“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”
These words are the familiar opening lines of Elisabeth Barrett Browning’s famous 43rd sonnet. What may not be as familiar to most people is Browning’s background.
She was a frail, sick woman who was dominated by a possessive father. She spent most of her time alone in an upstairs room medicated by opium. Elisabeth’s one outlet, producing joy, was her poetry.
When Robert Browning read her works, he was deeply impressed and wrote, asking to meet her. Eventually, they fell in love. And over the stern objections of her father, they married by secretly eloping to Italy in 1846.
During their courting days, Robert and Elisabeth exchanged hundreds of love letters. She was almost 40 years old when she broke free of her father’s control. She gave birth to a son and was happily married for 16 years until her death in 1861.
Elisabeth’s sonnet was a testimony to how much she loved a man who freed her from a life of misery, enslavement, and depression.
While love has been described in so many beautiful and even poetically soul-stirring ways, there is no greater depiction of love than exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ who died to free us from the bondage of sin.
In the shadow of the cross, with his days on earth limited, he admonished the disciples with these simple, but powerful words. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34).
Like Jesus, Browning did not say, “Why do I love thee?” “When do I love thee?” “Where do I love thee?” Or “Why don’t you love me?” But….
“How do I love thee?”
As we make a case for Christ’s love as the perfect example, it’s easy to count the ways.
(1) Jesus’ love was selfless. Too often people base love on what they can receive in return. Their comfort. Their happiness. Their satisfaction. Jesus’ love was without hypocrisy. Void of self-interest. Free from personal ambition. And without strings attached.
(2) Jesus’ love was sacrificial. There was no limit to His love. No demand was too great. No request too difficult. No sacrifice that he was unwilling to make. Indeed “greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). Yet, Jesus’ sacrificial love extended even to his enemies (Rom. 5:8).
(3) Jesus’ love was compassionate. He was empathic and sympathetic. He understood human weakness, fragility, and foibles. He cared. He showed concern. He truly felt the pain of others. Jesus’ heart could love people as they are. But loved them enough to help them be more than they thought possible.
(4) Jesus’ love was forgiving. He loved and forgave John, although he selfishly sought a place of prominence at Jesus’ right hand (Mk 10:35-45). He loved and forgave Peter, who denied knowing Jesus three times. He even forgave those who crucified Him when He cried to God, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
So, how are we to show love?
Just like Jesus.
It is interesting that Jesus called this a “new commandment.” But the command to love God and love one’s neighbor can be found in the Old Testament.
So, how is this a “new commandment”?
Jesus raised love to a higher standard. A nobler aspiration. A greater example. A deeper feeling. A wider embrace. A broader influence.
May the community in which we live, witness the relationships in our church family, see our kind deeds, hear our encouraging words, read our uplifting facebook posts and exclaim, “See how they love one another!”
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman