The limits of love

I have been struggling for some time with what I call the limits of love.

I think a couple of things set me off on this thought. I have several friends in different countries fighting very serious health battles. Others are going through various awful challenges that life has thrown at them. How about someone with an aged father wrongfully accused of a crime and who has to sit through a lengthy court battle to clear his name? That was just last week. Sometimes I can do something to help, sometimes I am too far away to do anything other than phone or send a message. Whatever I do, it never seems adequate, if only because I am unable in myself to resolve their problem. And maybe that’s OK. I’ve done what I can. For a moment I feel better.

And then the doubts return. Maybe there was more I could have done? I struggle with guilt over that one. Could I have shown more care? Could I have visited more often, gone to the hospital, prayed harder, provided more practical help than I did? How easy it is to move on from spending time with someone in need to going back to my own world and getting on with life. Can I legitimately enjoy myself while my friend is suffering?

I guess the fact that I am struggling shows there’s hope for me. I’ve seen people, even pastors, shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s their problem.” A conscience struggling with inadequacy at least shows my heart has not become hardened or calloused.

Neither you nor I can meet the need of every person who comes across our path. We can’t satisfy the financial needs of every panhandler on the street, or fill the emotional cup of every downcast person we encounter.

Such are the limits of love. And now that I’ve resolved that, I let myself off the hook again.

But then the awful thought assails me. What would Jesus have done in this situation? He never accepted that love had any limits.

And so I’m caught in the in-between. Theologians call it the “already-not yet.” The kingdom is here, yet we still live in a fallen world. I am called to a perfect standard. I am called to walk in Jesus’ steps. Yet I can’t do it. Even with the help of the Holy Spirit, without which I would be completely useless, my efforts fall far short.

I live in the tension between the real and the ideal. The real is where I live today, how I actually handle the situation. The ideal is what Jesus calls me to, how he would have handled the situation himself.

Here’s my advice to you. There’s no point beating yourself up because you haven’t reached the ideal. You never will in this life. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. The power of the ideal is that it draws us out of the real and toward itself. What that means practically is this: you should look more like Jesus tomorrow than you did yesterday.

I’ve spent a lot of time counselling people in the area of forgiveness. That can be a tough one to deal with. But it hit home to me the other day when I was reading Jesus’ command to bless those who have treated us wrongly. I began to think of a fairly meaningful and recent personal situation, and wondered how I could walk out Jesus’ command. It’s easy to pray for someone who’s just told you what a great guy you are. But not so easy to pray for someone you’ve helped out and who hasn’t returned the favour.

Such are the limits of love.

But just because my love is limited does not mean it is worthless. Nor does it mean it cannot be greater tomorrow than it was yesterday.

Paul expressed his walk from the real toward the ideal in these simple words: forgetting what lies behind, I press on.

Let’s press on and push outwards the limits of our love.