Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it would be utterly scorned.
–Song of Songs 8:6-7
Back in college, one of my professors frequently used a phrase that stuck with me: “self-annihilating love.” The idea was a love pure enough to wipe away the self in service of another– to replace selfishness entirely with compassion and adoration. This concept seemed incredibly noble, and it echoed a Bible verse repeated often in my upbringing: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) But there were other forces shaping my perception of the world as well.
Looking at popular culture,
at cinema, cartoons, and comic books,
the heroes I worshiped were always the ones who sacrificed themselves–
the ones who gave up on personal happiness,
choosing pain for the greater good,
abandoning self-care for greater causes–,
and these were my role models:
the ones who chose to forget self,
embracing misery whenever possible,
all in service of… love?
To a young, impressionable, and –frankly– kind of melodramatic soul, this was a message easily misconstrued. The scriptures, sage advice, and superheroes all seemed to point in one direction: real love is about choosing pain over happiness. It’s about giving up on the other things you care about so you can serve a cause or person fully and without compromise.
You must annihilate the self in order to love,
or so I thought.
As a more thorough reading of the Bible and pop culture revealed,
I had it backwards.
An oft-quoted Bible verse begins “For God so loved the world…”
Before any other action, we begin with love.
The verse goes on to talk about the sacrifice of Jesus,
but the next words are often skipped over:
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)
God’s love is not about destroying Jesus or destroying us
–though Jesus’s death and resurrection are instrumental in the process–;
the chief aim here is to bring us into union with God through Christ.
This love isn’t about self-destruction;
it’s about realizing ourselves in a new way,
experiencing God in a new way,
becoming whole in a new way,
and this is the love Jesus calls us to imitate.
And those words I grew up hearing– the ones about “laying down your life for friends”?
When taken in the context of the full chapter, Jesus is telling his disciples how much he loves them, how he wants them to remain in that love, how the Father’s love is theirs as well, and how keeping the commandments is also an act of love. The self-sacrifice mentioned in this chapter is the farthest extreme of love– not love’s whole nature or love’s chief end or what love looks like in the day-to-day. While love may call us to make sacrifices and endure pain together, this is just one aspect of love.
The full picture is far richer.
Love is not an excuse to seek death or pain;
rather, love is a force which overcomes death and pain,
making them inconsequential in the greater arc of history.
We will still feel them (perhaps even more intensely because of love),
but love also strengthens us to pass through them.
Love is not solely a matter of self-sacrifice;
rather, love motivates us and fulfills us in such a way
self-sacrifice doesn’t seem quite so much like a burden.
We will still make sacrifices (as a byproduct of love),
but love also gives us support.
God created this world and loves this world,
so much so that Jesus Christ came to earth to live among us,
and this is how we know what love is:
through his life, death, and resurrection,
Jesus invites us into full union with God,
and now annihilation holds no power,
pain and suffering and death become temporary,
because we are fully realized and made eternal in God’s love.
Though this love may call on us to make sacrifices,
to turn our focus toward others,
to change, to give, to support, to cherish,
this love isn’t annihilating us;
it’s making us into something new.