In a season that seems to be drippy with sappy love, my mind has been thinking of all the things love cannot do. Less you think me a misanthrope, allow me to explain myself.
In his short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin writes about the limits of human love. In one poignant scene, a dying mother gives advice to her oldest son in response to his vow regarding his younger brother, Sonny. With the best of intentions, the dutiful older brother seeks to reassure his mother, “Don’t you worry, I won’t forget. I won’t let nothing happen to Sonny.”
His mother responds, “You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there.”
In a different short story entitled, “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” Baldwin addresses a similar theme. The story describes the fatherly fears of African-American father for his mixed son, Paul. The father, a famous actor, shares some of his fears with a friend and director who responds with a hauntong statement,
“You believe in love. You do not know all the things love cannot do, but” – he smiles – “love will teach you that.”
Both of these scenes, read a few days apart, left me with lingering thoughts about the limits of human love.
You see, I am parenting teenagers. I am also called to the ministry of sentient souls. Both of these callings have me regularly running into the limits of human love.
No matter how much I love the refugee family we have had the privilege of befriending, I cannot erase their traumatic memories. I cannot protect their children who were thrown into school to learn an entirely new culture and language from funny looks or hurtful comments. I can only entrust them to One who goes with them on school grounds where I cannot go (1 Corinthians 2:11).
No matter how much I shield my children, I cannot protect them suffering, though I can do my best to prepare them for it and give them a biblical framework upon which to hang all the hardness of life (John 16:33;
2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 1 Peter 4:12-19).
As I watch multiple sets of dear friends walk their children through horrible sicknesses, I am reminded that we cannot heal our children. We can only point them to One who will one day (hopefully soon) make an end of sickness and sin, tears and trouble forever (Revelation 21:1-5; Isaiah 25:6-8).
No matter how many skill sets and opportunities we offer our children, we cannot plan their lives. We can only point to the One who already knows each of their days (Psalm 139:16).
No matter how type-A we try to be, we will never be able to know the number of days our loved ones have on this earth. We can only learn to count and treasure each one as it passes (Psalm 90:12; Luke 2:19)..
No matter how many books we offer those who come to our church, no matter how clearly the Word of God is articulated, we cannot make them see Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can do that (John 3:5-8; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
James Baldwin was correct. All forms of human love (sterge, parental love; eros, romantic love, and phileo, brotherly love and affection) are limited. There are so many things that these loves cannot do.
However, Baldwin did not address agape love, the love to which all the others point and from which all the others stem. Where these loves fail and falter, agape love abounds.
We can claim these truths and depend on such agape love only because the unlimited One whose very habitat was Triune love became limited (Philippians 2:5-8). He was failed and flogged by flawed human love so that He might freely offer us agape love.
Only his limitless love enables me to submit to the limits of human love. Only the reality of his abundance allows me to admit the poverty of my love. While these realities aren’t the sappy sentimental realities we want to hear, they are the truths that we need to hear.