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Love Gives Meaning to Life
The passages below are taken from Ravi Zacharias’ book, “Can Man Live Without God,” published in 1994.
None of us will deny the indispensable role love plays in filling our lives with meaning, which explains why there is such devastation when love is lost.
On love and marriage G. K. Chesterton made this poignant observation:
They have invented a new phrase that is a black-and-white contradiction in two words—--“free love.” As if a lover had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.1
The statement which, for me, captures the concept of love so clearly and yet seems totally foreign to our “disposable” society is that “It is the nature of love to bind itself.” Realistically, what passes for love today would be more aptly described as self-gratification, or indulgence. Once again, I have had in my own life the opportunity to study the contrasting cultural concepts and manifestations of what we human beings call love.
In the East, devotion, commitment, and role relations find a cultural emphasis. In the West, romance becomes the sum and substance of it all. Somewhere the two must be incorporated for without romance, marriage is a drudgery, but without the will and commitment, marriage is a mockery.
But in both East and West there is something that happens in our young-adult years that probably brings one of the more radical transformations in the human experience. With the wonder of childhood gone and the search for truth continuing, the truthfulness of the heart’s condition is then tested in love. This is where all our sentimentalities are forced to meet the test of character and genuineness. This is where those universalizable principles of Kant leave the ivory tower of philosophy and are personally tested in the bedrooms and living rooms of our homes.
All those God-censoring statements we make questioning His fairness are now placed alongside our own practice of truth and often reveal the patent incongruity between our words and our deeds. Anyone who will not be faithful to his or her own commitment to love can hardly be taken seriously when defending his or her deceit as provoked by the absence of an objective standard of truth. What is clearly absent is the integrity and character that are implicit within love. We talk of love’s making the world go around when in reality it is the search for a faithful, cherished love that sends one traveling the world over.
Unfortunately, in the English language we have cheated ourselves by using the same epithet love to cover a wide variety of relationships. In the Greek language there were four different words, each describing a different kind of love. Agape refers to a pure love with particular reference to God. Phileo is the love of friendship. Storge describes the love of a parent. And eros is romantic love.
Note carefully that although only one of the loves is physically consummated, all of them involve commitment. However, in our culture when we say love it is most often physical love that is implied and that devoid of commitment. How strange that we call the sexual act “making love” when in actuality, if that act is without commitment in real terms, it is a literal and figurative denuding of love in which the individual is degraded to an object. Love is not love when it has been manufactured for the moment. Love is the posture of the soul, and its entailments are binding. When love is shallow the heart is empty; but if the sacrifice of love is understood one can drink deeply from its cup and be completely fulfilled.
Let me therefore shift the focus from the analogy of marital love to love in a parenting and providing context, for it is in the love of parents for their children that both East and West share a common heartbeat. From the jungles of Ecuador or New Guinea to the boardrooms of business transactions in Tokyo or New York or London, children are dearly valued. It is the love for our children that all segments of society have in common, from the lowest to the highest.
Many times I have seen this affection demonstrated in strange and sometimes unexpected settings. Anyone who has ever tried to move his car along inch by inch in one of India’s crowded cities has been confronted with a very clever ploy used by “professional” beggars. Every few feet as the beggar follows along, the occupant of the car is confronted by an expression of dire need etched into the beggar’s face, an expression that seems pitifully well rehearsed. But that pathos does not always guarantee generosity from the passerby. The final “hit” is therefore made when the beggar holds up a little child in the face of the potential benefactor in a last-ditch effort to provoke any vestige of human pity
It is a natural and universal sensitivity within the human heart, whether king or beggar, to lavish love upon our young and to care for our children. It is still the minimal test for civility, and more often than not we proverbially refer to a mother’s love as the ultimate love. That is why in an aircraft mothers are directly instructed to first cover their own faces with an oxygen mask before tending to their children. Natural instincts would reverse that.
Erma Bombeck remarked that she knew she had grown old when her daughter who was driving her somewhere had to suddenly apply the brakes and instinctively reached out to protect her mother. Love’s sacrifice had wonderfully brought the generation a full circle.
Here I think we must pause to understand the point I am making. The unifying principle in both romantic love and parental love is the same—--one of honor and fidelity. The care and impartation of love can only be communicated to our children if we teach them that it is the nature of love to honor its commitments—--to bind itself. If we do not understand this, all we do is transfer a pathetic self-centeredness masquerading as love. Once true love is understood, the world is opened up to a heartwarming truth. Love and sacrifice go together, and in the spending of love is the enriching of the spirit. The more one consumes love selfishly, the more wretched and impoverished one becomes.
Climbing the Ladder to the Wrong Pinnacle
Let me present for your consideration two dramatically different stories, one factual and the other a parable. Reflecting upon the thoughts these two stories generate within us will provide another hint of our deep hunger that points beyond itself to the larger fulfillment that we seek. And what is more, if we are careful in analyzing why we feel the emotions we do upon hearing such narratives, the conclusions we draw could well unlock the treasure to meet one of our greatest needs. Each of these stories in its own way is tragic, but not without recourse. Many of you may recall the popular song “Cat’s in the Cradle” sung by Harry Chapin. The words always bring a tear to my eye because I am a father, and over the years I have had to travel so much. The song unfolds as follows:
My child arrived just the other day;
He came to the world in the usual way,
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay,
He learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it and as he grew,
He’d say, “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.
You know I’m gonna be like you.”
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little Boy Blue and the man in the moon.
“When you comin’ home, Dad?”
“I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then;
You know we’ll have a good time then.”
My son turned ten just the other day.
He said, “Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on, let’s play.
Can you teach me to throw?”
I said, “No, not today,
I got a lot to do.”
He said, “That’s okay.”
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed.
It said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah,
You know I’m gonna be like him....”
And he came from college just the other day;
So much like a man I just had to say,
“Son, I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while?”
He shook his head and he said with a smile,
“What I’d really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys.
See you later, can I have them please?”
I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day,
I said, “I’d like to see you, if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kids have the flu,
But it’s sure nice talkin’ to you, Dad,
It’s been nice talkin’ to you.”
And as I hung up the phone
It occurred to me,
He’d grown up just like me,
My boy was just like me.
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little Boy Blue and the man in the moon,
“When you comin’ home, Son?”
“I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad.
We’re gonna have a good time then.”2
The melodrama of this song was played out in Chapin’s own life almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have been told that his wife, who wrote the words of the song, asked him one day when he was going to slow down the torrid pace of his life and give some time to their children. His answer was, “At the end of this busy summer, I’ll take some time to be with them.” That summer, ironically and tragically, Harry Chapin was killed in a car accident.
It is not possible to read that postscript of Chapin’s death and miss the larger point--—that something was known, believed, and even “preached,” but never lived. When we chase manmade crowns and sacrifice the treasured relationships for which God has made us, life loses its meaning. Unquestionably the story elicits our sympathy, but a gnawing feeling within us says that love was squandered as the spirit lost its battle to the flesh.
In a dramatically different setting, the parable that I share with you now I first heard as a boy growing up in New Delhi, where much instruction is passed on byway of proverbs and parables. This one is no exception in its rich melodrama and Eastern hyperbole, but it brings with it one of the most powerful truths. You will have to pardon the bluntness of the parabolic details, but that, too, is culturally reflective.
It is the story of a young man who lived in a village and fell in love with a woman from a neighboring village. His love for her was genuine, and he sought her hand in marriage. She, in turn, felt no such affection for him and only exploited his feelings to her own advantage. She made it a game, ever demanding more and more proof of his love for her.
At last, when all her ploys were exhausted, she demanded the unthinkable. “If you really love me,” she said, “I would like to be confident that it is an unrivaled love. To prove that, I ask you to take your mother’s life and bring her heart to me as a trophy of my victory over your love for her.” The young man was left thoroughly confounded for weeks and grief-stricken at his option. Unable to withstand his “loss” any longer and seeing his mother alone, a frenzied fit he killed her and took the heart out of her body. He ran as fast as he could to present this trophy to the girl he loved, all the while fleeing the guilt that tormented him. While running through a heavily wooded area he stumbled and fell, and the heart bounced out of his hand. As he attempted to rise to his feet, he frenetically rummaged through the undergrowth looking for her heart. Finally, he spotted it and picked it up, and as he dusted off his knees he heard a voice coming from the heart saying, “Son, are you hurt?. . . Son, are you hurt?”
From the first time I heard it, no one needed to explain this story to me. Its message of the undying love of a mother stood out clearly amidst all the gory details that surrounded it. But let me ask you this. What is it about this love that wins our deepest admiration? Is it not because the greater has conquered the lesser, and that the spirit has triumphed over the flesh? In fact, let us go even deeper--—where did such a concept of love come from in the first place? May I suggest that a sacrificial love as noble as that could not have come from mindless matter but was placed there by our Creator, God Himself. Augustine said it well: “You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Our capacity to recognize love comes from God, and therefore both the definitive terms of love and the sacrifice that love entails must also come from Him. The Bible tells us not only that God is love but also that God has demonstrated that love in an ultimate expression.
Dr. E. Stanley Jones, a famed and noted missionary to India who was respected and admired even by Mahatma Gandhi, used to tell the story of a man, a devout Hindu government official, to whom he was trying to explain the concept of the cross. The man kept reiterating to Dr. Jones that he could not possibly make sense of the cross and of the love of God. Their conversations on this subject were circular and seemingly unsolvable to his satisfaction.
One day, through a series of circumstances, the man involved himself in an extramarital affair that tormented his conscience. He could live with himself no longer, and finally, looking into the eyes of his devoted wife, he told her the heartrending story of his betrayal. The hours and days of anguish and pain became weeks of heaviness in her heart. Yet, as she weathered the early shock she confessed to him not only her deep sense of hurt but also the promise of her undying commitment and love.
Suddenly, almost like a flash of lightning illuminating the night sky and the landscape below, he found himself muttering, “Now I know what it means to see love crucified by sin.” He bent his knee in worship of his Savior and embraced his wife anew with the solemnity of life’s binding commitment. That overwhelming sense of God’s great love is why the hymnwriter wrote:
0 Love that will not let me go—
I rest my weary soul in Thee,
I give Thee back the life I owe
That in life’s ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.3
Love has its demands. Love requires sacrifice. But in our high-paced lives, our priorities get inverted and we squander the sacred to protect the profane. It is the love of Christ that challenges our priorities and addresses the need of the human heart to love and to be loved. He becomes the consummate expression of love, and in knowing Him we find that love which brings meaning.
But there is a snag. Earlier, I commented on D. H. Lawrence’s strong assertion that there must be something more than love that fills the vacuum of the human heart, and here I would like to present that pivotal truth Christ gives to us that carries us beyond a merely relational concept of love.
If you were to seriously engage any religious philosopher in conversation on the concept of love in other religious teachings you would probably be surprised at what surfaces. In Buddhism the very founder, Gautama Buddha, renounced his wife and family in search of inner peace. In Hinduism the concept of love is more that of pity. In Islam, at best, sub mission is demanded to a compassionate god, but the more one reads the workings of this compassionate god the more compassion seems a vacuous term. Only in the Christian faith is life with God always portrayed as a relationship of love. However, in Christian terms, loves does not stand merely as an emotion or even as an expression. In a relationship with God it ultimately flowers to worship. All earthly relationships as we know them will someday end. It is in worship alone that wonder and truth coalesce and our hearts become enriched by His love. That enrichment which results from worship feeds all other relationships and helps us to hold sacred our commitments. This concept is far too profound to ignore and will merit careful at in the third part of this book.
D. H. Lawrence was right when he said the deepest hunger of the human heart goes beyond love—--Jesus called that “beyond” worship. And Wolfe was right; there is that sense of cosmic loneliness apart from God. Jesus said, “I have come that [you] may have life, and that [you] may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10 NKJV). In Christ that loneliness is conquered as the hungers of the human heart are met and the struggles of the intellect are answered.
Conceding, then, that the commitment of love is essential to meaning, it follows that the absence of love contributes to the absence of meaning. Jean-Paul Sartre once said that hell is other people. To Sartre, life was bearable until other people came along. In one of his books, Dostoevsky depicts a conversation between two of his characters discussing hell. “Hell,” says one of them, “must be the inability to love.” I would concur. And in that sense, all hell has broken loose upon our culture, for with all the talk of love, we witness more betrayal, and the breakup of the family now dominates our society. Unless this trend is reversed, we will completely disintegrate as a civilization, for meaninglessness will unleash violence even upon those we claim to love. The love of God is indispensable to meaning—--that love is revealed in Christ and may be experienced personally. (105-112)
1. G. K. Chesterton, As I Was Saying (Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 1985), 267.
2. Sandy and Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” © 1974 Story Songs, Ltd. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
3. Albert Lister Peace, “0 Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” 1885.
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