The Long Arc of Real Love

Packed away in the laundry room of my basement, off the beaten paths of normal household traffic, smashed together with the dried-up ladybugs and an occasional spider, are twenty garbage bags filled with toys.

They belong to our kids.

A few weeks ago, after more than one prophetic notice, my wife and I packed up every single toy in our house. Our gentle, shepherding efforts, so often used to break up fights over My Little Ponies, reached the tipping point. We’ve told the children over and over, “Your relationship with one another is more important than your stuff.” The time had come to show them. So we did. Now the toys are gone.

Now, to be honest, I have my doubts whether this was the best way to teach the lesson. I expect a child psychologist could make a case that this was a parental blooper, that it might cause some issues in the future or something. I don’t know for sure. But what I do know is this: I love my children. We packed up their toys, temporarily, indefinitely, because we love them.

And that’s the thing with love: it doesn’t always feel like love. Most Christians understand this. There is a category for it — “tough love,” we might say. It’s what we call love that feels unpleasant, love that’s greeted with a measure of pain instead of joy. “I love you, so I’m taking away your toys” is an example.

But how is that love?

Getting to the Heart of Love

If we want to get to the depths of love’s meaning, according to the Bible, we see that it’s defined by three essential elements. John Piper develops this at length and depth in the fourth chapter of Desiring God (118–141). First, love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others. Second, love is finding our joy in the joy of another. Third, love is doubling our joy by expanding it into the lives of others. These are the basics of horizontal Christian Hedonism.

The bagged up toys easily fit with this three-fold definition in two of the three aspects.

I loved my kids by taking away their toys because I saw a gaping hole in how they interacted with one another. There was more bickering than blessing, more arguing than encouraging. I want them to experience the joy of contentment in God that’s not ruffled by little circumstances like not having exactly what we want exactly when we want it. My experience of joy overflowed to fill their absence of that joy. So that’s one part of the definition.

But also, my joy in God, in that anchored contentment, is set to be intensified by sharing it with them. My pleasure in God’s unshakable grace will be felt more deeply when I see their pleasure in God’s unshakable grace. That’s another part of the definition.

The question comes in the part about my joy in their joy.

When It’s Grief, Not Gladness

Real love includes the lover finding his or her joy in the joy of the beloved. The measure of our love, in many respects, is the degree to which we seek the happiness of those we love. Implied here is that those who receive our love will be happy. They will have joy, and therefore we will have joy. This is love because our pursuit of joy hinges on their experience of joy.

But wait a minute.

The confiscation of toys did not create joy in my kids. How could I seek my joy in their joy if my “loving” act caused them grief instead of gladness?

Seriously, how we answer this question might be what makes the difference between self-absorbed people-pleasers and someone who genuinely loves others. It mainly hinges on what kind of joy we hope to inspire in the beloved.

The Long View

Smiling kids with good attitudes is something I enjoy. They have joy and I am glad in that. But if all I’m trying to produce in my children is a smile on their faces and a charitable attitude toward getting their way, my joy is terribly superficial — because theirs is.

It’s like one of those July 4th sparklers that come with all the warning labels. At first it’s nice and gets that captive awe, but keep holding onto those things and sooner or later you get burned. That’s essentially what we’re doing when we only aim at others not being unhappy. We might think it’s seeking our joy in theirs, but really we’ve got a fist full of burning sparklers and we ain’t letting go because the last thing we want is someone to think bad of us. It ends up all about me, not love.

Real love, though, isn’t so shortsighted. Real love is determined to take the long arc, even when it means weathering that gross misunderstanding from the lips of our beloved — Dad, you don’t love me. People do hear that, on much more serious scales than I’ve heard about bagged up toys. And real love takes it. Real love is full of faith. Real love refuses to be derailed by a temporary unpleasantness and instead puts its head down for the sake of real joy — a joy that is deep and lasting and in the end looks back at taken toys and says, “Yeah, our relationship with one another is more important than our stuff.”