“They dream in courtship, but in wedlock wake.”
Alexander Pope artfully penned that sentiment. It resonates because it has been felt like a chigger bite, irritating generation after generation, who’ve been aggravated to realize that looking forward to life together is much breezier than muddling through sleepless nights with a terrorizing infant who hates sleep but loves screaming or having the same unproductive, inane argument about God’s preferred method of dishwasher loading for years which succeeds only in demoralizing two hitched folks who are both certain they are right.
Of course, it isn’t only marriage that is susceptible to the doe-eyed dreaming which gives way to tear-stained cheeks and agitated souls. It’s being part of a church, a team, or a business as well.
Loving Weddings, Hating Marriage
Bonhoeffer has asserted that most of us find it far simpler to adore our dream of the community, than the community itself, with all its pettiness, bad-breath, and embarrassing tweets.
We all seem genetically pre-disposed to find the idea of love, breath-taking, but likewise suffer a debilitating, throat-closing anaphylaxis when it comes to loving the only actual person (aka, “a spouse”) to whom we’ve ever pledged our future love. Billions of dollars of Pinterest worthy pics of marital beginnings confirm that folks love weddings. And scores of discount family-dismantling attorneys on billboards around town likewise assure that we can’t really stand the marriages those sepia-themed weddings created.
An old doctor, in Brother’s Karamazov tells on himself and on us as well, when he reveals, half-mockingly:
“I find that the more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. ‘In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty four hours, I begin to hate the best of men, one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”
Don’t Love Everyone?
It can’t be a coincidence then that our formational mandate as followers of Jesus is never as simplistic and possibly deceptive as to love everyone. We are given much more specific, comprehensively more costly instructions.
Love, we are urged, not all Asians, Russians, and South Americans, but your neighbor. Love, we are told, not all the countries of the European Union, but rather, the over-talkative, but embarrassingly unself-aware balding man in front of you who’s just told you all the ways you are erring as a parent, where you should go on vacation, and the best firm to hire for your company’s payroll and bookkeeping needs.
General commands for general groups are by-passed.
Specific commands are issued for real time. This isn’t to suggest of course that we aren’t called to love broadly and widely. It is to keep us from self-deception. It is meant to keep us from preferring abstractions to reality.
Cultivating Imaginary Loves and Real Hatreds
It is to make sure that we aren’t “loving” Chinese rice farmers we have never met while secretly, but actually, disdaining the spouse who continues to leave his wet towel in the bathroom floor. To do so is, as Screwtape urged, a perfectly devilish strategy to derail us:
"Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient's soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”
God, if he actually loves us, will not permit us, prophesies Bonhoeffer, to live, even for a moment in a dream world. Instead, his ardent affection will shatter illusions we hold about community so that we drop our pet projects and cherished aspirations for the community’s future in favor of embracing what and whom he has placed immediately before us.
God Makes our Neighbors
Chesterton understood another angle of love’s particularity as well when he surmised,
“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one's duty towards humanity, but one's duty towards one's neighbor.”
Neighbors are the actual people with whom we shake hands. They shave in the morning, and drive pick-up trucks too slowly when we are in a rush. They wear too much perfume, or else, a cute pair of shoes you wish you had.
They have an address eerily similar to ours. Or an office right next door. They compete for our jobs, our promotions, our attention. They need our help when they are painting, and it will always be at the busiest time of our week, on Tuesday afternoon.
They are the folks at supper we actively but accidentally evade as we scroll through scores of images of stylized folks on Instagram who are everywhere but where we happen to be at the moment. Their breath has offended us, and their troubles have gotten on us. They are the very ones we are actively becoming strangers to while cultivating a football-field wide, but Saran-wrap deep acquaintanceship with others across the inter-webs.
Phil Dunfee, on Modern Family, once had an epiphany about his wife Claire, whom he suddenly glimpsed in a new and stunning light. He reflects on how hard it is to maintain a certain adoring awe when you are in close quarters with another:
“That’s the hard thing about marriage, you marry this extraordinary person and over time you start to see them as ordinary…I think it’s all the nagging.”
But It’s Nourishing Too!
But for all that can so perilously rub us the wrong way about concrete expressions and requirements with the actual folks we encounter, it is also the avenue down which we walk to have unexpected collisions with the nourishing love of God. When we love each other, we’re reassured, “God’s love is made complete in us.”
No wonder then that the Apostle benedicts with the wishful prayer that “God may make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else....” There is a sweetness and refreshment our Lord intends, even in the loving of our most ardent enemies, that needs frequent multiplying.
Let’s pray we’d daily see each person who comes across our path, whether a customer, spouse, or an inconsiderate neighbor, as “an assignment from the Lord” entrusted to us to fulfill our communal vocation of doing them good with the resources that the Lord himself is brokering through us in real time, even on busy Tuesday afternoons.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at firstname.lastname@example.org