Read: 1 Corinthians 13:5
In a world that says, “I want it my way,” lovers must learn to say, “Not my way, but yours.”
I continue to be impressed by the way the great love song of the Bible explains what love is by describing what love does. Here is love’s definition: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. . .” (13:4-5). This last line is the phrase I want to focus on next: “Love does not insist on its own way.”
Among the many behaviors of love, the things love does and does not do – love’s ways and non-ways – the most fundamental is self-sacrifice. Love’s way is not to insist on its own way. Or to say it positively: Love is sacrificial.
Have It My Way?
It is human nature to want to have our own way with things. In our culture, the refrain “I did it my way” signals a kind of personal vindication. It is the ultimate victory cry of the individual, and those of us who are products of western culture (especially Americans) are individuals above all else: individuals who want both to do things our way and have things our way (a fact, incidentally, that advertisers well know and exploit systematically).
Our greatest goals are to be independent and self-sufficient. We are looking for freedom from constraint, especially the constraint of those who might attempt to impose their will upon us by telling us what to do. What we want more than anything in life is to have the ability to control our own destiny. That is why most people would like to be rich. They think that possessing a lot of money will enable them to have everything their own way and on their own terms.
But all of these desires conflict with agape, with love in its biblical meaning. Love contradicts individualism. You cannot love by yourself, all alone; you need another. As soon as you love, you cease to be an individual because love forces you to move outside yourself and turn away from the pursuit of your own self-interest in order to give yourself to others.
Love also destroys independence. As you begin to love, you are no longer free from obligations; instead, your life becomes inextricably linked to other lives. Love overturns self-determination by causing you to offer yourself for another person and to put their needs before your own wants. You no longer make decisions based on self. In a world that says, “I want it my way,” agape says, “No, not my way but yours”; “Not my will, but your will be done.”
Not My Will But Yours Be Done
That last phrase can’t help but strike a responsive chord in anyone familiar with the Bible. It was spoken late at night, the last night of Jesus’ earthly life, and he was praying alone in a place called Gethsemane, a sort of garden or olive grove just outside Jerusalem’s walls. Jesus was alone because his closest friends, whom he had asked to stay with him in his hour of crisis, had all fallen asleep. Soon, he knew, they would scatter and flee, leaving him to face his enemies all alone. Jesus was praying in Gethsemane, and he was suffering.
“And being in anguish [literally, in agony],” says the New Testament writer, “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Jesus knew he was about to die. He would, in fact, be dead before the sun that was shortly to rise had set again. His death would come by crucifixion, in the cruelest, most painful and most humiliating possible manner, but it was not fear of death or the anticipation of pain or even simple loneliness that caused Jesus such suffering that night as he prayed in the garden. No, his struggle was over something he called his “Father’s cup.” “Father,” Jesus prayed, “if you are willing, take this cup from me.”
In the Old Testament, God’s cup was a symbol for his wrath, the combination of his righteous hatred of all sin and his necessary determination to punish it. When Jesus prayed and struggled to accept the cup of God’s judgment upon sin, it was because he knew that when he died on the cross he would be accepting that judgment upon himself.
Who can conceive of this? Who can imagine what it meant that God should be forsaken by himself in order to punish human sin, that God would bear the weight of his own wrath in order to satisfy it and be able in righteousness to forgive sinners? All of this is what is meant by the cup of which Jesus spoke. This is what was passing through his soul as he knelt in Gethsemane, and you and I cannot begin to guess at the anguish he experienced there in what was only the beginning of his sufferings. Then, while on his knees, in the midst of this agony, he said simply, “Father, not my will but yours be done.” Those are the words of perfect love
Sacrifice is not a particularly appealing idea. I don’t suppose anyone relishes the thought of loss that it necessarily entails. To sacrifice means to give something up, something of value and importance. We would naturally prefer to eat our cake and have it too. We would like, if we could, to get and keep everything we want without having to surrender anything in exchange.
But we also recognize that in a world where everyone cannot always have his own way, sacrifice is sometimes a necessity. For instance, both sides have to sacrifice some of their demands in order to reach an agreement in a contract negotiation. A child has to sacrifice half her candy bar to her sister in order to satisfy the demands of parental justice. Workers sacrifice some of their benefits to enable the company to stay in business so they can all keep their jobs. All of us know about those kinds of sacrifices, and when we are called upon, we make them; reluctantly, no doubt, sometimes grudgingly, but we make them.
But love’s sacrifice is different. It isn’t compromise. It is pure sacrifice. To sacrifice in love does not mean giving something up in order to get something back. It does not involve giving up part of what you want so that you can keep the rest. It does not consist in taking turns: “I’ll sacrifice for you this time and then you sacrifice for me next time.” No, love is not concerned with striking a balance or equality of results or making sure everybody gets his fair share. Love does not keep track of those kinds of things. It does not keep a tally of who has done what for whom.
Love simply gives. It gives itself. It spends itself. It sacrifices itself. Love does not insist on its own way because it is mainly concerned with finding the best way for others.
Not Our Way But His
But I can think of at least two problems connected with sacrificial love. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I am prepared to always give up my rights and consistently sacrifice myself in order to serve another. That will certainly be hard, but I wonder if it is even right. Is it good for all the sacrificing to be in just one direction? Wouldn’t it be just as bad for a person to always get his way as to never get it? And, of course, the answer is yes. A relationship cannot be healthy if it is all give and no take.
But in agape, in Christlike love, a relationship is never just two-sided. When it comes to Christian love, for me to not insist on having my own way does not mean that instead you will always have your way. In genuine love, I can only give you your way if that is also the right way. With agape, the issue is not whether we follow my way or allow you to have yours. The issue is to find the right way, the Lord’s way.
What Christians learn to seek in every relationship, in every decision, is not that our will be done but that his will is done. For me as a Christian, this is true whether or not you share my faith. I must seek the Lord’s way and the Lord’s will for everyone. Sacrificial love will not always give in to every demand placed upon it, because it will always try to satisfy God’s demands in any situation, including his demands for justice and for doing what is right.
I have been helped a great deal in trying to understand how agape acts in real life by a book called Love Within Limits. It was written by one of my former teachers, a very wise Christian named Lewis Smedes, who says this about love and justice:
Love as the self-giving power of a just God seeks justice. . . . Anyone who says that lovers need not care about justice is talking nonsense. . . . God’s love song tells us that love does not move us to seek justice for ourselves. This is the catch. Love will drive us to move heaven and earth to seek justice for others . . . but love does not move us a millimeter to seek justice for ourselves.Lewis Smedes, Love Within Limits, p. 37
My other question has to do with the basic fairness of it all. One-sided sacrifice does not seem very fair. Of course, if two people in a relationship are both committed to agape, there will not be a problem. They will try to outdo each other in sacrifice. But as Christians we are not expected merely to love those who love us in return. The nature of Christian love demands that we offer it with no expectations of getting anything back, and moreover, that we offer it especially to the very people who are incapable of returning it, to the unlovely and the unlovable, to the selfish and the ungrateful. It seems inevitable that we will be taken advantage of, that our rights will be abused and we will be treated unfairly. That is a given if we try to love.
But consider this: Is being treated fairly what you most want in life? Is justice what you most would like to have for yourself? Do you really want to get just what is coming to you, everything you deserve? I know I don’t. When I look at the Bible, and then look honestly at my own life and character, I know that if I got just what I deserved, I would get death, the wages of sin. If all I have ever done were weighed accurately on the scales of God’s justice, the debit side would hang far lower than the credit side.
Strict fairness calls for judgment for me, and for you, and for everyone else on earth. What I am hoping for myself is not justice but mercy, and if that is what you are hoping for too, doesn’t it seem rather petty to be always clamoring for your rights, demanding what is coming to you and worrying that you are not being treated fairly?
The great thing about God’s love is that he does freely offer mercy to all who put their trust in Jesus Christ, and beyond that, he promises us that he will worry about the question of ultimate fairness for everyone. You and I do not have to be overly concerned about justice in one sense—at least not for ourselves—because God has promised that he will look after it and make sure no one is cheated in the end. So we are set free to love. It’s a wonderful kind of freedom.