“My husband fell three times last night. I had to give him a cloth bath because he lost control of his bowels.” The woman was my first patient this morning. A young woman’s journey with her husband, diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), which has become debilitating.
During our one hour video session she made one comment that stuck.
“My big question for the day is do I clean the kitchen or go snuggle with my husband on the couch, because the days seem short.” Sharing love with her husband trumped all other concerns.
Earlier that morning I had read the news with my morning coffee. Updates on the “big issues” of life: riots in Washington, election fraud and economic fears. The rise of mental health issues, overburdened hospitals and social chaos. A bleak beginning to my day.
Then came that 8am patient and her husband dying from ALS.
I couldn’t shake her simple and beautiful expression of love for her husband. The little things. Caring for him in his humiliation and inability to control his bodily functions. The soft touch of her hand as she shared a movie on the couch and left the dirty dishes in the kitchen – this thing called love.
I realize we have big issues. Battles we need to fight, values to be defended and God’s Truth upheld at all costs. But if we forget love we become nothing more than a noisy gong.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1Corinthians 13: 1-3)
It is interesting that the apostle Paul lists actions we normally associate with loving God: faith, dedication to knowledge, moving mountains (overcoming life’s obstacles), feeding the poor and self-sacrifice. Yet one can perform good deeds and miss God’s concept of love. God does not want our sacrifices, church programs or systematic theologies. He wants our hearts. He wants us to love him with all our heart, minds and souls and love our neighbors as ourselves. It is from that love that all deeds should flow.
I don’t think God’s redemption was Paul’s primary point regarding his message of love. Paul wasn’t talking about salvation or faith. Faith, knowledge and obedience were assumed. Paul’s meaning of love was about the heart. Love as a quality of life because God has created all things. Love is from God and EVERYONE has a taste of its joys, both profound and simple.
Paul said that salvation comes by faith. But faith, sacrifice, rituals, prophecy and knowledge amount to nothing without love. In other words: salvation might be your house, but it’s how you live inside your salvation that makes it a home.
Just like the woman caring for her husband with ALS. The wife had a job, paid the bills, took out the trash, picked up the kids and took care of the house. But a maid could have done the same. It was her heart for her husband and gentle love that made it a home.
It is similar to the story of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus was challenged to answer the question, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…and Love your neighbor as yourself.”
One listener asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with a parable. A man is beaten and robbed and left for dead. Who would show love for the man?
Jesus included two people in his story known for their great faith, knowledge and righteousness: a priest and Levite. Neither the priest or Levite stopped to help the man on the side of the road. Instead it was a Samaritan (considered a second class citizen to the pious Jews of Jesus’s time), who stopped and helped. The Samaritan demonstrated love and mercy.
Obedience without love is a priest and Levite. It is empty religion. But loving like God flows with good deeds, even among Samaritans. I am not talking about the love found in salvation, but the God who is love. The God who sends the rain to the “righteous and unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45). The God who created this thing called love. Something everyone on earth enjoys, whether they accept Christ or reject him.
I mean every little nibble, taste or hint of love. The profound and the simple. The sacred and the mundane.
I feel it when I hug my golden retriever and her unconditional love melts my troubles of the day. The same thing happens when a patient gives me a kind smile or a hug after a session. When I watch my community rally around those who lost their homes in the California fires. When I receive a call or text from someone just to say, “I was thinking about you.”
These frequent experiences of love are not limited to Christians. Because of God’s love, everyone can reap love’s benefits. The belly laughs of a child wrestling with a puppy. Prom night. A first kiss. A beach sunset. Holding the hand of a friend who’s been hospitalized. Laughing with family at a movie. What a God! What an amazing thing, this thing called love!
I am not saying that love is shallow and doesn’t require the wisdom to fight battles of righteousness, or to be active socially or politically. What I am saying is that without love you risk being a loud, obnoxious clanging symbol. You may win the political war of “feeding the poor” (solving social issues), but “gaining nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3). Without love you can have faith and knowledge that moves mountains, but miss the simple treasures found in the love of God.
We have to take care of the dirty dishes in the kitchen and there is a lot to be cleaned up in our country. But if you can’t stop and hold the hand of someone who needs your love, you miss the heart of the gospel and this thing called love.
Dr. David Zuccolotto is a former pastor and clinical psychologist. For 35 years he has worked for hospitals, addiction treatment centers, outpatient clinics and private practice. He is the author of The Love of God: A 70 Day Journey of Forgiveness.