I finally found the crack in Matt’s defenses when I raised the subject of love. He was a hardened atheist. We were friends and conversations about faith and philosophy were not uncommon. Calling him smart is an understatement. Science and math were fun to him.
I had never seen him antagonistic towards the Christian faith until he went to college. Some first year Geology professor fed straw-man critiques of Christianity to the class and he swallowed them — hook, line, sinker, and boat. From there his greatest mentors were people named Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris. Interactions with him became contentious and exhausting, straining many of his relationships.
But I enjoyed talking with Matt. I liked him. His questions were not difficult or groundbreaking. I tackled each one with sincerity, but he never liked the answers. So he’d move to a new question without addressing my previous answer.
One day I took our conversation in a different direction. I asked him about tucking his daughters in bed at night. I asked him if he loved them. The answer was easy because he’s a great dad, but I was setting him up.
“Of course I love them.”
“When you tuck them in at night and give them a kiss before walking out of the room, do you tell them the truth or do you lie?”
He had no clue where I was going with this, but like a deer who pops his head up with ears perked out, his intuition was screaming to beware of a trap. He just didn’t know what the trap was. So he kept walking into it.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you tell them you love them as if that was a genuine affection you’re capable of having by your own choice or do you tell them the truth about what you believe?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You say there is no God. We are all cosmic accidents. Bags of chemicals. We’re big machines doing what evolution preconditioned and programmed us to do by our survival instincts passed down for millions of years. If you’re correct, then love isn’t real. It’s brain fizz. It’s just a chemical reaction happening at the material level, there’s nothing transcendent about it and nothing real about it. Love is only a survival mechanism. If God doesn’t exist, then neither does love, at least not the kind that means anything.”
Matt sat looking at me, his eyebrows furrowed, thinking and realizing the implications of what I said. He saw the problem with what he claims to believe (philosophically) and how he lives (practically). His beliefs and behaviors didn’t match. His real feelings of love didn’t have a room in the home of his worldview.
Matt eventually became a Christian. Our conversation served as a turning point. What caused him to reflect beyond the typical debate questions and pierced through his hardened defenses?
I won’t mention Huey Lewis again so soon (that would make two articles in a row). But there is an 80s band with a number one song that started with the lyrics, “The power of love is a curious thing.” And they’re right.
Love is a powerful reality. It pierced Matt’s heart, diffusing his run-of-the-mill questions. Love was a problem for his atheistic beliefs. But the power of love gives Christians a problem to work through too.
Love has powerful effects on our lives. Something changes in us. A danger in loving anything or anyone is we experience hurt. First time parents often say, “I can’t imagine loving anything like I love this child.” When conversations about having another child emerge or they discover they’re pregnant, they fear not having enough love to give the new arrival. But that’s not how love works. Because love comes from God, love grows. Love expands. We don’t borrow love from one child to give to the next one, our capacity to love expands. Love grows.
But here’s a problem this brings: our expanded capacity to love doesn’t retract when we lose what we love. It leaves a void.
Katrina and I have had three children. Our capacity to love grew each time. Our love grew beyond only loving each other when Kaleb came into the world. Then our capacity to love grew as Kaleigh and Kyra joined our family. Love has expanded in a big and beautiful way.
But after Kaleb’s death our love for him didn’t go away. There’s just a void of all the things our love for him involved: hugging him, kissing him, bathing him, running him to basketball games, buying him gifts, going to hockey games, and countless other things. Love is more than a feeling. It’s an affection amplified and grown through actions. But there are no longer any actions. There is a love for him in our hearts without an object to direct it towards. We can’t disperse it to our other children. It’s stays there. It’s a love for him.
I know the responses folks will offer to what I’ve written. “But you can still love him even though he’s gone.” “One day you will get to love on him again.” “You can direct the love you have for him towards God.” Yes, and amen. These are true. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the hurt and pain, the problem love brings with it. Love grows and expands. But it leaves a hole when what we love is gone. Like the collar of a t-shirt that sags and droops because it’s stretched, you can’t reverse or undo the effects of love.
Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” No argument from me. He’s right. The power of love is that nothing else compares to it. The God who is love made us in his image, and we long for love every waking moment. But pain comes if we lose it, or its object; it’s brutal. That’s the power and problem of love. It’s necessary to our enjoyment and flourishing in life. And guaranteed to hurt us. If only there were a Huey Lewis song to help us.