others don’t.[i] Take sexual desire or romantic love (Greek eros). This kind of love requires relatively little effort on the part of the lover: you just “fall into” it. Something similar can be said with respect to familial affection or loyalty (storge), a love as natural to the human condition and as needful for survival as the desire for food or drink. Then there’s friendship (philia), the heart-felt bond that develops between close companions who happen to have compatible temperaments and share common values, interests, desires, goals, and aspirations. It’s a wonderful thing, but there’s nothing particularly challenging about it.
All of these loves are important to the Pilgrim, for all are essential to his basic humanity. But there is yet another kind of love which is unique to his calling, and even for him it is not attainable apart from pain and struggle. The kosmos regards it as a crazy, counter-intuitive, nonsensical sort of love. In contrast to the other three varieties, it might almost be described as unnatural. The New Testament calls it agape.
The difference between agape and the other loves is revealed most clearly in Christ’s command to “love (Gr. agapate) your enemies.” Enemy-love is pure agape – agape shorn of outward trappings and purified of foreign admixtures. The human heart does not gravitate in this direction of its own accord. On the contrary, this kind of love requires work. It goes against the grain. It entails choice, action, discipline, and self-denial. It might, in fact, be characterized as a type of repentance. Unlike the social and political “love” which centers in slogans, expresses itself in fund-raisers, and attaches itself primarily to nameless, faceless, impersonal abstractions – like “the needy,” “the hungry,” or “the disenfranchised” – agape focuses on real flesh-and-blood individuals. People you and I actually know. And that’s uncomfortable.
In his landmark novel The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky introduces readers to a medical doctor who is intimately familiar with the struggle of agape. In a moment of painful honesty, this physician reveals his inner hypocrisy to Father Zossima, the Russian monk. “In my dreams,” he says, “I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity … and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience … In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me …”
If you can relate to this confession, you will understand what the challenge of agape is all about. It’s a matter of abandoning mere platitudes about “universal brotherhood” and somehow getting past the feelings of aversion and disgust that divide you from your domineering husband, your opinionated brother-in-law, your micro-managing boss, your nagging aunt, the nerd in the next cubicle, or the obnoxious next-door neighbor. This is where the rubber really meets the road. Because if you can’t love them, there isn’t much point in talking about “service to humanity.”
How can this possibly happen? In Dostoevsky’s narrative, it’s Father Zossima who provides the answer: only by means of a miracle. In the final analysis, it’s the petty barriers between people that constitute the greatest difficulty, and getting over those barriers requires an infusion of supra-natural love – a love that comes from above.
This agape love can’t be turned on with the flick of a switch or trumped up by sheer grit and determination. It has to grow and flow of its own accord as the Pilgrim stays connected to his Power Source. It’s like the seed that sprouts in the night without the gardener’s knowledge. The key is to plant it in good ground and then stand back and let it grow.
And it will – not by you or your own efforts, but because of the One who made you a Pilgrim in the first place. “Faithful is He who calls you, and He will do it.”
[i] See C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves.