December 2023
Spiritual formation
Love Cannot Be 'This' for 'That'

We tend to have a transactional view of love. But a circular view of love is more biblical. Love is not trading "this" for "that." It's trading all of us and expecting nothing in return.

I was reading through a book manuscript the other day, and it was making me think of a previous article I wrote about Job ("Job and the Deadly Spiritual Equation"). The author of this manuscript made a point that, while I already knew it conceptually, still drew me into wonder. Here it is, in my own words: True love must be able to offer everything in exchange for nothing.

Stare at those words. Your impulse might be to agree with the statement immediately. But let the silt in your mind settle for a moment. Examine yourself in the context of one concrete relationship. How often do you act in self-interest with the guise of love? How many times do you do something for someone else without expecting to receive anything in return—no reciprocation, no delayed gratification, no ego stroke, no thanks? Can you show love to someone and at the same time be at peace with invisibility?    

Relationships vs. Transactions

When we're honest with ourselves, most acts of "love" are done with some hope, if not an outright expectation, of reciprocation. We may not think that the person we buy coffee for will return the favor, but we'll at least get a "thank you," right? I mean, that's just common courtesy.  

True love must be able to offer everything in exchange for nothing.

This approach to love is transactional. It sounds cold when we put it that way, as if expecting a "thank you" from someone is selfish and mechanistic on our part. I'm aware that we have social norms and that there is such a thing as common courtesy. That's not really the question here. The question is whether love can be true if we feel slighted or jilted when we don't receive some form of reciprocation, even a "thank you." As I'll suggest in a moment, I don't think it can be true if that's the case.

When our approach to love is what we might call relational (I elsewhere call this circular), our love serves a relationship, but that doesn't necessitate reciprocity. True love is wanting the best for someone regardless of your involvement. In the context of your relationship with another, love says, "I want you to have this." And here's the key: The beloved may not even hear your voice or give ample recognition to your love. And that's okay. You loved for their sake, not for yours. You love because, in your relationship, you want this person to go higher, and you're content if that means you go lower, or go unnoticed altogether. Love is not love if it's quid pro quo.

Job and God's Love

Now, back to Job. This transactional vs. relational view of love is really at the heart of the book. In fact, it's right at the beginning where Satan starts bad-mouthing this man whom God said was above reproach. Satan attacks Job twice. First he takes his property and family. Then he takes his health. What was his motive in both cases? To show that Job was really a transactional God-worshiper. Look at his two attacks.

Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”  (Job 1:9-11)

Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 2:4-5)

Job is accused of being a transactional lover of God. And Satan takes two stabs at this. First, Satan says, "God, you bless Job materially, so of course he 'loves' you! You give, and then he gives. Everyone's happy. But watch what happens when you stop giving." When Job remains faithful after great loss, Satan takes his second stab. "God, you've given Job his health, so of course he 'loves' you! Everyone's still basically happy. You give your 'this' (health), and Job gives his 'that' (worship and faithfulness). It's just a transaction! But watch what happens when you take his health?"

The rest of the book is about Job's friends revealing just how shallow their understanding of love is. They seem bent on upholding what I call "the deadly spiritual equation." Really, this is just another way of supporting a transactional view of love. "We do good; we benefit. We do ill; we suffer." For Job's friends, he must have done something wrong to receive this suffering. He must have. Because that's how the world works, like an equation, like a transaction. You give me "this," and I give you "that."      

The Problem with Transactional Love

The problem with this transactional approach to love is that it makes absolutely no sense of the gospel. In fact, it makes no sense of our entire relationship with God. God is fully satisfied in himself. He's all-knowing, all-powerful, self-satisfied, and wholly good. He doesn't need anything from us. There's literally nothing we can give to God that he doesn't already have. The transactional approach to a divine-human relationship makes sense from our end, but not from God's.

But, perhaps more importantly, a transactional approach to love makes no sense of the gospel. By the Spirit, our Father gives everything to us in the person of his Son (Eph. 1:3; 2 Cor. 6:10). And what does he get from us? The faithfulness, worship, and devotion that we were supposed to be giving him from the start. If you cheat your way through five rounds of poker with a friend, your friend won't overflow with gratitude if you eventually stop cheating and say, "Okay. Because I love you, I'll give you back what I stole from you." If you try that out, the best you can hope for is that your friend won't jump across the table to tackle you. You're not giving your friend some grand gift; you're just returning what you stole.

Imagine something like this on a cosmic scale. God doesn't really get something from us in the gospel. He gives everything to us out of what? Out of love. "“For God so loved the world, that he gave . . . (John 3:16). There's nothing on the other side of that equation. It's not, "God gave us his Son so that we could give him X." There's no X. What makes the gospel so amazing is that we couldn't possibly ever repay God. There is no transaction. There is only an invitation to relationship.

Now, of course, that doesn't mean we don't change as a result of accepting the gospel. We certainly do, but we change because our hearts of have been renewed by a relationship. We show love to God not because of what we might get but because of how much we adore him.

The same should apply, in a different sense, to our earthly relationships. We show love to others because God showed love to us. But we don't love others so that they will show love to us. That turns the relationship into a transaction. It becomes a this-for-that deal.

God didn't need anything from us, and yet he gave everything for us.

True Love

True love is special because it offers everything in exchange for nothing. That's the mystery of love. And it's a mystery God lived out in the gospel of Jesus Christ. God didn't need anything from us, and yet he gave everything for us. Why? I. Don't. Know. There's no rationality to it. The gospel transcends reason. It blossoms high up in the ether of divine-human relationship. It draws us to worship, not to weigh and measure.

True love can never be "this" for "that." There is no transaction in true love, no giving for taking. All palms are always open. On the cross, that's how Christ showed himself to a world that took his very life. Both palms open, holding out not some worldly gift, but himself. And all those who take his hand need to keep remembering that true love offers everything in exchange for nothing.            

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