His eyes were blue, like an October sky. His hair was the color of sand off the beach, the kind you put in a bottle and take home for memories. I won’t mention his name, but it rhymes with schmichael. When he and I talked, I literally felt something I’d never felt with any other guy before in my life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t reciprocated. I found out he was in love with one of my close girlfriends. Schmichael and I stayed friends for a little while, but eventually we parted ways and I never told him how I felt.
If you’re alive and breathing, you know that love brings with it pain. Especially if you’re twelve and in a Pathfinder Club.
And as laughable as that first “love” can be, it doesn’t get much easier with age. You ask a girl out and she says no. The guy you like doesn’t even know you exist. Sometimes spouses are unfaithful. Marriages grow cold and hollow. Even in faithful relationships, life is fragile and it can be taken away suddenly and tragically. Through these and a million other ways, we learn that, like honey and flies, love and pain are a package deal.
Bob Goff penned the idea perfectly when he wrote that love is “like a sword without a handle and because of that, sometimes we’ll get cut when we pick it up. It’s supposed to be close contact, though. Love always is that way.”1
…love is “like a sword without a handle and because of that, sometimes we’ll get cut when we pick it up.”
My grandparents’ marriage wasn’t what most of us would call healthy, and it took tragedy to turn their “love” into something truly lovely. When I was about 12, Poppy was diagnosed with cancer. I remember how, slowly, as the doctors removed the infected organ and replaced it with a plastic tube and ballooning bag; as they used chemo to kill his good cells in the hopes of killing his cancer too; as he lost his weight and strength day by day, his life became a shaky game of Jenga. Doctors, nurses, wife, sons, and daughter-in-law all worked to see how they could put the pieces together to make him last a little longer. His health was precariously balanced on the shaky teeter-totter of his immune system, and the seeming feather weight of a common cold could easily tip the scales. Soon it became a game of simply keeping him comfortable as the cancer danced its way from bladder to liver and lungs. But amid all the charts, medications, tubes, treatment plans, and hours spent in sterile hospitals, something changed. In the last months leading up to his death, Poppy and Nanny experienced a second honeymoon. The knowledge that the clock was ticking and that the short time ahead was all they had left together sifted out the selfishness and bitterness from their marriage and, though couched in calamity, their love became young and lovely once more.
In this life, love comes, but it is always giving pain a piggyback.
And yet with as much risk as love entails, we keep coming back to it. We can try to force our energies into all other directions and pursuits of life, but somehow our hearts, like wandering nineteenth century explorers, always find Polaris and direct us back due north to Love. It’s what we write about, what we sing about, what we talk about, what we learn about, what we watch on TV. It’s what our lives revolve around.
“The fact that we can imagine any love at all is evidence of an ultimate love.”
This truth should tell us something. The fact that we keep circling back to the one thing that causes us the most pain in life, that we keep hoping for something new and beautiful and holding onto the glimmers of our expectations, should be a signal that there is a true love. To tweak how a friend put it, “The fact that we can imagine any love at all is evidence of an ultimate love.”
We might bounce back and forth like ping pong balls between following our desires and being jaded by reality, but it’s only because we’re chasing a true love that is literally out of this world. David wrote one of the most breathtaking descriptions of this love:
“How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand…” (Psalm 139:17-18).
To tell the truth, if someone’s thoughts about me outnumbered the sand, I’d be creeped out and Google how to get a restraining order faster than you can say, “I hate stalkers.” But to know that this is how God’s love for me is displayed leaves me speechless. For most of us, to have someone follow up on a Facebook birthday reminder is endearing, to have a “Thinking of You” card is thoughtful, and to have a visit is even touching. But to have someone think about us all the time only happens in our dreams.
Maybe this is why David attaches a short but oh so critical clause at the end of verse 18:
“When I awake, I am still with You.”
I never understood this part of the passage until one of my closest friends shared with me her perspective: when we wake up, that’s usually when we find out that reality doesn’t match up with our dreams. Like stepping on a Lego, we feel it sharply and it tells us not to hope for better things. We learn to tip toe around love. But David knows this. He knows that when he breaks down how off-the-charts God’s love truly is, we won’t fully engage because our gut tells us it’s too good to be true. So, he follows up his powerful comparison by telling us that when he wakes up, that same out-of-this-world God with His same out-of-this-world love is still with him. Reality and dreams finally meet. David pinches himself to make sure it’s actually true, and it is. So he tells us that the rest of the world might be a mess, but our human desire for a love better than anything we can dream of finally finds fulfillment in the heart of Jehovah.
One of my favorite childhood authors, Dr. Seuss, once said: “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”
May we spend each day embracing the reality of God’s love, may we learn to believe it with mind and heart, and may we never fall asleep again.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
- Bob Goff, Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. 193.