photo by Kyle Broad
Pregnant, barefoot and running late, she piled her four children into the car and hustled them to school. On the way, one of her sons tossed a flour bomb back and forth in the back seat. Catching sight of this in the rearview mirror, she warned, “Stop that! You’ll mess up your clothes; we’re late as it is.” He heard and disregarded her imperative, casting it off with the nonchalance of a born mischief-maker, and the inevitable happened. The bomb exploded and coated the regulation dress attire of the siblings just as they reached their destination. Mom held the younger son back so that she could wipe off his outfit, allowing her older son to cross the street alone so that he wouldn’t be tardy. At this point, the mother received a sharp reprimand from a crossing guard for putting a child at risk. She was humiliated and demoralized. She’d strained every nerve to be a good mother, but by 8:00 a.m. she felt like a failure. It’s a very common tale.
Discouragement is isolating. At the moment of failure, we feel: stupid, naïve, inept, hopeless, embarrassed, unworthy— the negative adjectives strike our souls like grit in a windstorm, pricking umpteen places at once. We can hole up, lick our wounds and wait for the storm to pass, but the subterranean sting of discouragement remains until we feel loved again.
Although some people are naturally loving; others, like me, have a hard time learning it. A cherished friend told me once that I “was truthful but not kind,” and I’ve meditated on that comment for over thirty years. It’s not that I want to inflict pain, it’s just that my tendency is to be in a hurry, to rush toward my goals without noticing the needs of others. And there’s the rub— my goals often conflict with the goals God has for me. While I want to change my circumstances, He wants to change my character. He wants me to learn to love.
All of us are, in one way or another, slow learners on the subject of love. Opportunities to love rush at us when we aren’t paying attention. In the moment, we don’t think fast enough to say, “Oh, my goodness, you’re having quite a morning! Allow me help you. By-the-way, this street can be very busy, so. . .” That type of response does not come naturally. So, seeing that we are “love disabled,” what do we do?
The apostle Paul’s advice to the Galatians was “walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). Or, as Eugene Peterson put it, “live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit.” I see this as a lifetime endeavor: acknowledging my need to change, becoming teachable, and practicing love until it becomes the “default” impulse. Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “look out for the interests of others” (Phil 2:4) is only possible because we have the indwelling Spirit, who is eager to show us how.
Thirty years ago, I had an idea that love somehow included triumph; if I did it right, I’d look like Jesus. It was really about me checking off boxes. Eventually, I gave up on becoming biblically picturesque, realizing that I just plain couldn’t do it. When I comprehended that neither love nor kindness resided in my “flesh,” I began sincerely asking for help, and help was given. I’m still not great at selfless love— no one would mistake me for Jesus— but, by God’s grace, I am improving at it.