V-Day and Christian love: empty promises?

by Kristin on February 14, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by tbplante

I’m glad I don’t much care for Valentine’s Day, seeing as how Jason is away at a conference. From what I can tell, it’s pretty popular to be down on the whole idea of Valentine’s Day, at least in my broad circles.

First of all, Valentine’s Day is a commercial or “Hallmark holiday,” which is probably the fastest way to lose credibility. But I see another, bigger problem with a day that’s supposed to celebrate love: I’m pretty sure Valentine’s Day leaves more of the population feeling bad than good. In other words, people become more aware of the love that isn’t there than the love that is.

The cards and flowers and “romantic” dinner dates that abound for some create big negative spaces for others—gaping holes in the lives of people who don’t have those things. And I suspect many of those who are receiving those commercial trappings of love feel a touch of emptiness, too. The cards expound on true love, but they feel a bit flat—all talk, no walk. The flowers demonstrate what society says love is supposed to look like, but they usually don’t make us feel more special or whole.

The brighter the spotlight, the more obvious the flaws

It’s often the case, I think: The more we focus on something and make a big deal about it (love, in this instance), the more flaws we expose, thanks to the glaring spotlight. The more we try to define love, and immortalize a particular love we feel, the less sure we are that we even understand what any of it means.

I was a part of the worship team at church yesterday morning. There’s usually a song or two I’m not thrilled to see on the set list; this time it was “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Like Valentine’s Day, my issues with this song are multi-dimensional. First there’s the overly-sentimental part—the whole “everyone sang this around the campfire on youth group service projects or canoe trips in the 1970s, followed by ‘It Only Takes a Spark’ and ‘Kumbaya.’” That’s the outer layer of my issue with the song—right in line with my “Hallmark holiday” feelings about Valentine’s Day.

But the bigger problem lies beneath that: When we sing that song, I become more aware of the love that isn’t there than the love that is. All I see are the hypocrisies, the judgment, the smugness. Just look at the third verse, followed by the chorus:

We will work with each other, we will work, side by side
We will work with each other, we will work, side by side
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Really? Will they know we are Christians by our love? Are we really out there, as an overwhelming force, advocating for justice and dignity for all? It makes me cringe.

An ideal, and a God who can help us get there

When I first started singing that song, as a little girl tagging along with my youth group leader parents in the 1970s, I believed it with all my heart. Partly, that’s because I was young and naive, but it was also the brand of Christianity my parents and my church both preached and acted on. In my upbringing, that was exactly how you could tell Christians apart from non-Christians: by their selfless love and desire to put others first, like Jesus did.

As I grew older, I learned more about church history, uncensored. Then I went to a Reformed college, where much of the theology I had been raised on was turned on its head. And then I had my own painful experiences in the world, witnessing the hypocrisy and living it, from both sides—the one who isn’t showing the love and the one who isn’t being shown the love. I became inclined to change the words of the song, maybe to this: “they’ll know we are Christians by our judgmentalism and smugness…” (yeah, too many syllables).

But as we rehearsed the song Sunday morning, I suddenly noticed the last verse—the one that matters the most, which also happens to be the one I tend to notice the least:

All praise to the Father, from whom all things come,
And all praise to Christ Jesus his only son,
And all praise to the Spirit who makes us one,
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

All love is from God, all oneness is through the Spirit. We can try as hard as we want to do all of this love stuff, but we’re just not going to have much success on our own. A love so much bigger than we can even begin to comprehend has to be involved—in other words, if we don’t hang on to that last verse for dear life, the whole song is a farce.

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  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    This is a great reminder of how little we bring to the table. The kind of love that God wants us to share with others comes first from him. That really takes a lot of the pressure off me.

    I like how you mentioned the way we shine a spotlight on love, as if we can act on it by understanding it or talking about it. We need, in many respects, to experience it before it clicks.

  • Kirstin

    OMG, does this post bring back memories! I hadn’t thought of that song in YEARS, but yes, yes, yes. The lyrics alone don’t capture the–to my mind–creepiest thing about it: its minor-key march-to-the-drumbeat tune. With different lyrics, it would be the song to sing with the comrades while marching from village to village, robbing, plundering and torching roofs. Which has a lot to do with why I too loved singing it in youth groups and find it completely repellent now.

    “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” It’s been really interesting going from one religion to another and discovering that a sense of inherent moral superiority seems to be an ecumenical trait. The prize at a fundraising raffle a few years back in my current religious organization was a car, and the winner kindly chose to donate the value of the car back to the organization. A year or so later, I overheard people talking about a similar fundraising event at a nearby church, and wondering if the winner (of a different faith) would be as generous. Having grown up with people of exactly the faith in question who assumed THEY were the morally superior ones, I couldn’t help but be amused.

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    That song always bothered me because it seemed to assume that people of other backgrounds couldn’t possibly be just as loving as Christians. That if you saw someone loving, you NATURALLY assumed they were Christian because, well, Christians have the love market cornered. To me, that song promotes a religious elitism and a clique-y tribalism that does more to divide people than unite them–and that’s why I’ve never cared for it.

    While I can understand feeling occasionally bah-humbuggy, I can’t say I share your distaste for Valentine’s Day–maybe because I don’t really feel it has to be a certain way, with specific flowers, or a certain card, or whatnot. It is what you make of it. It might be a “Hallmark Holiday,” but so what? To me, it’s just one more reminder to celebrate the love I have, so I do. One more thing to pull me out of my routine and plunk me into a quiet dinner date, or even a chill night at home with “special” cocoa and some snuggling, or an extra “I love you.” I don’t see that much bad can really come of that, unless you’re looking to dwell on the negative. Even when I was single I loved Valentine’s Day–I took the opportunity to indulge in pink and red and hearts and lace, bake brownies or cookies, and send silly, juvenile cards to my girlfriends. In fact, despite being in a serious relationship for some time, I STILL mailed juvenile cards to my girlfriends this year. Spotlights don’t have to be about exposing the negative–remember, the whole purpose of a spotlight is to accentuate the outstanding. If we believe that’s what it does, that’s what it’ll do.

  • http://hollyhousestudio.blogspot.com Jennifer

    Told ya. I knew yours would take my rough edges and refine them. I needed to read that after writing and posting mine. I feel angry and oppressed today and I’m just in a funk. So, thanks for putting the gentle point of love on a prickly issue for me. You’re the best, girl.

  • http://opinariwriters.blogspot.com: Jean

    Hi, Kristin, I noticed a blurb about your blog today via facebook or twitter…don’t remember which…and decided to follow your link.

    Some issues and disappointments you mention resound with more who profess Christ than we can know or number. The final verse, as you pointed out, gets back to the Source of Love and the One who is Love-Who is far, far greater, as another song says, “than tongue or pen can ever tell.” The early believers in Jesus, devoted to Jesus, were living in the Spirit. They took that teaching seriously, to heart, and as reality. Persecuted and hiding together, facing tribunals, they loved Christ above all others, and shared Him with each other day by day. Such devotion always eventually would wean out, or filter out, the fakes, for it cannot be made up or self-produced and directed. I see that reflected in your writing, too, that you abhor the false claim or life. The love of Christ to which we testify is still beyond our complete understanding. It is meant by God to fill us so that, like the fruit tree, we don’t have to think “produce fruit,” or “love,” but we trust that He will make sure that we do, probably without our noticing most of the time. Our eyes are on Him, not on our loving. .

    I’ll revisit your blog posts to read more later. You spark thought, memory, and discussion.

  • Katdish

    I also sing on praise team, and I generally don’t care for songs that point to us rather than point to god. There was one song we sang at our old church that I absolutely hated. It sounded like the opening act in Vegas. Blaring horns and pounding piano. It was called “Church on Fire”. For me, it was so self-focused. Like we were proud of who we were instead of who we served.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    ed, isn’t it funny that the phrase “how little we bring to the table” can, in a strange way, be a good thing? I tend to think I bring a lot more to the table than I do—in other words, I like to think I can solve things, fix things, and change things all on my own, if I just put my mind to it. When I realize I can’t do it all on my own, it takes a lot of the pressure off.

    Kirstin, exactly! Your memories of the song are so funny. This is funny, too, in a sad way: “…a sense of inherent moral superiority seems to be an ecumenical trait.” When it comes to love, it seems like we all should do a lot less measuring and comparing, and a lot more *doing.*

    Genevieve, yeah, I definitely see how the song could be interpreted in that way. I was 17 before I had my first series of conversations with a professed atheist, who happened to be an exchange student and my boyfriend. It was very clear to me that he was one of the kindest, most loving teenagers I had ever met, and it wasn’t because he was a Christian. A very eye-opening realization for me. Regarding Valentine’s Day, I love hearing your perspective: “One more thing to pull me out of my routine and plunk me into a quiet dinner date, or even a chill night at home with ‘special’ cocoa and some snuggling, or an extra ‘I love you.’”

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  • http://rvreyes.com/RVR_designs/Welcome.html Raquel

    Off Topic

    I received my first issue of Geez magazine- This quarterly is right up your alley.
    Your writing should be in it.
    Here is what is on their about page:

    “We’ve set up camp in the outback of the spiritual commons. A bustling spot for the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable. A location just beyond boring bitterness. A place for wannabe contemplatives, front-line world-changers and restless cranks. A place where the moon shines quiet, instinct runs mythic and belief rides a bike (or at least sits on the couch entertaining the possibility).

    We explore the point at which word, action and image intersect, and then ignite. So let’s blaspheme the gods of super-powerdom, instigate spiritual action campaigns and revamp that old Picture Bible.

    Why? Because it’s time we untangle the narrative of faith from the fundamentalists, pious self-helpers and religio-profiteers. And let’s do it with holy mischief rather than ideological firepower.”

    Kristin- as always thank you for what you add to my life with your writing!-R.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Jennifer, you know that we sharpen and balance each other, often feeling similarly about issues, like we do, but attacking them in our own ways. I love that about our friendship (and I hope today feels less oppressive and funky for you).

    Jean, I’m so glad you made your way here! And thank you for this reminder of the ancient story we’re a part of: “The early believers in Jesus, devoted to Jesus, were living in the Spirit. They took that teaching seriously, to heart, and as reality.” It’s time to read Acts again, I love how you put this: “Our eyes are on Him, not on our loving.” It’s so hard to start doing but so easy once we do.

    Katdish, that’s a great way to classify worship songs. I guess that’s what was happening for me in the course of that one song—it goes from being about us to pointing back to the one who makes all love possible. Maybe the song just needs to be rearranged a bit. :)

    Raquel, you can go off topic as much as you want—I love your insights. I will definitely have to check out that publication. It sounds great. I especially like this: “…it’s time we untangle the narrative of faith from the fundamentalists, pious self-helpers and religio-profiteers. And let’s do it with holy mischief rather than ideological firepower.” Good stuff.

  • http://www.youtube.com/LarryLarsonPiano Larry Larson

    Very thought provoking article Kristin, thanks for writing it. I guess I have a “glass half full” view of all this. I’m in that population you refer to that could feel bad being reminded of all the gushy true love out there. I’ve had my share of that good stuff in the past, but this year it’s just me, my kitten Lola, and my Baldwin grand piano. I can’t blame Hallmark for that. And when I see other couples exchanging cards, giving each other flowers, or having romantic dinners, I don’t begrudge them. I choose to be happy for them. I choose to take responsibility for the sad fact that my only pathetic expression of Valentine’s Day romance was giving Lola a special treat. I let her drink the liquid from the bottom of my can of salmon. And I gave my piano a meaningful glance of appreciation. I was nobody’s Valentine this year, but that’s my own damn fault. Maybe if I had expressed true love more effectively in the past I’d have a rose at my bedside, or at least a can of salmon juice.
    But I do share your distain for that “They will know we are Christians by our love” song. Maybe for different reasons though. I just think it sounds sappy, and it’s overuse has made me tired of it, Maybe I’m being a bit of a picky grammarian here, but I think it just means that IF we love, then they will know we are Christians. Conditionally predictive, not descriptive of current realities. Besides, (glass half full Mr. optimist here), I see examples of genuine Christian love every day, and I choose to focus on that. Not on all the abundant evidence I see in myself and others of how we fall short. Depression–been there done, that, but there’s no future in it.
    Actually, my daughter Kaitlin is my special Valentine this year, and I am hers. I didn’t see her yesterday, but I will today. I know she’ll give me handmade card, and some gift she created. Since I’m artistically challenged, I’m grateful there’s a Hallmark store where I can find a card that expresses my love for her.
    I’m glad there’s a Valentine’s Day, and I’m glad there are so many people who can enjoy it to the fullest. I wouldn’t want my selfish jealously to rob other people of special opportunities to celebrate their love for each other. I won’t tell them to hide. Instead, I’ll steal Jack Nicholson’s line from “As Good As It Gets” when he says to Helen Hunt “You make me want to be a better man”

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    This discussion seems to go well with the gospel and homily from the mass I attended Sunday — the very long, very intense, sometimes hard to hear Matthew 5:17-37. The priest advised us to consider Jesus’ instructions as the absolute ceiling to which we reach, knowing we’re imperfect and won’t ever touch it yet God’s grace will get us the rest of the way. I think that’s the case with love too. We strive for fulfilling, not-ever-disappointing love on earth — and we can probably do pretty well — but God’s grace will get us the rest of the way.

    That said, I don’t know if anyone will know we’re Christians just by watching us try to love! (I kind of hope not — I want to believe there’s more love in the world than just what Christians provide)

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    I’ve been thinking lately about the gap between our rhetoric and actions, both corporately and personally. It started with considering the gap between the “supernatural” works we see in Acts and the lack of supernatural power in the church (and me) today. For me, the most telling revelation is the realization that we somehow think we will be able to display God’s character on our own, but we require His “power” for miracles. The truth is, we need his supernatural empowerment for Christlike character.