Friday Forum: Love Requires Restraint
Today’s Friday Forum comes in response to a request that I unpack one of my recent tweets on Twitter: “All forms of true love can be categorized by restraint.”
My thinking about these questions is still very much in the forming stages. Please feel free to engage with whatever points you wish in the comments. I am not pretending that my thoughts on this topic are complete, correct, and static. But this line of thinking seems worth pursuing.
I have been thinking about kenosis, a fancy Greek theological word that refers to the concept of self-emptying. Now, as one admittedly full of myself, the idea that I could rid myself of myself is quite problematic. As a theological idea, we need to be careful of what this might mean relative as a concept useful to describe Christ. Kenosis appears in the Scriptures in St Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Made Himself nothing is the Greek word kenosis, a word that literally translates self-emptying. Again, I’m trying to be really careful as this idea lands firmly in the context of Christ’s incarnation. In His incarnation, Christ did not somehow cast of His divine nature and stop being the Son of God. Christ never emptied Himself of His Godhood. He is fully God and fully man. The mystery of how He accomplished the joining of these two natures stands far off of my comprehension; but the point remains that if Christ can join His divine nature with His human nature, then He can also join the part of humanity He has gifted me with to Himself and His Father. Christ alone works the mystery of joining the human and divine, and in so doing, Christ alone has the power to bring us humans to oneness with God.
But back to the central claim of today’s reflection: love requires restraint. Christ in His infinite mercy shows signs of restraining Himself in how He chose to interact with the real-life people He interacted with. He restrained Himself to the will of His Father, even to the point where the will of the Father brought Christ to the Cross. When Christ interacted with everyone in the Gospels, it seems to me that He constantly concerned Himself with different ways to call different persons to repentance. He restrained His judgment even when pronouncing the famous woes that appear all throughout the Gospel. Not restrained, His divine nature would have caused the world to come apart. Indeed, at His crucifixion, we see just that happening: the sky darkens, the earth quakes, the curtain in the temple tears in two from the top, and the dead come from their graves. Yet, even at His crucifixion, Christ is voluntarily restrained to the cross by nails through His hands and His feet. Even after His resurrection, He prepares His disciples who followed Him to encounter Him risen before revealing Himself fully (it’s amazing how many people don’t recognize Jesus as Jesus).
But I have also been thinking about how this restraint enters even into our love. If Christ, who is Love, restrains Himself, how much more important is it that we learn to restrain ourselves when attempting to love another? It is far too easy to be absolutely full of ourselves in pride, arrogance and manipulation when trying to love another. In many ways, our attempts to love another are more about convincing them to love us. But even in our humanity, we encounter fruits of goodness as we interact with one another that must be restrained if another person can receive our gifts.
People who know me in real life know that I have special fondness for the loving gesture commonly known as a hug. I have a standing joke that I speak hug. Not everyone does. Hugs have variant intensities and purposes employed over different times. A hug can be used to say hello, goodbye, I’m here, I care, I love you, and any number of other messages. Yet the message requires two willing partners to communicate. Now my general tendency is towards intense hugging when my full human nature of “hugger” comes out. I do not crush people, but when properly reciprocated, I enjoy an intense hug. As someone who prefers intense hugging, it can be a little sad when communicating around people who arguably give wimpy hugs. Yet, a wimpy hug can still be given fully, can communicate messages, and still reflect someone who really speaks hug. But in order for me to experience that, I have to restrain myself and consider the needs of the other person.
So I’ve dipped into some rather intense theological waters this morning (before breakfast nonetheless) while also providing hopefully a more human-centered example, but what do you think about the general thesis of “Love requires restraint”?
Thanks for your comments in advance.