Loving Within Limits

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

This well-known prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr provides some guidance for those who want to know how to love within the limits imposed upon us by time, space, the past, the present, ignorance, differences between the sexes, different love languages, and other frustrating factors.

Some things cannot - or should not -be changed. These include our marital status. The Bible teaches that God hates divorce, for example.(Malachi 2:16)

So, if I am a Jew or Christian who takes the Scriptures seriously and who is unhappy with my marriage, I have not liberty to leave one partner and marry another. Nor may I "cleave" (cling) to anyone other than the one whom I promised to love until death parted us.

Age, gender, past experiences, and the natural boundaries of time and space stand before us as immovable barriers to some expressions of our love for someone of the other sex.

These we must simply accept as from God. The New Testament teaches that "all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). A Christian may, therefore, be "giving thanks always for all things," because all things - no matter how frustrating or painful -  are gifts from God to his people, meant somehow to advance their growth into greater moral conformity to their Creator (Ephesians 5:20; 1:4; 5:1-2).

Of course, non-believers are at liberty to complain about their lot and do all they can to break out of the prisons in which they think they are unfairly bound, but millennia of history, not to mention virtually every love story, should have amply demonstrated by now that self-centered, moral law-defying actions are like powerful waves that crash and dissipate into mist the moment they encounter the rocks of the fundamental ethical principles of the universe. Nothing but misery results.

On the other hand, if we actually thank God for the boundaries which he has set all around us, and submit willingly to them, we may find them to be like tracks on which a high-speed train can race smoothly to its appointed destination - greater and greater resemblance to the self-sacrificing, ever-giving love of Christ and of God.

"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5). When confined by circumstances which cannot be altered, then we may beg God to guide us into his will. Perplexed about how rightly to love another, or how to show that love, we may confidently petition the Author of love, the one who created us as male and female, to lead us into the way of love.

God gives wisdom, but only to those who listen daily to his voice as revealed in the Scriptures, and who humbly ask the advice of others who can provide godly and wise counsel. (Proverbs 2:1-22; 3:3-6; 4:1-27; 8:6-9, 32-36) Pagan or worldly suggestions should be rejected, however, for they only direct us to the door that opens onto destruction and death. So, a group of divorced friends, or those living in adultery, or those whose values come from the narcissistic culture of television, movies, and romance novels, will not be of much use to someone sincerely desiring to do what is right.

In short, confronted with unchangeable realities, we must, first, accept this fact; then, give thanks for it; and finally, ask for wisdom from God. In all this, we will experience God afresh, and come to appreciate what the Son of God did when he chose to pour his immense deity into the body of a little baby in first-century, Roman-occupied Palestine. Certainly, the man Jesus had to live, and love, within the tight restrictions of time, place, social situation, gender, marital status, net financial worth, and a very short life.

Can we imagine that Jesus did not look with male appreciation upon the women who devoted their lives to him? Did the one who commanded men not to look upon a woman with the intention to lust after her (Matthew 5:28) not have known the attractive power of feminine beauty? We are told outright that he "loved" Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. (John 11:5) Just as clearly, Mary - especially Mary - loved Jesus with all her being, and did not hesitate to express her love as tangibly as she could (see John 12:1-3).

Must we suppose that Jesus, as a normal male, never wanted to give Mary a holy hug, or even a chaste kiss on the cheek? Perhaps reverent orthodoxy demands such a supposition, but I find it both unlikely and unnecessary.  I may be wrong, but I think that his full humanity included natural human affection, while his spotless character saved him from the least taint of illicit desire or inappropriate behavior.

In other words, we must not think that we alone must live, and love, within the limits of God's law and the unalterable "rocks" that stand in the way of unrestrained displays of affection for the other sex.

(To be continued)