I was sixteen years old, standing on a porch bathed in moonlight, the taste of her lip gloss fresh on my own, when I told the girl. My first time to voice the words. I was spinning in that tornadic swirl of physical and emotional changes we have so clinically dubbed puberty. I felt some “thing” for her, a thing that was tingly and distracting and deliciously intoxicating. Like Adam, I had to name this animal roaming and roaring within my chest. So I rifled through my vocabulary for a label to pin on the feeling. And I chose the only one that seemed to fit, the sole word that kept bubbling to the surface of my lips. For I just knew that, for the first time in my life, I had fallen in love.
I was sixteen years old, I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. When I became a man, I put away such childish things.
Okay, not really. It turned out falling in love was something I had a knack for doing, so I did a lot of it, for a long time, with far too many women. She would enter my life like a cool breeze on a July day, or wrap herself around me like a warm blanket on a January night, and the next thing I knew I had lost my footing, was stumbling, and then falling, falling, falling into that thing called love.
I was no longer sixteen years old, but I was still a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. I was a long time in becoming a man, far too long in putting away such childish things.
What we call falling in love has nothing to do with love. It is not even love’s opening act, the red carpet on which love walks into our lives. Perhaps you can help me rename it? I daresay you have experienced it yourself. It is an emotional high, a fire of passion, the drug of desire, a fearfully delightful plummet into the warm abyss of possibility. It goes by many names, this falling, but it is not love. For love is not a thing into which one falls; it is an action to which one arises.
Love is patient, long-tempered when your spouse pushes your buttons, your children get on your nerves. Love is kindness toward the unkind coworker who doesn’t seem to give a damn about you. Love knows when to shut up about your pay raise or your publications or your promotion, lest pride begins blabbering. Love keeps no running tally of how many times your husband has failed you, how many times your wife has angered you. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love always asks not what others can do for me, but what I can do for someone else.
Love is not some emotional pit into which one falls; it is a sacrificial mountain which one climbs. As you climb, yes, you’ll enjoy the breathtaking beauty, but that’ll be balanced by bleeding fingers, scraped knees, aching muscles, and the inescapable knowledge that the summit will never be reached in this life. For love is a steady, lifelong climb upward.
I am almost forty-four years old. I am a man, I speak as a man, I understand as a man, I think as a man. But it took me a long time to get here. It took me half a lifetime to realize that true love is always of God, whose truest act of love was his self-sacrifice for those who loved him not. You will find no Hallmark cards with a picture of a dead Jesus on the cover, besmeared with blood, soaked in spit, with a halo of thorns. But that is love. It is the action to which God arose to save us, the cruciform mountain He was willing to climb to make us His own.
I will never have a love so pure, so all-giving as that of God. But I do have God, who works in me His own love, that I might imperfectly love others, even as He has perfectly loved me in Jesus Christ.