There are two portraits of love I experience on a daily basis. The first I call Mona Lisa love. Think of the painting. It’s calm, settled, and content. With its subtle smile, this sort of love (expressed in words and actions) aims to make everyone happy, to offend no one, and to dissolve all tension. When it comes down to it, Mona Lisa love puts peace above any principle, above any truth. If I’m honest, I like Mona Lisa love. It soothes my nerves (which is especially attractive for someone always battling anxiety); it makes conflict seem as distant as the stars. The second portrait of love is a bit more like El Greco’s The Holy Trinity. The Father holds the dead body of Jesus Christ, still marked with blood by nail and spear, while the Holy Spirit gazes down on him in the form of a dove. The love here is painful and costly. It is a love that has suffered. Deep in the mysterious fathoms of God, where the ocean currents of sovereignty run swift and silent, this suffering love does not flee from darkness in an effort to avoid conflict and tension. Instead, it dives headlong into the dark, going into the pitch black pith, burying itself like a seed that—moment by moment—destroys the darkness from the inside out. This is a love with greater power than anyone on earth can imagine. Suffering love doesn’t merely dissolve tension; it defeats death. We need more of suffering love because we need more of our suffering savior.
Does Love Have to Suffer?
Why can’t we just get along with Mona Lisa love? It is attractive, after all, in attempting to establish peace. As someone who hates conflict so much that being near it brings out physical symptoms, I can sympathize with this. And, truth be told, Mona Lisa love was all we needed in a perfect world. Before sin mapped fractures onto the glass window of reality, there was no tension to resolve, no darkness to illumine, no peace disturbed.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in the shattered world. Recently, that’s helped me appreciate some words from Abraham Kuyper. He talks about the “spirit of the world,” which can be linked with Mona Lisa love.
Love suffers because the spirit of the world antagonizes the Spirit of God.
Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, p. 594
The “spirit of the world” is linked with Mona Lisa love because the latter, at least in a fallen world, puts a premium on peace and harmony, not on truth. Peace and harmony can be desires of the self (and also desires of a group). So, Mona Lisa love can be self-serving. In a broken world, it often is.
Now, we can think of these two “spirits” (the spirit of the world and the Spirit of God) as magnetic poles in opposition. They cannot go together. No amount of pushing or turning will bring them into union. Why? Holiness. That doesn’t sound like much of an answer, but break it down. The tripersonal God isn’t just “special” or simply “set apart.” Those things are true, but holiness is fiercer; it burns white hot, purifying anything that dares to enter its domain. Holiness is a terror to anyone who isn’t ready for it. And when it comes to God, no one can be ready for it. That’s why figures in Scripture fall down on their knees and don’t dare to stare at anything but the dirt when they’re in God’s presence. Holiness is an abstract noun in the English language, but really it’s a concrete, burning, personal reality that can blind and paralyze a soul in an instant.
Anything . . . anything that doesn’t bow in submission to that burning holiness is noted and tracked. That’s why Kuyper writes, “When love increases in our hearts, owing to the Holy Spirit’s increasing activity, it must come into conflict with all that pertains to the world’s spirit and seeks to maintain itself in the soul” (p. 594-595). Love rooted in divine holiness must notice and come into conflict with the self-interested love of the world.
Now, we don’t always wage war with the spirit of the world, the spirit of self-love. And here’s the clincher: when we don’t, we’re rewarded for it. Here’s Kuyper again. Read these words slowly; they’re gold.
He that yields is tolerated. He that makes room for the world’s spirit receives burning of incense. He that makes compromise with it may be assured of honor and glory, but he that refuses to compromise, loving the world with a holy love, must sooner or later experience its wrath. . . . Love can bear, but not tolerate, all things. It bears sufferings, because it does not tolerate the worldly spirit, but the cry of “mildness” and “moderation” never tempts it to quench the hatred with which it has entered the conflict with unholiness. For real love is also real hatred.
Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, p. 596.
Seems hyperbolic, doesn’t it? On the surface, we want to tell Kuyper to chill out. But in the depths of us, we know he’s right. Life is about choosing. And you can’t choose everything. “He that loves the beautiful hates the ugly. . . . Love for Jesus cannot exist but with hatred for Satan. And the best measure for the love of God in our hearts is the depth of contempt for sin” (p. 597).
Does holy love have to suffer? Yes, because in a broken world, true love—a selfless, ever-giving love—is always going to be at war with false love. Suffering love puts others before self and holiness before peace; Mona Lisa love seeks to make everyone content and puts peace before holiness. Mona Lisa love is often in harmony with the spirit of the world; suffering love is always at enmity with it.
Embodying Suffering Love
This all sounds abstract. But, my God, how this needs to be practical! Jesus Christ was suffering love embodied. Go back to that El Greco painting. That portrait of costliness, of life-sacrificing love, is the exact thing that frees every caged human heart . . . and gives it wings. It’s a God-given love, instilled in us by the Spirit himself. And when we give it to others, when we choose other over self, we transform the world. C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “The little knots of friends who turn their backs on the ‘World’ are those who really transform it” (p. 88). And every follower of Christ is a friend of God (James 2:23). The body of Christ, in all its stained-glass, divinely illuminated diversity, is a body of friends with a common enemy. And as we turn our backs on the selfish spirit of the world, we change it.
There’s a sense in which this whole suffering love scheme sounds insignificant, as if it weren’t really necessary. Indeed, as Lewis notes, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival” (p. 90). Our friendship with the Spirit of God, the God of suffering love, is what gives beauty, grace, and hope to everyone attending the acts and scenes of our tiny lives.
Embodying suffering love isn’t a suggestion. It’s not a path we take only sometimes, an excursion from the straight, paved way of Mona Lisa love. Suffering love is a mark of who we are, not just what we do. Those who practice suffering love are those who identify with the God who suffered for our salvation. We find our identity in this suffering love, not just a behavior pattern.
Every Little Thing
When it comes down to it, suffering love is very easy to embody. All it means is choosing someone else over yourself in the littlest of things. Her coffee comes before your coffee. Their princess castle comes before your book. His prayer request comes before your breakfast. Every little instance in which we joyfully (not spitefully or with the intent of being a martyr) put someone else’s needs or wants above our own, we are embodying suffering love.
The caveat is that suffering love will not put someone’s worldly or sinful desire above itself, for that would violate the holiness of God. Suffering love will put others above itself out of love for truth, not out of pity for worldly want. And when suffering love sees evil, it scorns it openly, for, as Kuyper said, real love is also real hatred.
Our suffering love today changes the world for tomorrow.
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