The cross, the dishes & the unpleasantness of love

Love is easy when it’s fun.

Going on dates during the first days of romantic attraction is blissful. It almost doesn’t matter what you’re doing, simply being together is magical.

Holding your newborn child is timeless. Simply gazing transfixed at that sleeping form fills the heart with joy and contentment.

But then the child grows up and the marriage grows old. And all of the things that were so easily done from love become so much harder. Some, in fact, are downright unpleasant.

My daughter was two years old and sick with the flu. I was in bed, fast asleep, when she woke up and called for me. I went to her room and picked her up as she told me how badly she felt. And then it happened. Without warning, I was hit in the chest with warm vomit. But instead of growing angry, I smiled as the thought crossed my mind, “I get to do this for my daughter.” Meanwhile, the vomit began to grow cold on my chest.

I’m not usually so nice. The messiness of life bothers me. I don’t like being puked on — literally or figuratively. But the same thing that crossed my mind that night remains true: I get to deal with the unpleasantness of these situations because I am called to love, and this is what love looks like right now.

Jesus didn’t enjoy the cross. None of it. He endured it.

Hebrews 12:2 tells us that “for the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross …” That joy set before him was us. It was love that caused him to endure the joyless cross.

The way of love is often an unpleasant road to walk. Not all of it. But there are lots of it that are swampy or uphill. And each of these makes us want to quit. Each of these makes us think, “Hey! I didn’t sign up for this!” Each one makes us feel tricked.

“If I’d known she was going to be like this, I’d never have married her in the first place.”

“If I’d known he was going to be such a demanding boss, I’d never have taken this job. I’d have taken the other offer.”

In some cases, we do end up in truly toxic environments and simply need to get out of them. But that’s generally not the case. Almost always, we need to move from the passive to the active. Let me explain.

Jesus didn’t let the cross happen to him. He wasn’t passive. Jesus chose the cross. He was active. Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing that heading that direction meant death for him. He said things and did things that angered the religious establishment, pushing them to seek his death. He told Judas to go do what he was planning on doing, knowing that it meant betrayal. He told Peter to put away his little sword and refused to call for a legion of angels.

Jesus told his Father that he didn’t want the cup of judgment and sorrow and death that was before him. Be he also said he was willing to drink it if it was his Father’s will that he do so.

At every step along the way, at every point of decision, Jesus chose the cross. He was always active, always moving forward into the unpleasantness that love required of him.

But most of us reject unpleasantness in our relationships, not stepping into it for the sake of love. And if we do endure unpleasantness, we do so passively. Listen to the language we use.

“This job is killing me.”

“The kids are driving me up a wall.”

“He never brings me flowers anymore.”

“She is always criticizing me.”

All of those are in the passive position. All of them are responses to what someone else is doing or not doing.

Love actively engages in each of those situations, entering into the unpleasantness “for the joy set before” us in the simple expression of love.

This is the relationship of hope with love. Hope keeps an eye on a future joy enabling love to endure and actively engage during a current unpleasantness. It doesn’t endure to simply get through a rough spot, it endures because it is working toward a joyful future.

Love doesn’t avoid unpleasantness. It chooses it. It actively enters into it.

Recently, I asked my wife what would make her feel loved. She said, “I hate it when our house is a mess. What would make me feel truly loved is if the kitchen were spotless every night — dishes washed, counters cleaned, tabled wiped down.”

We have a big family and we make a big mess every night. And I don’t like hand-washing pots and pans and such. But this is what will make my wife feel loved. I don’t expect to enjoy cleaning up any more than I enjoyed getting puked on by my daughter. But this is what I get to do for my wife as an expression of love for her. It’s not a tough cross to bear, but I know there will be times when it’s the very last thing I want to do at that moment. That’s when the unpleasantness of love  will prove that the love I claim to have for my wife really is love.