“Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved. …When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? …Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved….”
– C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
“Wonder what I’m thinking, wonder why I’m drinking, but it’s plain to see, I’m not the man I used to be.”
– Fine Young Cannibals
There are two lies we are often told: People never change, and we should love them the way they are. The first is proven false by our experience; the second is based on a misrepresentation of love.
A dynamic life is full of change, but even the most stubbornly static existence is marked by it. People are forced to change: by nature, by experience, by conflict. People change: their personalities, their ambitions, their motivations, their tastes are all modified – if not fully transformed – at various points in life. And these are not just superficial changes, but rather fundamental alterations that often leave one unrecognizable. The phrase “Once a [fill in the blank], always a [fill in the blank]” is not only unfortunate, it is a lie. Of course, it is also used exclusively with regard to negative attributes. I have never heard someone say, “Once a kind, gentle soul, always a kind, gentle soul.” While this is possibly due to an intuitive understanding of human nature, it is also unmistakable in its purpose: to deny that essential improvement is possible.
I could go down an entire list of people I know who have fundamentally changed, but I really don’t need to go any farther than the first name: mine. That I have changed is indisputable, why I changed is ultimately more important. First, however, we have to look at whether anyone should have wanted me to change. It would be easy to look at me in my mid-twenties and see a lot of room for improvement, and maybe even to suppose that all I needed was to grow up. Those who knew me intimately understood the flaws were deeper than that. But shouldn’t the people who truly cared about me have been willing to accept me the way I was? Maybe if they only sought to merely be kind to me, rather than to love me.
My wife loves me, and a clear indication of that love is that she is not willing to settle for a mediocre me. The best me is somewhere in the future (and maybe not even in this life), and she will love me in the meantime, understanding that I am a work in progress. However, I am under no illusion that a work stoppage – much less a regression – will be an acceptable development. And I thank God for that, because it demonstrates that she has not given up on me, in spite of evidence that I am possibly a lost cause. What kind of love would stand by and watch the beloved squander potential, avoid improvement, and refuse change? Only a mere kindness, that wishes only that I remain happy, could allow such stagnation. It is real love, and sometimes it hurts.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
This cliché is oft-quoted, mis-quoted, unfortunately-quoted, and even sardonically-quoted. It has lost its heart, because there is so often accompanying behavior that proves it counterfeit. But the heart is there, even when the phrase is not. My parents disapproved of many things I did, but never loved me less. They, too, understood that their love required that they discipline, direct, and encourage me. To wish that they would just leave me alone would have been to ask, in the words of Lewis again, “not for more love, but for less.” Every parent, spouse, friend, and sibling knows what it is like to love someone while simultaneously hating his actions.
Our society has spawned the horrible idea that tolerance is birthed by love, and so we sit idly by as people drink their lives away, or cheat on someone they actually love, or head down a path unmitigated by a relationship with God. What is the mournful regret in the Fine Young Cannibals quote above? “I’m not the man I used to be.” While I can say those words today with joy and relief, there are many who yearn for a life that has escaped their grasp. If I love you, then it is my responsibility to perform whatever actions are in my power to help you avoid such a fate. Silence comes from fear, and I am finding myself agreeing with a friend who recently expressed the idea that fear is the opposite of love. Only love can drive someone to want to share joy, peace, and eternal life with another, painful though the process may often be for both parties.
Lewis Smedes said, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed—and each of the five has been me.” My wife – along with some family and friends – have paid me the “intolerable compliment” of loving me. When I was spanked as a child, it hurt. It hurt worse – in an altogether different way – when I got lectured as a teenager (oh, how I wished they would just spank me and send me to bed!). When a good friend once commented that “your problem is that you don’t have any ambition,” it was like a knife to my heart. When I saw disappointment in the eyes of the woman I love most, it broke me. In my marriage, I have changed for two reasons: 1) I was able to see myself clearly through the eyes of someone who loved me, and 2) I loved someone enough that I needed to at least attempt to make myself worthy of the love shown in return. Most of the time, that someone was my wife.
I want my wife to be proud of who I am, and I want the changes in my life to be a testament to how – and how much – I love her. If ever I lose this desire, I will know that there is a serious problem. Similarly, if she ever stops caring what I do and who I am, I will spend the rest of my life trying to win her back. One day, I will shuffle off this mortal coil, and I hope to hear the words of Christ, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:21). He will never stop loving me, and therefore will never stop working painstakingly to make me into the man He created me to be. It hurts, often. But just as with my wife, I show God that I love Him by working consistently to change, to become more Christ-like. In those rare moments that I see myself clearly through His eyes, I understand why He wept over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.