About a month ago, one of our pastors posed a question regarding what difference Jesus actually makes in my own life. What do I have with Him that I wouldn’t have otherwise? The answer that all my answers boiled down to was pretty much this: Hope. Not only hope for eternity, but hope that infiltrates all the ins and outs of my life. Whatever comes that has the potential to produce despair and hopelessness, I can have hope in. Because I trust that God has allowed it, and I trust that he is good. Because I trust that he can and will turn it around and bring beauty from ashes. Because I know that what we see is temporary, and pain is not going to last forever. Because I know that I am loved in spite of my mistakes and in spite of my filthy-rag-attempts to be good enough, forgiven and loved with nothing I need to earn. Because of a lot of reasons.

Admittedly a lot of it is somewhat theoretical, since I have not had to endure much true hardship thus far in my life. And admittedly I often forget this hope in the midst of daily trials and give in to worry, complaint, even despair at times. But then I remember. And it’s not just having a list of “right answers” to recite. I know it can sound like that. But really, my heart would know if I was just trying to console myself with platitudes I didn’t really believe, and that would not offer any real hope at all. Because true hope as it is described in the Bible is not just wishful thinking, like “Oh, I really hope I get a new bike for Christmas” or “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” The hope of the Bible is assurance, confident expectation, something you look toward with a strong faith that it will come, even if you can’t see it. God has given me a decent measure of faith, along with hope. And it feels good to have that assurance, that confidence that no matter what storm might come, he will provide all I need. In my counseling training I learned that the biggest predictor of suicidality is not depression or loss or failure or pain or addiction, it’s hopelessness. It’s hopelessness that brings people to want to give up on life and choose death. So it makes me think that there is something about hope that is intricately connected to life. That maybe hope itself is somehow the source of life, the kind of life that really feels like life, that is truly good. Jesus is my Hope, and the source of my life.

All that is well and good, but I realized yesterday that it isn’t enough.

I was watching a clip of a documentary about a man who rescues abandoned babies in South Korea. This verse flashed across the screen:

“Among faith, hope, and love, the best is… Love.”

It’s from 1 Corinthians 13. The chapter of the Bible that people like to quote at weddings and put in nice frames on their walls. But it hit me in a new way this time. I had thought about other parts of that chapter on occasion in the previous weeks during brief moments when I began to recognize my need to love people better. But laid out so simply like that, when I had just been thinking about how I have Faith and Hope and how great that is, was a little shocking. It was like, “Hey, those two things you have that you think are so important and are the most important things to you? Well, there’s something more important! Something you’re kind of missing the boat on.”

Talking about love is hard for me, because I feel like it’s an idea that gets tossed around a lot today and I often don’t agree with how it’s used. For one, it seems to be something people use to tell themselves they are good enough, rather than acknowledging what God says about goodness and recognizing their need for Jesus. I also sometimes take issue with the way love is defined. It is often equated with complete permissiveness and unconditional acceptance. I am not trying to make any sort of political statement or anything by saying that. But if you picture the love of a parent for a child, I believe a perfect love would love someone enough to require things of them and train and guide them toward what’s right rather than leaving them to their own devices and impulses, which will lead to unhappiness in the end. Call me old fashioned. Of course I think we should accept the people we love without condition. But it is unconditional acceptance of the person, not unconditional approval of their every action. Perhaps the issue for a lot of people is disagreement about what’s right, and not wanting to force their views on anyone, even a child. In a pluralistic, relativistic society, there is hesitation to say anything definitive about what is right or wrong. It often seems that the only thing considered wrong is to say anything definitive about what’s right or wrong. Am I right? Anyway, what I really mean to say is that when it comes to love (as when it comes to many other topics), I think it’s crucial to consider what God says on the matter. And regardless of my personal hesitation to focus on love because of issues I have with our culture’s perceptions of love, God is clearly telling me that love is essential. Even more essential than the things I often tell myself are the most essential. Here’s what he says to me:

“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.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

He kind of tells it like it is, huh?

So, God is telling me that love is perhaps the most important thing, something essential that I must learn even above believing and trusting in him. Really, love should be the product of those things, the proof that I really believe him. And I know that I’m often quite self-focused and lacking in love. But as I stared at that documentary screen the other night, I felt a desperation to understand just how to do this whole love thing. Because I know that love is more than just permissiveness. It’s a whole lot deeper than that, and more difficult. It’s dying to self, living sacrificially, and a whole host of things that don’t come easily. So I prayed. God, how do I love people? How do I love my own husband and son better instead of thinking about my own needs and desires all the time? How do I become more outward-focused and empathic in my friendships and my community? It became a desperate prayer. And then I realized that he gave the answer, or at least a solid beginning to an answer, in the very chapter I was pondering. The whole “Love is patient, love is kind…” thing. The passage that’s just pretty and sentimental and kind of trite until you’re really willing and desperate to learn how to love. That’s how God’s Word comes alive when you’re seeking Him. It’s pretty awesome.

I don’t have a good way to sum this all up. Just that I’m starting afresh on the path of learning to really love. Because He tells me it’s the greatest thing I can have. And he usually knows what he’s talking about.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”