Many have heard Christ’s demand that His followers “leave… father, mother, wife, children, brothers, or sisters” (Luke 14) and thought that Christianity is therefore a religion in which personal relationships are dismissed as inferior to a sort of universal, impersonal love. This confuses the nature of love itself.
What does it mean to love a person perfectly? “We love because Christ first loved us,” (1 John 4). Consider all the people we are through our lives, especially if we end up taking Christ’s offer of a transformative relationship with Him. I am not the man I was a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago. Yet Christ loved me, me personally, all the way through.
This demands the question: what exactly was He loving? What trait of mine gave me my identity? I can hardly think of a single thing that has not changed about me over the course of my life, at some point or another. I have loved Christ and not loved him, been happy and unhappy, been strong and weak. Yet Christ loved me all the way through.
Let’s contrast this with a more familiar, earthly love – that of romance. I am deeply enamored with a girl; we marry, and are blessed enough to fall more and more deeply in love with each other every day. I adore everything about her: her laugh, her walk, her intelligence, the shared jokes we have together.
Disaster strikes. She acquires chronic depression. I never hear her laugh again. In a fit of depression, she throws herself down the stairs: she survives, but loses the ability to walk. As a result of her fall, her brain is damaged, her intelligence forever impaired. Worse, she begins losing her memories and hallucinating. She no longer remembers our shared jokes, is convinced she never met me, has hallucinated another life for herself.
The question is this: at what point do I stop loving her? Or, to put it another way, at what point does this woman stop being the woman I love? Every trait that I could connect with her identity is gone. Her personality, her body, her mental faculties are all forever changed. I cannot even recourse to saying, “She is my beloved wife because she is the woman who once swore a vow to me” – she has no memory of such a vow! For all intents and purposes, my wife is dead.
At what point do I stop loving her?
Every friend I have ever had has died multiple deaths. Every time a friend surprises me, they die, in a way: the person I had thought I was loving is not the person in front of me. I loved the person who would do this, which I thought my friend would surely do; but instead she is the sort of person who does that.
At what point do I stop loving her?
Never. Whether she has actually changed, or I was simply wrong about her, when we entered into the relationship, marriage or otherwise, we made a promise that went something like this: “No matter the kind of person you turn out to be or become, I will love you. I may not like you, I may not be emotionally predisposed to you, but I will love you regardless, so help me God.”
But notice what we committed ourselves to! We never said “I will love you so long as you conform to this ideal of you which I hold in my mind”; nor did we say “I will love you so long as you do not stray too far from this ideal”; no, we said, “I will love you,” and left it there.
This is not one person we are loving, but all people. To love one person unconditionally is to love the infinity of people they may become.
All the intentionally impersonal charity in the world, as undeniably valuable as it may be, cannot accomplish this. All my attempts to love universally by being disinterested in the individual fall short of infinity, simply because they limit themselves to a finite group of people in one moment of time. I am loving multiple people – I may even be loving many people – but I am not loving infinitely. But as soon as I turn to one individual and devote my love to him come what may, I love as Christ loves: without hindrance or restraint.
We are ordered to give abundantly to and love all mankind, not just as individuals but as a whole. This is a virtue, and may it never be forgotten. But God forbid we should ever think Christianity demands the sacrifice of the personal for the impersonal. Christ, in his omniscience, loves every man as unconditionally as we may hope to love our most closely beloved, and in his omnipotence gave fully of himself to every man as well. We are not Christ, but are called to imitate Him and His infinite love, and we will find ourselves unable to do so if we rob ourselves of those unconditional personal relationships in which we approach Him most closely.