Category: Love

What Makes Meaningful Relationships Difficult: The Other’s Freedom


Bonhoeffer 2

In rereading Bonhoeffer’s masterful Life Together (1954), my favorite book, I was again blown away by the passage quoted below, where, in discussing how Christians must “bear each other’s burdens,” he says that the reason that such bearing (or forbearing, or sustaining) is difficult is because of the other’s freedom, meaning that in all their particularities and needs and quirks and sins, that person – something completely real, outside of ourselves – makes demands on us and challenges our own freedom and preferences and selfishness. I think this is a basic but profound reality that sheds light on what makes all meaningful relationships – whether in friendship or brotherhood or marriage – so difficult at times. This same reality, however, is what can make them so worth it, because in testing our limits, as such relationships will often do, they broaden those limits to make us more loving, more patient, more humble, and stronger – in short, more large-hearted. This reminded me of another passage (below) that stopped me in my tracks: What C.S. Lewis said about marriage, based on his brief experience as husband to Joy Davidman, an American poet and writer whose romance with Lewis began over a series of intellectually- and literary-minded letters to the Oxford Don.


C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed (1961), his devastatingly honest account of his spiritual and emotional agony following the death of his wife Joy:

“The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.” (19)

And from Bonhoeffer:

“It is, first of all, the freedom of the other person, of which we spoke earlier, that is a burden to the Christian. The other’s freedom collides with his own autonomy, yet he must recognize it. He could get rid of this burden by refusing the other person his freedom, by constraining him and thus doing violence to his personality, by stamping his own image upon him. But if he lets God created His image in him, he by this token gives him his freedom and himself bears the burden of this freedom of another creature of God. The freedom of the other person includes all that we mean by a person’s nature, individuality, endowment. It also includes his weaknesses and oddities, which are such a trial to our patience, everything that produces frictions, conflicts, and collisions among us. To bear the burden of the other person means involvement with the created reality of the other, to accept it and affirm it, and, in bearing with it, to break through to the point where we take joy in it.” (101)

Jean Valjean and Transforming Grace

difficult doctrineIn his excellent treatment of the Bible’s passages on God’s love, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson retells the Les Misérables’ story of Jean Valjean to make the point that we must “never, never underestimate the power of the love of God to break down and transform the most amazingly hard individuals”:


“Sentenced to a nineteen-year term of hard labor for stealing bread, Jean Valjean becomes a hard and bitter man. No one could break him; everyone feared him. Released from prison, Valjean finds it difficult to survive, as innkeepers will not welcome him and work is scarce. Then a kind bishop welcomes him into his home. But Valjean betrays the trust. During the night he creeps off into the darkness, stealing some of the family silver.

“But Valjean is brought back next morning to the bishop’s door by three policemen. They had arrested him and found the stolen silver on him. A word from the bishop, and the wretch would be incarcerated for life. But the bishop instantly exclaims, ‘So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?’

“Jean Valjean is released, and he is transformed. When the gendarmes withdraw, the bishop insists on giving the candlesticks to his speechless, mortified, thankful guest. ‘Do not forget, do not ever forget that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man,’ admonishes the bishop. And meanwhile the detective constantly pursuing Valjean, Javert, who is consumed by justice but who knows nothing of forgiveness or compassion, crumbles when his black-and-white categories of mere justice fail to cope with grace that goes against every instinct for revenge. Valjean is transformed; Javert jumps off a bridge and drowns in the Seine.

“Of course, this is Christian love – i.e., the love of God mediated in this case through a bishop. But this is how it should be, for God’s love so transforms us that we mediate it to others, who are thereby transformed. We love because he first loved us; we forgive because we stand forgiven.” (81-82)

The Primacy of the Father’s Love for the Son

difficult doctrineIn The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway, 2000), D.A. Carson seeks to balance the popular view of the love of God (often reduced to the fuzzy, feel-good claim that “God is love”) with what Scripture says about his holiness and sovereignty, attributes that actually enrich our understanding of God’s love. And while most of us, whether Christian or not, tend to think of the love of God as his love toward us, Carson spends a significant amount of time on the intra-Trinitarian love of God – the love expressed among the three persons of the Trinity – which is the basis for the love that we receive and, because of Christ, are empowered to give. The passage below, which discusses the primacy of the Father’s love for the Son, completely blew me away.


“We too quickly think of our salvation almost exclusively with respect to its bearing on us. Certainly there is endless ground for wonder in the Father’s love for us, in Jesus’ love for us. But undergirding them, more basic than they are, is the Father’s love for the Son. Because of the love of the Father for the Son, the Father has determined that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father (John 5:23). Indeed, this love of the Father for the Son is what makes sense of John 3:16. True, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’- there the object of God’s love in the world. But the standards that tells us just how great that love is has already been set. What is its measure? God so loved that world that he gave his Son. Paul’s reasoning in similar: If God did not spare his Son, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things (Romans 8:32)? The argument is cogent only because the relationship between the Father and the Son is the standard for all other love relationships.” (35)

People-pleasing: Bad for Yourself and Others

peopleDo you have a hard time saying no when others request something of you? Do you find yourself fearing losing the approval of others even if it means doing what seems to be right thing or saying something that needs to be said, even if it’s difficult? These are the traits of a typical people-pleaser, and I readily recognize them in myself – especially in wanting others to like me and to think well of me. But as Ed Welch explains below in his excellent book When People are Big and God is Small (P&R, 1997), if unaddressed, this can not only can be detrimental to yourself, but it can keep you from truly loving and helping others. I like how he puts it, especially noting how we can deceive ourselves about the goodness of wanting to please others.


“People-pleasers can mistake ‘niceness’ for love. When they do, they will be prone to being manipulated by others, and burn-out is sure to follow. People-pleasers can also mistake ‘yes’ for love. But ‘yes’ might be very unwise. It might not be the best way to repay our debt of love. Saying ‘yes’ to one task might keep us from another that is more important. It might mean that we will do something that someone else could have done better. It might mean that we will entrench the sin patterns of other people. It might mean that we interpret the church egocentrically rather than as a body, thinking, ‘If I don’t do it, nobody will.’

“Therefore ‘yes,’ ‘being nice,’ and ‘self-sacrifice’ are not necessarily the same as love. They can be ways that we establish our own personal meaning and identity more than creative expressions of loving others” (214).

Are you a Lovecat?









I loved Tim Sanders’s Love is the Killer App (Three Rivers, 2002).

Though I haven’t read many books in business and marketing, this is a book that, though it deals heavily in these fields, transcends those genres: It’s a book which, at a fundamental level, can help you to grow as a person and then teach you how to help others grow as well. What Sanders calls a “lovecat” is essentially a nice, smart person who is generous with his knowledge and network and who is committed to the growth of others.

Sanders says you become a “lovecat” by attending to three things: 1) Knowledge, 2) Network, and 3) Compassion. By “knowledge,” he means you must read a lot, and books above all, so that you are at the top of your field and are equipped to share this knowledge with others. By “network,” he means that not only should you diligently cultivate a professional network, but you should then be diligent about helping people those in your network by sharing your knowledge with them and get busy connecting them with others who can help them. Finally, by “compassion,” he means something that is so simple but which we often neglect in at the workplace, and especially in the world business: Be human. This he defines well, I thought, as fundamentally “being committed to the growth of the other.”

This is one of my favorite things about Sanders’s book: Everything he commends is consistent with biblical principles, and primarily, as the title suggests, the biblical command to love. This is all about putting others first, seeking their good above your own, and then finding your own happiness and success because of that.

I loved how he puts it at the end of his book (meaning these pages are all kinds of dog-eared!):

“If you are a genuine lovecat, you show compassion for people because you like them. You tell others you are committed to their success because you want your contacts to be smarter, more informed, more capable. You arrange meetings between your contacts because you genuinely believe they will like each other, even if you gain nothing from the introduction… When there is no love, there should be no expression of love. Never fake it.”

“… Perhaps the greatest advantage of being compassionate is that… you help your bizmates grow, in both their outward success and their inner lives. And they sense your compassion, they start to develop in the most basic sense… In other words, we love people in order to help them grow in their own ability to love. We want them to enjoy the warmth of love and become more human… So when I engage in bizlove, I’m motivated by the impact it has on others, not just the attitude they will have about me (and whatever gain or popularity that affords me) I’m not a needy lover. I don’t hug you or tell you how much I care about you because I’m lonely. I say and do those things because I want you to experience the same humanity, freedom, and joy that I do. When lovecats help others do that, our job is done” (192-193).

Leadership, Teaching, and Love

St. Augustine teaching in Rome.

St. Augustine teaching in Rome.

In his book on leadership, The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Bethany House, 2012), Al Mohler, who is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has an excellent chapter entitled, “Leaders as Teachers.” Here he argues that true leaders are by nature teachers, and they “teach by word, example, and sheer force of passion.” Those they lead, he says, should be active learners and the organizations they lead should be “learning organizations.”

My favorite part of this chapter is where he uses Augustine to argue that it is love, that highest of virtues, that is at the core of teaching and which drives the true teacher. Augustine, he writes, taught that “there is really only one worthy motivation to teach, and that is love.”

Love, continues Mohler, runs through teaching in three ways:


1. “The teacher loves who he will teach. The teacher is not only imparting knowledge but also giving a gift, and the motivation for that gift is not any gain for the teacher but that the student will benefit from the knowledge.”

2. “The teacher must love what he teaches…The best teachers are those who simply can’t wait to teach something they truly love.”

3. “We teach because we first love Christ, who first loved us. While he was most concerned for those who would lead churches, Augustine’s point extends to every arena of leadership. Wherever the Christian leader leads, he must do so out of the love of Christ.”

What to Look for In a Spouse

MarriageIn The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), pastor and author Tim Keller says that at the heart of marriage is friendship. So if we’re ultimately pursuing marriage, he says, we  shouldn’t put such a high value on things like sex, chemistry, and attraction, which will change over time, but rather we should look for a companion – the kind of person we can walk alongside for decades in a mutually satisfying and meaningful relationship.

So how do we find this kind of companion? I like how Keller puts it:

“It often happens that you have a good friend of the opposite sex with whom you share common commitments. You trust this person’s wisdom and you find you can open up and share many intimate things without fear. He or she understands you well and listens to you and gives you great advice. But the person doesn’t attract you romantically. Maybe he or she doesn’t have the body type that you find appealing. You feel no sexual chemistry at all. Then imagine that you meet someone else to whom you feel very attracted. This person has the physical and social attributes you have been looking for and is interested in you, too. So you start seeing each other and you have a lot of fun together and things are moving along into more and more romantic intimacy. But if you are honest with yourself, this person you say you are falling in love with does not make nearly as good a friend as the one you already have, nor is that likely to change.

“You are in trouble. Your spouse has got to be your best friend, or be on the way to becoming your best friend, or you won’t have a strong, rich marriage that endures and that makes you both vastly better persons for having been it” (125).

He advises:

“Look for someone who understands you better than you do yourself, who makes you a better person just by being around them. And then explore whether that friendship could become a romance and a marriage” (126).