There is a cryptic line in the film Alexander, where the Persian warrior Pharnakes says to Alexander on his wedding night, “In the ways of my country, those who love too much lose everything. Those who love with irony last.”
I’m not sure why that line has stuck in my head even after so many years – it’s not particularly helpful, and as far as I know it’s mostly a load of orientalist crap; there is no provenance beyond a possible garbling of a sermon by Ali, brother of the Prophet Muhammad.
But by happy coincidence I think this line speaks more truth than it seems to.
Human love is beautiful: tender, steadfast, fierce and passionate – sometimes all at once. But those who have loved dearly – either people, things or places – will know that fierce passion is the darker side of love.
Human love is destructive. Loving something above all, even more so.
Why do we see so many cases of marriages and relationships falling apart because one loved so much more than the other, making the latter feel suffocated? Why are there so many lurid stories of love affairs ending in a crime of passion? Why do we see bosses so consumed by love for their work that they not only strangle the wellbeing of the workplace but also neglect their families? Why can teachers claim to love their students in one breath and yet in the next show themselves to be manipulative bullies, desperate to hang on to prestige, position and adoration?
When we put something first in our hearts, we subject it to an awesome (in the original, literal sense) responsibility; on this person or thing that occupies the first place in our hearts, this person or thing that we love above all, we place our hopes for meaning, for beauty, intimacy, deliverance, salvation, perfection. But because nobody and nothing can possibly deliver on these things most (never mind all) of the time, it’s a recipe for disaster. We sacrifice everything, often hurting ourselves and others in the process, then go into despair because our first love can never satisfy or deliver as we’d hoped. Over time this love turns first into disappointment, then to the blackest and bitterest hatred. Just ask any workaholic, any compulsive shopper, any pornography addict; hell, ask Amnon (2 Sam 13:15), whose heart turned terrifyingly quickly from sick obsession over his sister to even sicker hatred.
But this is nothing new. The Israelites were taught about this, and they knew it by the name of idolatry. And God fiercely commanded against it. Why? Is it out of petty legalism? Yes, God demands that we love him first and foremost; yes, this is only the proper response to the King; yes, it is for his glory. But it is also one of the wisest things he could tell us to do.
Because we forget how powerful human love is: the power to give and save life, the power to ennoble and lift up, but also the power to kill, the power to poison, the power to strangle. And so who can withstand this power? Who can sit on the throne of first place in our hearts, and not be killed by the awesome weight?
We strive and sacrifice to gain what we love most – Jesus gives himself to us freely.
We demand beauty and perfection from what we love most – Jesus shows this in spades, revealing this bit by bit.
We give ourselves to what we love most for meaning and the hope of salvation – this is what Jesus promises, exactly.
Which means that the best possible way to love someone or something is to love Jesus first – what Pharnakes interprets as loving with irony. We will then place our hopes and crushing demands on the only one who can take them. We will then come closer to the biblical worldview that Jesus is Lord of creation; that everything was made in, for, and through him; that we love people and things not as an end in itself, but as only a part of knowing and loving Jesus most. I may devote myself to the best job, the best wife and the best children in this life, but I’d be a fool to think I can hold onto them for eternity in the coming Kingdom.
So let’s correct Pharnakes and say rather that to love a person or a thing is to realise how powerful love is, and that if we truly loved a person or a thing, we would put them second. We would spare them and ourselves from despair, and build ourselves toward a healthier worldview. And most of all, we would put King Jesus where he belongs: the only one who can bear our burdens, our hopes, our dreams, our demands for perfection, intimacy, beauty meaning, hope, salvation – our love.