In this book, Robert Schuller chronicles a particularly dark period in his life and shares with the reader what he learned God was up to in his relationsips, meeting his needs like health and finances, providing guidance in his emotional life, but most of all, in learning to know and trust God more.
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About the Author
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When You Are Down to Nothing, God Is Up to SomethingDiscovering Divine Purpose and Provision When Life Hurts
By Schuller, Robert Anthony
FaithWordsCopyright © 2012 Schuller, Robert Anthony
All right reserved.
WHAT GOD IS UP TO IN YOUR RELATIONSHIPS
God Is Always with Me
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their forefathers to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
In spite of what I knew to be true theologically, I felt alone—completely alone. To this day, I marvel at how one’s feelings can take precedence over one’s true convictions. But it happened to me. What I had preached to thousands of people—“God is always with you”—I began to question. Intellectually, I knew I was loved by my wife, my children, my church’s congregation, the worldwide audience of the television broadcast on which I appeared weekly, and many good friends. And yes, I knew God loved me and was with me. But I still felt alone. If you have ever been in that “alone” place, you know how I felt—and what a scary feeling it is.
The story of how I arrived at such a lonely place is a complicated one, the details of which I won’t go into. Besides, the details aren’t really that important. They are just another verse in the long song of human drama that has been written through the ages, a song that tells of conflict, hurt, power struggles, betrayal, and not always successful attempts at closure and reconciliation.
When these dramas play out in corporate boardrooms around the world, we’re not surprised. But when they happen in Christ’s church, our hearts are broken—and we wonder why God allows it. That’s what I wondered during the latter half of 2008 as I struggled to make sense of what was happening around me—to me and to my family.
I pastored an internationally known church in California that was founded by my father. When I was invited to become the senior pastor of the church, and the speaker on the church’s worldwide television broadcast, I gratefully accepted the call, honored to follow in my father’s footsteps which had been laid out for me my entire life. But after thirty-two years of being affiliated with the broadcast, and several years of fruitful ministry as senior pastor of the church, my family members, and some other board members loyal to them, felt it would be appropriate for me to drastically curtail my responsibilities and activities. (There were differences concerning vision and governance.) In spite of having the support of the congregation and television audience, I was told that my role was to be greatly reduced in the church and the television ministry.
I was stunned by this decision and spent August through October 2008 wrestling with what to do. It was during those three months that I had to consciously remember that “the Lord is my shepherd” who promises to walk with me “through the valley of the shadow of death.” The shadows were huge and pitch black in the valley where I walked, and I have never felt so alone.
I was confused and frustrated. And yes, I was angry. Every fiber of my flesh wanted to fight for what was legally and ethically “mine”—the right to continue a ministry that was bearing fruit. But to make a three-month-long story short, I resigned in November realizing that I couldn’t fulfill my responsibilities to the church and the broadcast under the new restrictions. Positioning myself in a protracted battle with my own parents and other associates would have only sullied the name of Christ further. I didn’t know why God allowed things to happen as they did, I only knew it was not God’s fault. If removing myself from the situation would allow wounds to heal more quickly and allow the family and board to do what they felt was necessary, then that was what I needed to do. My prayer became the second half of the prayer of Jabez, “Oh… that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” (1 Chron. 4:10 NKJV).
If I had felt alone from August through October, in November I was alone! Not literally, of course—the support of my wonderful wife, Donna, and my four grown children (and that of many, many friends) was never failing. But my entire vocational support structure—that which I knew how to do and was good at doing—was gone. I had no job, no prospects, and only modest amounts of hope. But my confidence in God’s presence began to return. I regained my trust in what the Bible says, that He never leaves us nor forsakes us; that He causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
What I had learned many times in the past began to echo in my heart: “When you’re down to nothing, God is up to something!”
Like the man described in the famous Footsteps poem, I can look back now and know that when I thought I was alone in that dark valley, I really wasn’t; that the single set of footprints in the sands weren’t mine, walking alone, but His as He carried me through that period. God hadn’t abandoned me. Rather, He was with me all along—something I see more clearly today than ever before; something I want you to see as well.
My “nothing” was all too plain to me in November 2008, but it wasn’t long before God’s “something” began taking shape as well. I’ll tell you some of that story in this book to encourage you to believe with me—that when we’re down to nothing, God is always up to something. And that something is always good!
In a perfect world, you would never be alone or feel alone. You would enjoy the psychological satisfaction that comes from being in the physical, emotional, or spiritual presence of another person who you know cares for you. Note: physical or emotional or spiritual presence. Loneliness is not just the absence of another body; it is also the absence of a spiritual or emotional connection.
In a perfect world, even if you found yourself physically alone for a time, you would not feel alone. Whether you were in the presence of no one, one person, or a crowd, you would feel “accompanied” in life. If you were physically alone, you would enjoy the security of trust, knowing that others on whom you depend were faithful or loyal to you in your absence; that their love, companionship, and mutual care was not defined by physical location. Trust alone can be as reassuring as the physical presence of the person you long for. Indeed, any healthy person would rather be alone with trust than be in the presence of suspicion.
In a perfect world, you would receive constant affirmation of your existence and value. Being physically, emotionally, or spiritually alone makes it difficult, if not impossible, to receive the feedback that matters to us all. The presence of others—their physical, emotional, and spiritual presence—is a way of us hearing life’s most important words: “I want to be where you are. I have come to this place because of you. If you were not here, I would not be here. That’s how important you are to me.” While that sounds like something romantic lovers might say and feel, that kind of affirmation is not limited to romantic love alone. Affirmation is a human need, not just the need of lovers. Affirmation is an antidote to loneliness.
God created a perfect world for His creatures, human and nonhuman, to inhabit. He created pairs of creatures to solve the need for physical presence and created “soulish” bonds for creatures that they might enjoy emotional presence. But for those created in His image, He created a higher dimension of togetherness—the presence of spirit. That presence allows us to live securely in God and securely in one another—in a perfect world.
But God’s perfect world, in which no one should ever feel alone, is not the world in which we live. So we have to address the needs that arise when physical, emotional, and spiritual presence is broken. We have to discover how not to be alone in a world that sometimes feels very lonely.
Proof of God’s Presence
Fortunately, we have (almost) the entire Bible to draw upon for insights into God’s presence. Only the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two of Revelation are based on God’s perfect world (plus some visions of perfection by the Old Testament prophets). Everything in between is the world we live in—the world where loneliness is a reality.
One of the great ironies of the biblical story of creation is that God said to Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18)—when God and man had been partners in the Garden from the beginning. God saw there was no one to tend His creation, so He formed man “from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7) and put him in the midst of the Garden as a steward over it all (Gen. 1:28). As usual, science continues to corroborate God’s design—in this case, why it is not good (healthy) to be alone. A new study published in the journal Psychology and Aging has proven that loneliness can dramatically increase blood pressure. “Loneliness behaved as though it is a unique health-risk factor in its own right,” one of the primary researchers noted, increased blood pressure being a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease. No wonder God said it’s not good to be alone!
The very nature of stewardship involves relationship and interaction between master and steward. When Potiphar, the Egyptian official, made young Joseph steward over his house and property, that assignment involved instructions and interaction: “Potiphar put [Joseph] in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned” (Gen. 39:4). Potiphar and Joseph were not face-to-face continually; indeed, as Potiphar’s trust in Joseph grew, “he left in Joseph’s care everything he had; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate” (v. 6).
And therein is an illustration of why physical presence is not the only ingredient in combating loneliness. The element of trust is central—the bond that says, “Our relationship carries us forward even when you are absent. My trust in you, and yours in me, affirms our relationship.” Whether Potiphar and Joseph were in the same room was not an indication of the level of trust they shared, which Joseph validated in Potiphar’s absence by resisting the temptations of Potiphar’s wife (vv. 11–20).
Back to the Garden of Eden: God and Adam had a master-steward relationship in which Adam no doubt felt affirmed as a person. In spite of being in a close, affirming relationship with God, Adam was still, in God’s opinion, alone. Did Adam feel lonely as the only human on earth? We don’t know—but it’s obvious God wanted Adam to know that there was another dimension to his humanness.
As an object lesson, an illustration in loneliness, God assigned Adam the task of naming the animals (Gen. 2:19–20a). As the animals paraded before Adam—in pairs, no doubt—he gave them a name. At the end of the process, it must have been painfully obvious to Adam that he was the odd man out in the world: “But for Adam no suitable helper was found” (v. 20). He now understood why God had said that it wasn’t good for him (man) to be alone. God solved Adam’s problem by creating Eve, the first woman.
So man was created with the capacity for togetherness (the opposite of aloneness) in two dimensions: vertical and horizontal. Adam had the vertical relationship but was still alone until Eve joined him in the Garden, supplying the horizontal. The biblical implication is that human beings need vertical and horizontal togetherness in order not to be lonely. The person who says, “I don’t need God” or “I don’t need you” (to another person) is denying the essence of humanity: the need not to be alone. On the other side of the coin, the person who experiences a profound or debilitating sense of aloneness is manifesting a disruption of one or both dimensions of togetherness. The Catholic monk and author Hubert van Zeller wrote, “The soul hardly ever realizes it, but whether he is a believer or not, his loneliness is really a homesickness for God.”
That disruption may or may not have been intentional; the person may or may not be aware of how to remedy his or her aloneness. But at the basic level, there is a vertical reason and a horizontal reason for aloneness—and there is a priority between the two.
Though I can’t prove it scientifically, I am going to say in this chapter that the cure for aloneness begins with restoring one’s relationship with God. And that is not difficult to do because God is always there and willing. (More on that in a moment.)
Obviously, establishing togetherness with another person or persons is not easy. When imperfect human beings attempt to establish a relationship that satisfies the security, togetherness, and affirmation needs, the attempt is fraught with peril. People are imperfect, undependable, immature, unfaithful, and they change over time. And therein lies the reason that beginning with God is a better course of action. To put it simply, everything that makes human relationships hard—the imperfection of people—makes a relationship with God easy. It is God’s perfection that allows us to come to Him and never be disappointed. God is perfect, dependable, mature, faithful, and He never changes.
In later chapters, I’ll talk more about what God promises and advises about relationships with others. But for now, it’s important to know that Step One in not being alone is to put yourself in Adam’s shoes: God created Adam and wanted a relationship with him; God created you and wants a relationship with you. He wants you to have a relationship with “Eve” (with others) as well, but He wants you to start with Him.
Here’s the simplest reason I know for beginning with God: In order to have a meaningful togetherness with another person, you must know who you are. And to know who you are, you must know who you were created to be. And to know who you were created to be, you have to know your Creator-God. If life should ever deposit you on a desert island to live for the rest of your life, you should be secure in that future simply because you know who you are and that God is always with you. That fate is unlikely, of course, and your life would be diminished for lack of the horizontal dimension. But knowing God means you would not be alone.
In a famous sermon preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London on June 10, 1880, pastor Charles H. Spurgeon began his sermon with a desert island illustration:
Were you ever in a new trouble, one which was so strange that you felt that a similar trial had never happened to you and, moreover, you dreamt that such a temptation had never assailed anybody else? I should not wonder if that was the thought of your troubled heart. And did you ever walk out upon that lonely desert island upon which you were wrecked and say, “I am alone—alone—ALONE—nobody was ever here before me”? And did you suddenly pull up short as you noticed, in the sand, the footprints of a man? I remember right well passing through that experience—and when I looked, lo, it was not merely the footprints of a man that I saw, but I thought I knew whose feet had left those imprints. They were the marks of One who had been crucified, for there was the print of the nails. So I thought to myself, “If He has been here, it is no longer a desert island. As His blessed feet once trod this wilderness-way, it blossoms now like the rose and it becomes to my troubled spirit as a very garden of the Lord!”
When I was on my own desert island a few years ago, I began to see signs—footprints in the sand that meant I was not alone. I began to believe again that God had been with me all along.
Even though it feels like God is billions of miles away in heaven and we are on earth, if our relationship with God is strong and mature, then the trust factor—the love, loyalty, and promises factor—takes the place of His physical presence. When lovers part for a time with professions of love for one another, it is that intangible promise of love that keeps them company, that keeps them secure, until they are reunited. Love, loyalty, and friendship almost become personified, so powerful are their effects in keeping loneliness at bay.
But how do we know that God is always with us? Because He has said as much to many people just like you and me through the ages, and those conversations are recorded in Scripture. One can choose not to believe what the Bible says, of course. But for someone who is at all inclined to accept the reliability of God’s revelation of Himself to humankind as recorded in the Bible, there is plenty to go on.
Take Joshua, for instance—the man whom Moses groomed to take over the leadership of Israel as they entered the Promised Land of Canaan. Joshua certainly wasn’t physically alone. He was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Israelites and a group of lieutenants and aids. Yet it would have been a perfect time for Joshua to think, “It’s lonely at the top.”
Think about his task—leading an entire nation of people into a land populated by people who would be none too hospitable. It’s no wonder that Moses said to Joshua, “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deut. 31:8; italics added). Moses died, and it was time to enter the land. This time God spoke directly to Joshua: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you…. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:5, 9b; italics added).
This is such a profound promise from God—so direct, so undeniable—that nearly fifteen hundred years later the early Christians were repeating and depending on that promise. Not that they were going into military warfare, like Joshua. Indeed, they were wrestling with a battle much more akin to the ones we fight: contentedness—the temptation to resort to the world’s solutions to meet their needs instead of God’s solutions. The writer to the Hebrews wrote to his readers, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ ” (Heb. 13:5).
Now if those followers of Christ in the first century could look back to God’s promise to Joshua and rely on it in their battles against insecurity and fear of the future, why can’t we depend on that promise in our battle with loneliness?
Hebrews 13:5 wasn’t some kind of religious talk designed to placate lonely, insecure people. These Christians lived a life-and-death existence in their day. They had to depend on what was true about God—or else. As I heard an African bishop say once, “You Christians in America put your faith in blessed insurance, but in Africa all we have is blessed assurance!”
Same with the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews in the mid-first century. They had nothing but God. They really needed to know if God was with them or not. The writer could just as easily have quoted the words of Jesus himself when He commissioned His disciples to take the gospel into all the world: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). And we have confirmation that Jesus kept that promise in Mark 16:20: “Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.”
The Bible is so clear about God’s presence that the onus shifts to us in this matter: Do we really believe He is present?
Parting from God
I will be the first to admit that feeling and trusting in the presence of someone we’ve never seen or met is a stretch. There are more than two thousand years of history to bridge between us and Jesus Christ. It’s one thing to trust in the love and security of someone who is absent after having spent three years with that person, as the disciples did with Jesus. It’s quite another to live with the security of His presence having never spent time with Him physically.
The apostle Peter anticipated this disconnect when he wrote to people (who had never spent time with Jesus) who were experiencing severe persecution for their faith: “Though you have not seen [Jesus], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:8–9).
Sometimes people lose their sense of God’s presence in times of stress—yes, the stress of loneliness. The thought process is, “God must not be with me or I wouldn’t be experiencing this stress.” But that suggests God’s presence eliminates all trouble. The disciples almost drowned in a storm on the Sea of Galilee with Jesus right there in the boat with them (see Matt. 8:23–26)! Yes, in that case, Jesus stilled the storm. But the lesson is not that Jesus rescues us from the storm, but that He is with us in the storm.
If you are going through a period of loneliness in your life, there are many variables to consider. But the first one is the one I’m talking about in this chapter: Do I have a relationship with God, and do I believe He is with me? If you answered yes and yes, but still feel alone, there are some things you can do that will help you experience God’s presence.
Practicing His Presence
First, be honest with God. Tell God that you believe what the Bible says but that you’re not experiencing His presence. Tell Him that you want to grow in your confidence of His presence and His love for you, that you need His assurance that He is with you. Ask Him to show you little things that will increase your faith—ask Him to show you His footprints in the sand so you will know you are not on your island alone. Ask Him to confirm in your heart the promises of His presence. God Himself said, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jer. 33:3).
A young couple in full-time Christian ministry was considering an opportunity to move to Thailand to serve in an orphanage. They had moved a number of times before, and the mother thought their current home, in beautiful Colorado, was a place they could stay for a long time. Her life had never been more full. Her three young children were happy, they had lots of friends, and their ministry was bearing fruit. But then came the call from Thailand—she really needed to know it was from God. So she opened a Bible commentary and turned to Luke 5, the passage where her husband had found the assurance she lacked. The passage involves Jesus calling Simon Peter while he was busy hauling in a great catch of fish. The commentator wrote that Jesus’ call came at the very moment when Peter was experiencing his greatest success as a fisherman. And she felt that was the confirmation she needed from God—that God sometimes calls people to something different at the height of their fruitfulness, a seemingly illogical time to make a switch. (I can identify!) Another person, not needing what the young wife needed, might have read the same passage and not received that application. But God was there when she needed Him and answered her prayer for assurance.
Second, talk to God. Before the digital revolution, people who were separated had to write letters or send telegrams to stay in touch. Today we see people talking out loud to seemingly no one in particular until we realize they have a Bluetooth earpiece and they’re talking on their cell phone. Some people spend hours each day talking, texting, and tweeting those with whom they are in relationship. You should treat your relationship with God the same way. Back in the days of leather scrolls, the apostle Paul put it simply: “Pray continually” (1 Thess. 5:17). People today stay in touch with their friends—they might be a block away or on the other side of the world—by talking and texting continually. It’s as if they never left the person’s presence. And it’s the same with God. The more you talk to God about all the affairs of your life, the more real His presence will become.
Brother Lawrence, author of the classic book The Practice of the Presence of God, wrote, “There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”
Third, spend time with God and with others who know Him. How contradictory is it to never spend time with someone you say you want to be close to? That doesn’t work in the horizontal dimension, and it doesn’t work in the vertical either. Yes, God is with you, but you need to want to be with Him. Wherever you sense the presence of God best—church, nature, a personal devotional time, reading the Bible, prayer—pursue it. The famous British writer and apologist G. K. Chesterton once said, “When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all of Christendom.” The more you are involved with others who depend on God’s presence, the more you’ll realize you are not alone.
Finally, assume (believe) that what God says is true. The heart of this issue is found in 2 Corinthians 5:7: “We live by faith, not by sight.” You have to incorporate into your belief system the truth that God is with you. That means the battlefield is your mind. When your emotions tell you God is absent, you “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (see 2 Cor. 10:3–5). You may feel lonely, but in truth, you are not. God is with you, just as He promised.
The longer you walk with God, and the more time you spend with Him, the more confident and secure you will become in His presence. You will be living your life by faith rather than by feelings. Once you are secure in the vertical dimension of your relational life, you will know who you are. Regardless of what happens in the horizontal realm, you will know you are never alone.
What You Can’t Live Without
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13
As I left my leadership role at the Crystal Cathedral and the Hour of Power telecast, I engaged (many times) in self-talk that sounded something like this:
“Am I in pain?” (Yes.)
“Does God love me?” (Yes.)
“Is pain consistent with the love of God?” (Yes. Think of all the people, including Jesus Christ Himself, who have undeservedly suffered pain while in the will of God.)
“What does it mean to be in pain yet still be loved by God?” (It means God has a purpose in my pain; God has a reason for my experience; because God loves me, He has not abandoned me; God is with me; therefore, there is hope for the future.)
“How would the absence of God’s love make my pain different?” (I would have to conclude my pain was the result of bad luck, “karma,” or an unfortunate, arbitrary confluence of circumstances. That is, there would be no purpose in my pain.)
“How does knowing God loves me make my pain different?” (God is shepherding me through my experience. God is going to birth something good out of my pain. God loves me enough to allow me to experience a measure of pain to accomplish the promise of conforming me to the image of Jesus Christ.)
“Is God’s love meaningful enough in my life to make me willing to lose everything else except that love (which I know I can’t lose)?” (Yes.)
I have had that mental conversation with myself many times during the last few years, reminiscent of the self-soul-talks the psalmist David had with himself (see Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5). Actually, those mental meditations were prompted by a conversation a friend of mine had years ago with a counselor who helped him through his own dark valley—a conversation, at the core of which, caused me to fight my way back to the central reality of healthy human existence: the love of God.
Steve was an Episcopal rector (pastor) who, in 1971, in the second year of his marriage, heard these words from his wife: “I want a divorce.” The day his wife left, Steve met with the bishop of his diocese to talk about what had happened and what he should do. Steve poured out his heart while the bishop listened quietly to the young pastor’s doubts about whether he could, or should, continue in ministry.
And here is what the bishop told Steve that changed not only his life, but would change mine as well: “There are two things you can do, Steve. You can fulfill the ministry and call God has given you, or you can quit and walk away. It’s that simple.”
When my father told me this story during a previous dark time in my own life, the words were like a lightbulb turning on: “the ministry and call God has given you!” In other words, God loves me not because I’m perfect and sinless. He loves me in spite of the reality that I’m not. And His love includes a call to be of service to Him, blemishes and all! Even if a ministry organization asks me to leave, nothing changes the fact that God loves me and has called me into His service.
Having confessed and corrected anything for which I am at fault, I am left with two things: a clear conscience and the love of God. Reflecting on the bishop’s words to my friend, I decided God had not stopped loving me, that His call on my life was still in place, and that my only response was to prepare myself to respond anew to His leading. Because I know God loves me and has a purpose and plan for my life, I chose not to respond to pain by walking away.
How powerful is the reality of the love of God when we are down to nothing! At times like that, when it is only God and us… the love of God is enough! During my recent transition out of leadership at the Crystal Cathedral, I would sit and meditate on a piece of art several times each day—actually, at the Bible verse inscribed on it: “And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, ‘Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!’ So God granted him what he requested” (1 Chron. 4:10 NKJV). God hears our cry; He blesses us; He can enlarge our territory even when it is shrinking in around us; His loving hand will be with us; He will keep us from harm. And he will keep our pain from debilitating us.
That’s why I’ve gotten through every difficult period in life I have faced—because I know God loves me. And I know He loves you. If you are down to nothing today—maybe you’re down to your last ounce of feeling loved—know that the something God is up to begins with His love for you. With it, you can live through anything.
You may not be familiar with Harry Harlow’s name, but you have probably heard about the results of the psychological study he conducted and reported on in 1958. He titled the report on his study “The Nature of Love” and delivered it at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
As a young psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Harlow set out to study the IQ of rhesus monkeys. He began to notice the strange attachment of baby monkeys, in the absence of their mothers, to the terry cloth materials covering the bottoms of their wire cages. They would lay on the cloth, cuddle with it, and throw fits if the terry cloths were removed from their cages. This led Harlow to revise his study to consider the impact of nurture on the lives of the infant monkeys. He created wire figures with heads to represent monkey mothers, covering some with terry cloth while others were left bare. He discovered that the infant monkeys preferred a soft, cuddly, cloth-covered wire “mother” that offered no food to a plain, hard wire monkey with a bottle attached at which the baby monkey could nurse.
Prior to Harlow’s studies, it was thought that babies love their mothers first and foremost because their mothers feed them. After Harlow’s studies, the power of touch—love and nurture—was seen to be more highly valued by infants than food. As long as Harlow allowed the infant monkeys to cuddle with the cloth-covered “mothers,” he could take their food away without a fuss ensuing. But if he tried taking their terry cloth “security blankets” away from the wire frames, the infant monkeys would have none of it. Harlow concluded that the benefit of an infant nursing had as much to do with the nurture of cuddling as with nutrition.
Similar findings were made with human babies. When the Soviet Union fell and access to Soviet bloc countries was granted to Westerners, visitors, and then researchers, were shocked to discover orphanages in countries like Russia and Romania where infants were warehoused by the thousands. The only human contact many of them had was to be fed and have their diapers changed—no holding, rocking, or cuddling. And many developed poorly, mentally and physically, and many died from sheer emotional neglect—from the lack of love.
Harry Harlow had it right when he stated in his study: “Certainly, man cannot live by milk alone.” And certainly John Watson, a behavioral psychologist who wrote on childrearing in the first half of the twentieth century got it wrong when he counseled against showing too much love to children: “Do not overindulge them. Do not kiss them goodnight. Rather, give a brief bow and shake their hand before turning off the light.” I thank God my parents (apparently) never read Dr. Watson’s books!
The Centrality of Love
Thankfully, we have better ideas, biblical ideas, about love today. But they are not new ideas. The first use of the word “love” in our English Bible refers to the love Abraham had for his son, Isaac, several thousand years ago (see Gen. 22:2). From beginning to end, the Bible is a book about love—the subject is mentioned more than five hundred times and displayed in multiple stories and accounts.
But that is to be expected because God is love (see 1 John 4:8, 16). “Love” is the only noun used to describe God in the form, “God is…” Love is the essence of who God is. The greatest act of sacrifice in human history is said to have been prompted by God’s love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” (John 3:16). And the apostle Paul wrote that, while faith and hope are noble virtues, love is the noblest of all (see 1 Cor. 13:13).
You and I were created to begin, live, and end our lives in a “sea” of love. Love was meant by God to surround us, to be the air we breathe. I can say with confidence that all the insecurity and dysfunction that leads to hurtful acts and wounded people in the world can be traced back to the absence of love. Like orphaned babies or baby monkeys, we can live without a lot of things, but we cannot live without love.
Do you remember the character Tristan Ludlow in the movie Legends of the Fall? I can’t recall more positives and negatives about love arising from the life of a single character. He loved his younger brother, Samuel, passionately, but wrongly held himself responsible for Samuel’s death in World War I. Unable to forgive (love) himself after Samuel’s death, he couldn’t accept the love of the woman he wanted to love, but couldn’t. So he left her and traveled the world looking for peace. Returning, he fell in love with another woman and married her, seeming to find peace and love in his new family. Then, when she was killed in a freak accident, he again blamed himself. He retreated into the wilderness and ended his torment in a hand-to-hand battle with a giant grizzly bear, a battle he lost. Tristan Ludlow is a portrait of the tormented soul who is loved by others but cannot love himself. Unable to understand that love includes forgiveness, that love does not require perfection, he ended his life when he could not reconcile love and loss.
The Two Sides of Love
Dividing the Bible into its Old and New Testaments, we find the two enduring qualities of love that characterize God’s love for man and should characterize our love for one another.
The Old Testament’s idea of love is expressed by the Hebrew word hesed—loving-kindness or loyal love. It reflects the kind of love that God had for His covenant people Israel. Loyalty, or long-loving, is the idea of hesed. God’s love is not a fair-weather love or a sometimes love—it is a loyal love. God told His people that as long as the heavenly bodies in the sky—the sun, moon, and stars—continued in their paths, that His love for them would endure. As long as the extent of the heavens and the foundations of the earth remained immeasurable, He would love them. In other words, He would love them forever; He would be loyal to them (see Jer. 31:35–37).
At the human level, this loyal-love was expressed between the young, anointed king David and his friend Jonathan. Jonathan knew David had been anointed to replace his (Jonathan’s) father, Saul, as king, and Jonathan chose loyalty to David over loyalty to his father. When Saul was trying to kill David in order to keep his throne, Jonathan pledged his loyal-love to David by saying, “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do for you” (1 Sam. 20:4). And Jonathan kept his word, protecting David from the murderous advances of Saul.
In the Old Testament, love was loyal. It could not be distracted by a better offer. It could not be terminated because of “irreconcilable differences.” It could not be negated by unloving acts.
If love was loyal in the Old Testament, it was unconditional in the New. The well-known word for unconditional love in the New Testament is agape—a quality of love not known in the culture outside of biblical revelation. All we need to understand unconditional love is to meditate on its dimensions as listed in 1 Corinthians 13. Negatively, love is not envious, boastful, proud, rude, self-seeking, angry, doesn’t remember wrongs suffered, and doesn’t elevate darkness over light (evil over truth). On the positive side, love is patient and kind, and it protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. In short, love never fails.
When relationships fail, or break down, in life, it’s almost always because a condition wasn’t met somewhere in the murky middle ground between hurt and blame. But if there are no conditions, there can be no failure to meet them. That’s why agape love never fails—because it’s unconditional. Imagine a husband coming to a wife to admit to something hurtful he has done that he is sure will cause a rift in their relationship:HUSBAND:
“I need to confess something to you. I…”WIFE:
“I don’t care what you’ve done.”HUSBAND:
“But it’s worse than you think. I…”WIFE:
“No, I’ve thought of everything. And I don’t care what you’ve done. I love you. I forgive you.”
Granted, this is unrealistic in human relationships—but in the divine it is not. When there are no conditions for love, there is no violation egregious enough to cancel out love. That’s what “unconditional” means. (The above scenario is simplified. I wrote it that way to make a point. Husbands and wives may talk through offenses for the sake of unburdening the offender’s soul, but still arrive at the same conclusion: “My love for you is unconditional.”)
When we love by forgiving unconditionally, we take away any excuse for retaliation (“If you really loved me, you would forgive me!”) Only love that is loyal and unconditional can defuse an angry heart, humble a defensive heart, and soften a hard heart.
God knows that’s the kind of love we needed when we were separated from Him. So He sent His Son into the world to demonstrate that love and meet our need to be loved back into a relationship with Him. And He then asks us to love one another the same way: “As I have loved you [loyally, unconditionally], so you must love one another” (John 13:34). “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
Lost and Found
Like everything in life, there is a gap between God’s ideal and our execution of the idea, especially when it comes to love. I don’t have to guess or wonder about you—I know you have experienced “love” that was neither loyal nor unconditional. And probably from both sides of the equation. You have undoubtedly not been loved loyally or unconditionally at times by others, and you have likely been guilty of the same shortcomings yourself. Personally, I have been guilty on both counts.
Note: Love that is not loyal and unconditional, biblically speaking, is really not love at all. Can we stop doing something that is, by definition, loyal and unconditional? Many people mistake hormonal “like” for willful “love.” Then, when dislikes begin outweighing likes, they conclude, “I don’t love that person anymore.” The truth is, unbeknownst to themselves, they likely never did love. We are so used to hearing, “I fell out of love with him/her,” that we have adopted the mentality that drives such an erroneous conclusion. Likes can change with the seasons; love is for a lifetime.
But note: Because love is loyal and unconditional, that doesn’t mean it is always compliant. A spouse in an abusive relationship may have to walk away from a marriage. In fact, doing so may be the most loving thing to do for the sake of the abuser. Giving someone the opportunity to continue sinning is not a loving choice.
The more I experience the bitter fruit of substandard love, the more challenged I am to love better. Through the difficult times in my life I have described to you (and others that I haven’t), I have found that sustainability in life is ultimately a function of love—either someone loving me in spite of my failures, my choosing to love others in spite of theirs, my choosing to love myself, or most importantly, my choosing to love God and the life He is orchestrating for me.
I’ve been around “religion” my entire life—the Christian variety. And I can tell you that there is often a deficiency of love (including times when I have not loved as I should have). But if we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus, we have to gain God’s perspective on love. Jesus said, at a time before the New Testament was written, that the entire Old Testament can be summed up in one word expressed two ways: love—for God and neighbor (see Matt. 22:37–40).
Later, in his writings, Paul echoed that thought, saying, “Love is the fulfillment of the [Old Testament] law” (Rom 13:10). He said the obligation we have to love one another is a never-ending debt (see Rom. 13:8-10). We can never love too much or too long. Just when we think we have discharged our debt to love another person, one who is particularly unlovely in our eyes, Paul says, “Sorry. Love is a never-ending debt. You are never free to stop loving.” (Loving the person, that is—not loving everything a person does.)
Yes, only God can love nonstop, loyally, and unconditionally. It’s not in our human nature to love that way. But if God is alive and well in you, through your faith in Christ, then you have the Holy Spirit, the first fruit of whom is love (see Gal. 5:22). It is the Holy Spirit (Christ in you) who will convince you that you are loved by God and who will give you the power to love others.
When you reach the “down to nothing” points in your life, take it from someone who has been there. God’s promise to always love you is real. The most important lesson you can learn in those down days is that you are loved by God, loyally and unconditionally. And if there is a person in your life—a spouse, a child, a friend—who is down to nothing, the thing they need more than any other is love. They need God’s divine love and your divinely inspired love as well.
Please remember: Love is the most important reality in human life. When you’re down to nothing, God is up to something that will show you how much you are loved. As someone has well said, “The true measure of God’s love is that He loves without measure.” Receive that never-ending love yourself and then give it away in full measure to others.
Being Together Is Better
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
Excerpted from When You Are Down to Nothing, God Is Up to Something by Schuller, Robert Anthony Copyright © 2012 by Schuller, Robert Anthony. Excerpted by permission.
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