I was charmed recently to observe a young teen couple who obviously liked one another, but who were terrified that the other might recognize their interest. They verbally danced an intricate dance of advance and retreat. I wished them well; I recognized the dance.
Being a young teen is emotional chaos. As you begin to realize that all boys are not totally creepy, life becomes complicated. You seem to “fall in love” every other week. When I was young I was quiet, serious, and a bit studious. Some boys liked me, but I just couldn’t feel the same attraction. Some of the boys I liked were interested in someone else. But as my crushes changed and first it was this one and then it was that one, occasionally there was a moment when the boy I liked also liked me at the same time. After all the sidelong glances and hands brushing each other with the fragility of cobwebs and a lot of shy pretense of being indifferent, there might come a moment when we looked at each other and we would know that our feelings were mutual. For a brief moment there would be a bewildering kaleidoscope of joy, astonishment, relief and satisfaction… all while trying to appear to be “cool”. It was an innocent and bewildering time.
As an adult I have recognized that this moment of awareness that we are loved is something we search for throughout our lives. It takes different forms, but that need for affirmation is something that never leaves us. It is something which is common to all of us; which makes us human. We all have the need to believe that someone will be able to look deeply into us and see someone special and lovable, and respond with love just because we are who we are. We all have a need to belong, in love, to someone somewhere.
Some who didn’t feel loved as children may search for belonging along dark paths among others who feel as discarded as they do, and that is how some people go astray. Others who felt unloved may become super good to try to prove that they are worthy of love. As we mature, we look for unconditional love in a life partner, hoping to have a mutual exchange with someone on whom we can always depend: for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death us do part. When we have children, we want to give them that same healthy kind of love, and the cycle goes on. Those who have been abused in early life unfortunately may pass on that abuse to others, because it is all they have understood as love. Those who have received healthy love will usually pass on healthy love.
I have come to believe that almost all human behavior has its roots in the results of our feeling loved or not loved, expressed in limitless kinds of activity, whether positive or negative. Love is a powerful motivator. Love for a parent and a desire to please has produced many great people in history. A lack of love has produced just as many who try to prove to everyone that they were smart enough or powerful enough to be worthy of love, or to prove to themselves that they didn’t really need to be loved to be successful (however they define success).
Part of the tragedy of life on this planet is that the influence of sin has made this pursuit of love so incredibly difficult. People are not always loving or kind or helpful. All of us learn to wear masks in order to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of having to deal with emotional bullies. We have all suffered from those who seem to find pleasure in putting us down, or who need to dominate and be in charge; those who are driven by a need for power or the need to feel superior in their own twisted search for approval and love.
I grew up feeling inferior and needing to prove myself to be “as good as”. I tried to find approval by studying hard and being very active in school. I felt less-than, but acted very self-confident in an attempt to prove to myself that I was confident. However, as much time went on, and as I grew in the Lord, I came to understand that this tactic had a negative effect on relationships. I realized that what I needed to be was real. When I became more willing to risk trust, and reveal more of the real me instead of trying to impress, I began to find that others were willing to do the same. Barriers came down and real fellowship was possible. Eventually I came to realize that almost everyone I met was fundamentally just as insecure as I was, even those (and maybe especially those) whose behavior was obnoxious. Often they were hiding behind their masks just as I was. Negative behavior was often a weird kind of protection; a wall erected so that others wouldn’t try to get too close and hurt them. (However, admittedly there were a few who were just mean and unpleasant.)
We are always looking for “kindred souls”. If we have even one close friend, we are fortunate. Some people assume you need many close friends, but I have not found this necessary. When you think about it, how many “best friends forever” can you sustain? I know if I have more than two or three people in my life at one time who need much of my emotional energy, aside from family, I am stretched too thin. I can love many people; I just don’t have the energy, physically or emotionally, to accommodate the emotional needs of more than a very few at a time. People come and go in our lives. Where do we find a friend who can fulfill our desire for constant unconditional love? I have come to believe that only in God can we find the fullness of the unconditional love we long for. God IS love.
The word love in our culture has been incredibly cheapened. We “love” a good book, or a certain flavor of ice-cream. We toss off a “Love you” as we hang up the phone. We substitute the word “love” for friendship, for appreciation, for any positive feeling. The words, “I love you” may no longer mean love but lust, or “I am comfortable with you” or any shade of meaning in between. I am as guilty of this as everyone else. So, how do we define love, the real thing?
The Bible describes four different kinds of love. Although the scriptures do not spell all of these out specifically, they are implied. There is “eros”, which means sexual or romantic love. There is “phileo” which means the brotherly love we feel for someone we like. There is “storge” which is the kind of love we have for our families. Finally, there is “agape” which is the richest and deepest love, the kind of love God feels for us. This is the kind of love which is sacrificial and unselfish and it is agape love which is intended in the Greatest Commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. The real definition of love is found in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the unconditional love and grace of the Father. All other loves pale in comparison.
There are some people who will always be difficult. Yet, most of us, if we are met with genuine interest and affection, are able to drop some of our masks and bond with others. These friendships and family relationships are the little glimpses of what it is going to be in heaven. Can you imagine it? There we will all have no need to impress. We will have no insecurities to be protected; no fear of being hurt by others ~ because we will all have become like the Lord Jesus, and He is perfect love. All our relationships will be as they were meant to be.
However, for now I am still here on earth. I am His child, and how do I apply and reflect this kind of love? I think it is in continually seeking to know the Lord, and to understand Him. It is by being submissive to His words. It is in attempting to see others through His eyes, and recognizing that we are all broken, and in need of compassion and kindness. When I am sure I am loved by God, then I am secure enough to love others; even those who may be difficult to love…