Sunday 13 May 2012
LOVE IN ACTION
Beyond words, feelings and lofty ideals, love must be translated into action.
By Dr Lim Poh Ann
What do you do when you set out to comfort someone in grief but your mind draws a blank?
That was my predicament recently when I visited a grieving couple whose teenage son perished in a car accident. All I could do was look them in the eye while grasping their hands. For a few moments, the gaze, touch and silence “spoke”, as if in empathy.
Words did not matter; what was important was being there for them when they needed emotional support. Looking back, I wish I had some comforting words. But then again, when love is the motive, isn’t it all right even if we’re lost for words?
When it comes to showing love through simple acts, most of us have little difficulty. It comes naturally because we have has been shaped by our religious upbringing, role models in the family or conditioned by social norms. But gun-toting adolescents in the war-torn region of Darfur in Sudan act differently. Conditioned by an environment of violence, they have been taught since young to hate and kill at the slightest provocation.
Motivated by love and gratitude
As believers, our capacity to love arises out of God’s love for us and not so much from our intrinsic goodness or cultural and environmental factors. “Real love isn’t our love for God, but His love for us. God sent His Son to be the sacrifice by which our sins are forgiven” (1 John 4:10).
Grateful that our sins have been forgiven, we are able to love God and others. The woman who was forgiven much loved much – she wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:44, 47). Jesus commended her for abasing herself in public out of adoration for her Master.
At a glance, Pastor Alex bears little resemblance to the prim and proper image one would expect of a minister. Tattoos of ferocious beasts on his forearms tell of his past involvement in crime and drug addiction. But ever since his conversion, he has turned over a new leaf. He now heads a centre that ministers to drug addicts and AIDS sufferers.
When asked the reason for his newfound passion, he says, “After all these years in the wilderness, it is now payback time!” He reckons that, with Hepatitis C affecting his liver, he might well be on the last lap of his journey on earth.
How differently would we live our life if we knew we had only six months to live? This question helps us reexamine our priorities and reorder our lives. As the psalmist wrote: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
Whether love is expressed through simple acts such as visiting the sick, “full-time” social work or missions, it requires stepping out of our comfort zone.
If we share the trait found in dogs (I exist to serve the master) rather than in cats (the master exists to bless me), we can more readily overcome our initial inertia. In their book, Cat and Dog Theology, authors Bob Sjogren and Gerald Robison share how such a light-hearted way of comparing ourselves with these domestic animals provides a framework to rethink our relationship with God, our Master.
Those more akin to cats focus mainly on the blessings and promises of God. When it comes to loving others, they tend to find all sorts of excuses. Those with a dog mentality would place God’s glory above personal comfort. There is nothing wrong with embracing God’s blessings and promises, but we should not go overboard … and become a “cat”.
In his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Viktor Frankl relates the horrendous suffering he experienced during the holocaust: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
In such extreme situations, we would have expected them to buckle under pressure. But these men remained resilient and were able to love others – by choosing to have the right attitude.
Calling and challenges
Some may be called to a ministry devoted to helping the disabled, prisoners, orphans, old folks, single parents or foreign workers. Not all, however, are called to such ministries. A need does not necessarily constitute a call: We need to consider where our gifting lies (1 Corinthians 12:28-30; 1 Peter 4: 10-11). Although we may not have a specific gifting in “social work”, we are called to love and care. We can also pray, encourage others and donate towards such causes.
No matter how pure the intention or motive, loving acts may not always be well received. Sadly, this happens even in the case of married couples, who once pledged unfailing love for one another.
In the movie Fireproof, fireman Caleb tries to salvage his troubled marriage. On his dad’s suggestion, he painstakingly follows the steps outlined in the book, The Love Dare, to show love and consideration to his wife, Catherine. For example, he helps to wash the dishes and even prepares a candlelight dinner for two. But though he carries out all the instructions (40 steps, one a day), his efforts are constantly rebuffed. “How am I supposed to show love to somebody who constantly rejects me?” he utters in frustration to his dad.
Only when he understands that love is unconditional – the way God loves sinners – and perseveres does he experience a breakthrough and saves his marriage. Indeed, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
Circumstances may be challenging, but loving others has its benefits: It gives us a sense of joy and fulfilment. “You don’t grow much by getting love; most growth in life is by giving love,” said the late Sir John Templeton. This billionaire investor and philanthropist gave millions toward increasing our knowledge of unlimited love through scientific research and education.
In fact, modern science confirms that certain areas of the brain register heightened activity when we give of ourselves. This increase in dopamine activity happens similarly when we feel loved or enjoy delicious food. It seems our brain has been hard-wired to experience the “feel-good” rush when we love.
One way a depressed person can experience joy is to serve others who face bleaker circumstances. Simple acts of love, such as cooking a meal or just being there for others, might just lift away the cloud of depression.
But beyond the here and now, there’s eternal reward for those who labour in love. Even if one were to give a glass of water to a prophet, one will be rewarded (Matthew 10:41-42; 1Corinthians 15:58).
Beyond words and feelings
One may give something precious to someone, but love may be absent (1 Corinthians 13:3). Perhaps there is an ulterior motive in the giving. However, one cannot love without the giving of one’s time, energy or resources. This is because love requires action, not mere words.
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).
Some may think that loving God is the wonderful feeling they experience when they are caught up in heavenly worship. But it’s more than that. Jesus makes it plain: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (John 14:23). Love me? Then obey me.
God does not merely demand obedience, but also helps us to carry our burdens and empowers us to love. Jesus is the supreme example of love in action. He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and reconcile man to God.
The above article was first published in Asian Beacon magazine, Feb 2011, issue 43.1.