• Edwin Lin

TLimS Week 8: John 15

Continuing from last week, and the common starting point that we're all social people and need to be loved unconditionally and sacrificially, this week, I want to talk about what happens to our friendships when God provides us with the love that we so desperately need.

To be honest, I have no idea how to go about talking about this subject, so I guess I'll just share how I came to learn, think about, and reflect on it. It all started with a book. One year, my discipler in college gave me a book called Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen... I think it was my junior year? I don't quite remember. I just remember that it was pretty much out of the blue--maybe for my birthday or something. He didn't tell me anything about the book, and it wasn't one of those gifts you get for people because it helps them with a problem they're going through, or you just think this person would really like the book. Instead, Brad (my discipler) just said, "It's one of my favorite books of all time, and so I wanted you to have it." He didn't know at the time, and I'm not sure if he really knows now, but God would use this book to deeply change my perspective on my relationships and my spiritual life. I've since gone on to read as many Nouwen books as I can get my hands on :).

Reaching Out starts off by dealing with one of the core problems of the human condition: loneliness. It is kind of like what I was saying last week about people needing people, and in particular, needing a love that we truly can't find on this earth. Only by really immersing ourselves in God's love can we ever be reprogrammed so that we are capable of loving others the way God loved us.

Henri Nouwen tackles a similar subject, but does so in the context of friendships/relationships, and through the lens of loneliness. In probably my absolute favorite passage of all spiritual writings of all time, he says:

There is much mental suffering in our world. But some of it is suffering for the wrong reason because it is born out of the false expectation that we are called to take each other's loneliness away. When our loneliness drives us away from ourselves into the arms of our companions in life, we are, in fact, driving ourselves into excruciating relationships, tiring friendships and suffocating embraces... No friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness. And by burdening others with these divine expectations, of which we ourselves are often only partially aware, we might inhibit the expression of free friendship and love and evoke instead feelings of inadequacy and weakness. Friendship and love cannot develop in the form of an anxious clinging to each other... As long as our loneliness brings us together with the hope that together we no longer will be alone, we castigate each other with our unfulfilled and unrealistic desires for oneness, inner tranquility and the uninterrupted experience of communion.
It is sad to see how sometimes people suffering from loneliness, often deepened by the lack of affection in their intimate family circle, search for a final solution for their pains and look at a new friend, a new lover or a new community with Messianic expectations. Although their mind knows about their self-deceit, their hearts keep saying, "Maybe this time I have found what I have knowingly or unknowingly been searching for." (emphasis mine)

When I first read this, it was as if a veil was lifted and Nouwen was speaking directly from my soul. I felt like these words had always been inside me and had been dying to get out--to show me what was going on inside of me, and to put it in words that I could never have ever described for myself. This was my life growing up. This was all my relationships up through college.

In my very first post on this series, I told the story of "losing" two closest friends, and how this loss drove me to feel depressed and to question God--a crisis of faith. After reading this, I realized that it was because I had been unknowingly placing these "Messianic expectations" on my friends. I was hoping that someone would be able to save me from my loneliness.

But it is only God who can know us that deeply, who can fill the depths of our hearts' desires, and who can love us the way we need to be loved.

"My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."

I often wonder how much of our church interactions with community are driven by loneliness, and how much is simply an overflow of God's love. Don't get me wrong, I love church community and I do wholeheartedly believe that the church is meant to be like a second family. But do people reach out to one another in hopes that "maybe this time I have found what I have knowingly or unknowingly been searching for," or are people reaching out to each other, not for selfish fulfillment, but to sacrifice themselves, to lay down one's life out of love for their friends?

From the outside, it may look the same: people spending tons of time with one another, wanting to share in meaningful moments, hanging out, cooking together, living through life's ups and downs together. But invisibly, a community/friendship built on fear and loneliness is ultimately destructive, temporary, and suffocating, whilst a community/friendship built on sacrificial love is beautiful, God-glorifying, and eternally fulfilling.

If we are filled with God and His love for us, if we become people who are fully satisfied by Him, if we allow God to become the provider and shepherd in our emotional and relational lives, then we can go to every party, church-gathering, and get-together already filled and ready to sacrifice for others. We can go looking for how we can serve one another and love one another and support one another. We can go desiring an opportunity to show grace and love to our friends. Oh how beautiful such a community would be!

My hope and prayer is that I would come to deeply know this kind of love... that I would always look at my friends and my community as a place where I can overflow and extend God's love in me. That I might experience God's love so deep that I never suffocate those around me, but instead, can show no greater love than to lay down my life for my friends.