Every year around this time, especially when I’m pondering what to write about “love,” I’m bombarded with song lyrics from the soundtrack of my teen years.
Most of them come from pop songs I recorded on cassette with my single-speaker boom box. In so many of the lyrics about love, questions surround the concept.
Questions about Love
“What is love?” Haddaway asked, and has asked repeatedly for two decades.
“What’s love got to do with it?” lamented Tina Turner with her signature hair wobbling to the beat.
Even Eddie Van Halen confessed to being bewildered by the concept of love: “How will I know when it’s love? I can’t tell you, but it lasts forever.”
Perhaps the most aching lyrical question surrounding love comes from my elementary years when I saw the movie Oliver, a musical based on the Dickens novel, Oliver Twist.
Our music teacher, Mrs. Beem, wasn’t terribly nurturing. Students who talked during class were ordered to stand with noses pressed into the corner of the glossy white cinderblock walls. (I left my nose print there a time or two). But Mrs. Beem loved musicals. She introduced me to the original Annie—wherein the little orphan had brown bobbed hair instead of red curls–and the 1960s version of Oliver.
I adored them both.
I vividly remember watching Oliver peer into the dining room where his cruel headmaster stuffed himself to the gills. Oliver and his fellow orphans drooled and satiated themselves with a song.
Food glorious food,
hot sausage and mustard.
When we’re in the mood,
cold jelly and custard.
But the song that haunts me, and still makes me weep, was Oliver’s solo. His melodic question was the refrain and the theme of the story:
As I sat in Mrs. Beem’s class, my chin quivered. I was just two years into grieving the death of my father, and I suppose that’s why I felt Oliver’s pain so acutely, even if it was fictional.
Must I travel far and wide?
‘Til I am beside
the someone who
I can mean something to …
Where is love?
While I was far from orphaned (My mom was a heroic single parent), I ached to know I could always keep love.
So I latched on to lyrics and went around singing questions that God had already answered.
The Problem with God’s Love
The “problem” with God’s love is that it confounds us. We can barely comprehend the outer edges of God’s love, so we grasp for words to explain a love we don’t fully understand.
Humans have been doing it for centuries.
The Apostle Paul piled up dimensional words when he wrote about God’s love. For his friends in Ephesus, he prayed they would understand the breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s love. And in the same prayer, he asked God to give them the strength to know a love that surpasses knowledge.
The hymn writer, Frederick Martin Lehman, tried his hand at a metaphor to explain God’s love.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
More recently, Sally Lloyd-Jones has translated the magnitude of God’s love. How? She strung together words children could understand. She calls it his “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.” (The Jesus Storybook Bible, pg. 36).
Michael Card spent ten years writing his book Inexpressible—an explanation of the untranslatable Hebrew word for God’s loving-kindness: hesed. Bible translators have used 112 English words and phrases to communicate the Hebrew concept of hesed—the love of God.
After years of study, Card distills the inexpressible love of God to this sentence:
Hesed: When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.” (Inexpressible, pg. 5)
It’s fascinating that Card’s definition is more of a story than an explanation. I suppose he took a cue from the apostle John who wrote, “This is how we know what love is….” Then he told a one-sentence story, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).
The One who laid down his life for his friends told compelling stories too. We call them parables. One of his most familiar parables fleshes out God’s loving-kindness (hesed).
But when Jesus told it, He used more than once sentence. You can read it in Luke 15.
A quick retelling might sound like this…
Once upon a time, in a patchwork of pasture and grain fields, a wealthy man raised two sons.
Neither of them had “turned out.”
His younger son had proclaimed a death-wish, demanded money he hadn’t earned, and ran away.
His oldest son had remained silent and unmoved that day. He didn’t come to his father’s defense, didn’t try to persuade his brother to stay, didn’t run to drag his brother off the path to self-destruction. He had just rolled his eyes at his father’s consent and gone back to work.
Neither loved their father. But only the younger son realized it. And when he did, he came home to suffer the embarrassing gift of his father’s excessive loving-kindness.
“Hesed: When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”
What’s Your Love Story?
Whether we know it or not, this is our story too.
Some of us have rebelled outright. We’ve thrown a punch and stuck up a finger at God because we wanted what we wanted. Now. We refused to believe our generous father knew best.
So, instead of a scolding, he gave what we thought we wanted: unaccountable freedom, which incidentally always leads to a kind of slavery. Eventually, we found ourselves serving a habit that mastered us and paid us the wages of death.
But some of us have thrown our punches more covertly. Our rebellion manifests as impatient eye-rolling at a Father who is too generous to an undeserving piece of trash. We’ve toed the line. Gritted our teeth at the boundaries of our Father’s home and hated it. We stayed because leaving prematurely would tarnish our sparkling reputation. We were unconcerned about run-away siblings because we were obsessed with giving a stellar performance. We are white-washed tombs.
Every day, we must spit-shine our “gospel-shod” feet. Any misstep requires extra work—repayment—and we won’t bear the shame of owing anything to anyone. Debt costs pride, and we are hoarders. We are slaves to earning our keep in order to deserve it. Grace is a notion for weaklings.
You’ve probably been one or the other. In alternating decades, I’ve been both.
Where is God’s inexpressible love in the parable? In your story?
It is present from beginning to end.
God loved us before we loved him. While we were still cursing restraints, scoffing at his wisdom, and complaining about his provision, he was planning a homecoming celebration.
So, when he ran to scoop up a barefoot vagabond, and screamed, “Kill the fattened calf!” his servants knew precisely what to do. They scrambled to build a fire, carve the steaks, strike up the instruments, and cue the dancing.
When the rebellious and the prideful return empty-handed to suffer the humiliation of receiving God’s excessive love, we call it grace.
That kind of love requires a supernatural strength to comprehend. To know it requires child-like faith. And to tell about it requires more than a definition.
God’s love demands a story.
Jesus told the story with his life. The world sings questions about love, and we can answer with the refrain of the gospel.
You don’t need to recite a definition to explain it. You must simply tell the story of how God demonstrated his love and grace to you.
The world is dying to understand.