In the months leading up to my wedding I had a recurring dream. It was a nightmare, really. While I had my fair share of dreams about my dress not fitting or forgetting to complete some vital detail, the one that haunted me was much darker. I regularly dreamed that something would happen to my fiancé. I would wake up haunted by the thought that the man I loved so deeply would either die tragically or leave me for someone else. As I shared my fears with a dear friend who had been married longer than I had, she spoke these encouraging words:
Every time you open your heart to love like you are now doing, you open your heart to more hurt and pain. Your heart is more vulnerable, but the love is worth it.
Fast forward four years and I'm now the mother of twin boys. Like many other expecting and new moms, I struggle with nagging fear that something tragic will happen to my babies. And on my most frightened days, I'm reminded of those wise words from my friend—to love is to be vulnerable.
This isn't a new concept. C. S. Lewis understood it well. In The Four Loves he writes:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.
For Lewis, and for us, love means opening our hearts to pain and sorrow. But that's the point. The only alternative would be to live without love—to be alone forever. Yet deep within our souls we know we weren't created for such a lonely existence.
We Were Created to Love
God didn't fashion us void of feelings and emotions. We were made to love and be loved. This is why the pain of loneliness is often too much to bear. We naturally desire companionship, affection, fellowship. All of this requires opening our souls to others, thus making us susceptible to relational pain. Yet we do so anyway because deep within we know we were built for more than solitary existence.
When God created Adam, he declared it wasn't good for him to be alone (Gen. 2:18). To be created in God's image means to desire fellowship. For all eternity Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have enjoyed perfect love and fellowship that we, by our nature as divine image bearers, crave as well. It wasn't good for Adam to be alone because the Trinity isn't alone.
But a quick look around reminds us that something is tragically wrong.
Reality of a Broken World
Loving another does not ensure unending happiness. Spouses disappoint us. Friends betray us. Children rebel against us. Family members die and leave us.
Elisabeth Elliot knew better than most what it meant to love and lose. In The Path of Loneliness she writes, “To love means to open ourselves to suffering. Shall we shut our doors to love, then and 'be safe'?” That's the only alternative, really. But locking ourselves up and never facing another person won't fix what's really going on in our souls.
We can't pretend as Christians that we're immune to the ravages of sin, death, and sorrow any more than we can retreat from all things relational. In fact, Christians more than anyone else can love with reckless abandon since we know this isn't all there is.
Love and the Cross
If we only chose to love in situations free from vulnerability, we'd never love at all. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than at Calvary. There, the God who is love became vulnerable for sinners like you and me. He experienced the greatest pain imaginable—the death of his only Son—so that we could be made right with him.
A mother can love through the difficult months of pregnancy and the agonizing hours of labor because she knows at the end of the pain comes the baby she loves so deeply. So also Christ loved through the darkest moments of the cross because he knew at the end he'd be glorified and his people would be redeemed. He knew the joy that awaited if he loved to the end (Heb. 12:2).
Christians can love with the same freedom. While there's no promise of cost-free love, we know the deeper purpose behind it all. Our hearts laid bare to vulnerability is not the end of the story.