As my life and my career has changed over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about myself and how I tick. My discoveries, more often than not, aren’t particularly flattering.
One thing I’ve discovered is just how much I like to achieve. There’s no need to sugarcoat this: I like to get stuff done, especially if there’s credit or glory to be found in it. On the one hand, this can mean that I’m productive and reliable. On the other hand, my desire to ‘make things happen’ means that I’m prone to approaching people as problems to be solved.
I was convicted again of this tendency when I heard that beautiful passage from 1 Corinthians 13 read again on Sunday. Sometimes I think it’s a shame that Paul’s words on love are so often used in wedding ceremonies, because this is a message for communities much larger than couples. Paul is laying the very foundation for Christian community: love. And that catalog of definitions for love emphasizes over and over love’s never-assuming, never-insisting nature.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard takes up this theme in a brief selection titled “Love” from Called to Community. In typical dialectical form, Kierkegaard wonders how we bring about love: do we implant love or do we build up an already-present love inside someone else? My vote would be that we would be able to push love onto someone. I’d like to think I can bring about love by sheer willpower, creating it myself and then handing it out to others as the fruit of my labor. Needless to say, Kierkegaard sees it differently:
Love is not what you try to do to transform the other person or what you do to compel love to come forth in him; it is rather how you compel yourself. Only the person who lacks love imagines himself able to build up love by compelling the other. The one who truly loves always believes that love is present; precisely in this way he builds up. In this way he only entices forth the good; he ‘loves up’ love; he builds up what is already there.”
When I approach this idea of creating a Christian community that is able to love as Jesus love, and indeed that bears witness to this new kind of love to a world in desperate need, I want to come up with a plan to achieve it. I want to make it happen. To this, Kierkegaard has a special dagger, just for me: “Those who love accomplish nothing.” I feel like I need a paper bag to breathe into. I hardly know what to do with a line like that.
This is no doubt why I turn aside from the difficult work of discerning and calling forth the love of Christ in others and instead go scurrying back to my checklists, which prove (conclusively!) just how much progress I’m making. But there’s an irony here I must acknowledge, if I really want to face the people-pleasing high-achiever in me. Love’s power, love’s ability to effect change, love’s eternal impact far outweighs any achievement I could bring about by my own effort. Kierkegaard likens the work of love to nature itself, whose “vital forces keep on” even as we sleep. Rivers carve canyons, ocean floors spread at a fingernail’s pace. Continents are moved and the world is renewed by a process that isn’t straining to assert itself but simply exists.
This selection is a beautiful meditation on 1 Corinthians 13 that I would encourage all of you to read. We need to hear again and again our calling to community is not a call to compel one another, to headlock one another into transformation. Instead, it is a command to still ourselves, to offload our agendas, to presuppose the loving work of the Holy Spirit in one another, and find ways to join with and announce that work.