We have big expectations about how things are going to go, how people are going to act and how “magical” we’re going to feel.
As a kid growing up, I longed for holiday bliss. Instead, this time of year often seemed to be the perfect opportunity for all my family’s barely-concealed dysfunction to light up like a Christmas tree.
When I became a mom and had my own family, I was determined holidays were going to be different. In fact, they were going to be downright enchanted.
Everyone was going to be loving, joyful, wonderful and grateful. We were going to be just like those families on the commercials.
Anybody have any guesses how that turned out?
Yep. Sometimes more National Lampoon’s than Norman Rockwell.
Expectations can be crushing. They put us and our families under tremendous pressure that sets us up for disappointment.
We don’t do this just around the holidays though, do we? We do it all year round — with our kids, our spouses, our co-workers, our friendships.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus gave us a flesh-and-blood illustration of a better way to love. He didn’t demand our love or performance. Instead, He gave us a perfect example of a very unexpected kind of love — agape love. Love without expectation.
Agape love “is the highest form of love, charity; the love of God for man and of man for God … Agápē embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends that and serves regardless of circumstances.”
Another definition describes it as “Love as revealed in Jesus, seen as spiritual and selfless and a model for humanity.”
I’ve often failed miserably at loving like this. But when I do, it makes all the difference.
So what does agape love look like and why is it so unexpected?
Agape love doesn’t expect anything in return.
Jesus was the King. Perfect. All-powerful. All-knowing. He could have left us in all our rebellion and dysfunction. And yet He came here, born in a stable, laid in a manger and died a horrific, humiliating death for us.
When I’m tempted to demand my “rights” or believe I am owed something, I think of Jesus.
A number of years back, I went through a difficult season in my marriage. I could only see my side, how our struggle was affecting me.
All the while, my anger and resentment continued to build. Then, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart a couple of simple, but powerful questions that rocked my world: “How do you think this is affecting him? What is your role in this?”
All my expectations were not unreasonable. Nor were his. And I’m certainly not saying we should be a doormat in our relationships. We can and should speak the truth in love. But instead, I made demands. I wallowed in self-pity. I made it all about me.
And here’s the bottom line: It wasn’t bringing us closer together. It wasn’t changing his heart or mine.
As I began to acknowledge my own contribution to our difficulties, I felt the resentment gradually begin to lift. I felt my love for him begin to increase. Through God’s power (certainly not my own!), I began to offer him agape love. It was the start of a new day.
There are no guarantees. But this kind of love does set the stage for the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts and lives — and in the lives of others — in amazing ways.
Agape love believes the best, but doesn’t manipulate or demand it.
“Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” 1 Corinthians 13:7
Luke 15 tells the story of the prodigal son: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.” (v.11-12)
Notice that when the son wanted to leave, the father didn’t tell him how ungrateful he was and demand that he stay. When the son made foolish choices, he didn’t go find him and try to drag him back home.
But he doesn’t give up on him either. He never loses faith. He continues to believe for the best.
My daughter Molly has always been independent and strong-willed. During her teen years, she repeatedly told me, “I know what you’re saying is right, Mom, but I have to learn it the hard way.”
At 18, she left home, got a job, moved in with a friend and was pretty much self-supporting. Her full-fledged journey into learning lessons “the hard way” — without the restraint of mom and dad — began.
At times, it was so hard to watch. I wanted to do something.
In the middle of my angst, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart three little words: “Let. her. go.” But doesn’t love take action? Sometimes. Agape does what is in the best interest of the other person. Sometimes that is doing something. Sometimes that is doing nothing.
I also felt God saying: “Just love her.” At times that has meant listening. At times, I sense the Holy Spirit prompting me to speak the truth in love. But He never tells me to demand or expect anything in return.
I know God is using all this in her journey. I have seen her grow and mature in incredible ways. I believe that her strong will is an asset that God will continue to shape for her good.
I fully believe that she is finding her way. Just like the father in Luke 15, I see her coming.
“And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming.” Luke 15:20
Agape love takes the long view.
Outside of his disciples, Mary, Martha and Lazarus may have been closest to Jesus. He loved them deeply. Yet, when Mary sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was dying, he waited two days before coming.
Why? Why would He do that? Jesus could have healed their brother. Instead, He let him die. From our limited perspective, when God fails to relieve our pain immediately, it seems cruel. I imagine that’s how Mary and Martha felt: “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'” Luke 11:21
But Jesus wanted so much more for them than earthly healing.
Jesus wanted them to see that He has power over death because that is what they would need to know about Him when they would see His lifeless body in a tomb not long after this.”
For 16 years, I’ve been making my son, who has cystic fibrosis, do his treatments. I’ve taught him difficult lessons he doesn’t want to learn. When he moans, “You don’t understand. Why do you make me do this?” I want so badly to let him off the hook.
But relieving his temporary discomfort will not equip him for the future. For the time when I won’t always be around.
As difficult as it is, as cruel as it may seem to him, I have to take the long view.
Loving this way is hard — impossible on our own. But God doesn’t expect us to do it alone.
Romans 5:5 tells us, “And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.”
When we ask the Holy Spirit to help us comprehend the love that He has for us — when His love fills our hearts, He empowers and inspires us to give that love to others. It is nearly a natural result.
The more we are aware and appreciate of God’s love for us, the more we are able to give it to others.
The book of Luke tells the story of a woman, most likely a former prostitute, who washed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and her tears. In an exchange with a Pharisee who questioned why Jesus would interact with such a woman, Jesus said this: “Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; that’s why she loved much. But the one who is forgiven little, loves little.” Luke 7:47
One of the Bible Commentaries I read essentially explained it this way: Her great love was not the reason her sins were forgiven, but being forgiven was the reason for her great love.
As we remember what Jesus did for us this Christmas season, I pray that each of us has a renewed gratefulness for the love of Jesus.
That kind of gratitude empowers us to love others —unexpectedly.