Seeking to be transformed into the image of Jesus

Love and Suffering – Two Sides of the Same Coin

This week in my reading for class I came across a concept I’ve probably heard before, but it struck me afresh.  C. Michael Thompson writes, “Love and suffering are inseparable companions, though in our addiction to need-love we so wish to believe it untrue.  You simply cannot be radically open to gift love without being radically vulnerable to suffering.  They are two aspects of the same experience, two sides of the same coin…”[1]

So much of what we define as love is based on an unspoken “law of reciprocity”.  I’ll scratch your back; you scratch mine.  But true love offers itself not expecting or needing anything in return.  It is giving of oneself for the other person or the greater good or whatever it might be without thought of “what’s in it for me.”  Any time we lay down our own agendas and our own desires for the sake of someone else, there is pain.  Thompson writes, “To sacrifice one’s own personal ego-needs in the service of larger purposes is inevitably to suffer.”[2]

So much of what passes for love today is “need-love”.  It’s so easy to say “I love you” to someone and then when life gets hard or they aren’t quite we expected or we’re bored or the feelings have worn off we move on.  Relationships often take far more work than we’re willing to invest.  Even if we don’t end the relationship, we may decide it’s not worth the effort and withdraw or hide a part of ourselves so as not to be hurt any more.  I question if this is truly love at all. 

True love is willing to suffer for the sake of the other person.  Jesus is our model in this.  He went to incredible lengths to show his incredible love for us.  Mocked, beaten, falsely accused, and ultimately crucified for us…for me.  And I am called to love with that same self-sacrificial love.  I am called – at times – to suffer as I love.  Love requires sacrifice.  It takes its eyes off self and puts them on another.  It offers itself even if rejected; even if exploited.

The Apostle Paul wrote in the great “love” chapter, 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).  The characteristics of true love are sacrificial.  it isn’t easy to live this way.  It means we have to stop expecting to be served and be willing to serve someone else.  It means we must be willing to forgive and let go; to assume the best and give the benefit of the doubt; it means we need to be willing to humbly look to others’ best interests, not merely our own.

The degree to which I am willing to suffer for another is the extent to which I love that person.  This is not something we can do in our own strength.  Thompson writes, “When we are able to disengage from our own selfish little gaggle of needs, when we can truly spend and be spent in the service of others, the little space we thus empty out in the center of our psyche becomes a space that can now be filled by the spirit of God.”[3]  We need the power of God to work in us.  Such love is only possible as we learn to live and love like Jesus through deep, intimate connection to him.

Imagine how the world would be different if we were able to love like this!  It is the example Jesus set and the kind of love he calls us to.  As U2 singer Bono said, “If only we could be a bit more like Him, the world would be transformed.”[4]


[1] Thompson, C. Michael in The Congruent Life, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2000, p. 200.

Thompson, discusses how C.S. Lewis distinguished between “need-love” and “gift-love”.  He says, “Need-love is “that which sends a lonely or frightened child to its mother’s arms,” and recurs countless times in our lives as we seek to get our very human constellation of needs met through the people and things we unabashedly use for that purpose.  We’re probably no less susceptible to loneliness and fear than we were as small children; we just find grown-up substitutes for our mother’s arms” (p. 198).

Gift-love is “when we deeply care about others, their life, happiness, and future; when we wish for them the same personal growth and material success that we would want for ourselves and contribute to that in any way we can; when we deeply respect their humanness, treasure their uniqueness, and believe in their potential – we are in fact expressing one of the purest forms of love that we can hope to achieve” (p. 198).

[2] ibid p. 202.

[3] ibid.

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2 responses

  1. GAH

    Well written & well received.

    It is almost impossible for humans to love unconditionally. Most Humans expect to be loved back, or expect something in return, be it material, physical or otherwise.

    Dogs, on the other hand, do love their masters unconditionally. In this respect, dogs may be superior to humans. Having a superior intellect to dogs, humans find it foolish to love those who do not love us back.

    The blessing of a superior intellect in humans, may not be such a blessing afterall.

    February 24, 2011 at 5:26 am

  2. Rick,

    Thanks for this. That need-love drives most relationships in our world, I’m afraid — if there’s any love shared at all. I like this a lot, for the simple reason that I need to remind myself of what — or rather, Who — love really is and what it means.

    April 19, 2011 at 2:40 pm

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