What are the limits of love? The phrase “I love you” is one of the most ubiquitous and inescapable phrases in the English language. I’m sure its counterpart phrases are almost equally ubiquitous in other languages. I doubt you’ve never heard the phrase or spoken it yourself. But what does it mean? Fifteen seconds’ thought reveals that we don’t know what it means. Or maybe we know parts of what it means but are unable to articulate in one succinct explanation the full gamut of the ramifications that come from uttering the words “I love you” to another person. And I am talking about those words applying to another person, and not just a thing. I can say I love my can opener, but this is necessarily an objective (in the grammatical sense) love, since there’s no chance of reciprocity of love with an object. The distinction between subject and object when it comes to love is important, but I think we regularly confuse the two in our love of both people and things. When speaking about love of a human subject, though, let’s agree that part of the explanation of what that means implies a self-sacrificial offering of oneself for the beloved. So, what are the limits of love – specifically of that self-sacrifice?
In posing that question I really mean, “What situation(s) would cause one person’s sacrificial love for another to fail?” I usually jump straight to imagining extreme, life-threatening scenarios of torture and death, where the base instinct of self-preservation is forced to the surface by the severest of means to the detriment of the tortured’s beloved. That’s because when I think of “limits” I think of “extremes.” But aren’t the limits of love for the beloved exhausted every day in the monotony of drab married life or in the face of temptation to infidelity or other selfish gratifications? We see the limits of love all the time. But to fully explore the limits, we ought to explore the extremes. And not just the extremes, but the singular extreme… the crowing pinnacle of all human self-sacrifice… the most tested and the most enduring love in the history of the world. This was the love of Jesus of Nazareth as displayed historically in his torturous crucifixion in the first century.
It’s common knowledge in Christian theology that the circumstances of the death of Jesus are the greatest example of self-sacrificial love the world has ever seen. But why, exactly? Surely other people had suffered just as painful deaths at the hands of the Romans as Jesus had. Or elsewhere in history, surely somebody had to have experienced more measurable bodily pain than Jesus, right? Though there’s absolutely no way to prove it, I’d concede that. What made Jesus’ case unique in suffering, says Christian revelation, is that on him was laid the full burden of the sins of the world. And that can’t be measured. Measurement has nothing to do with it. The mystery of the ontological nature of sin, the Hebraic sacrificial system, and how those relate to the man Jesus hanging on a cross are far beyond the tiny categories of empiricism the Enlightenment has given us. It’s enough to say that Jesus suffered the most.
Because Jesus suffered the most, Jesus loves the most. And who is his beloved? All of us. We all are. Calvin was completely and destructively wrong in claiming that only those specially chosen to receive that love constitute the beloved. Choosing to accept that love, to reckon yourself the beloved, is as free and real as choosing this pair of shoes or that, or as steering your car left or right. The sheer accessibility of possessing the greatest love in the world -love that could be described as infinite, unconditional, divine- is kind of freaky, though. It’d be like a psychotic king of a great empire, in a fit of insanity, showing up at the doorstep of a peasant and offering him all the riches and authority of his position with no conditions. The peasant would hardly reply, “Oh my, what an offer! I accept. Thank you, sir.” What’s more likely is that the offer would be met with an unbelieving silence followed by a desperate refusal. It’s the same for us. We have no other experience of limitless love. When presented with the possibility -the possibility extended to us personally- of that kind of love, we naturally don’t understand it. It’s unreal. Because all love has limits. The desperate rejection of limitless love may mean pushing back against it to find its limits, testing it, fighting it. It might mean trying to hide it away or hiding from it. At first sight, it’s grotesque. It is, after all, a naked man, beaten and bloody, fastened to a tree. I don’t want the responsibility of that being for me.
But it is for me, and it’s for you. It’s disgusting, I know, because we’re both unworthy of it. It’s as if Jesus, the son of God, the prince, has acted toward us as if we were the deserving princess, beautiful and pure, in need of rescue from some danger or foe. He so desired to save his bride and to be united to her that nothing would stop him. We hear him cry out to his Father, “Why have you abandoned me?,” and we see him give away his mother while on the cross. Then we remember that man was to leave his father and mother to be united to his wife. It finally dawns on us that Jesus was so willing to be united with his bride (you and me) that he went as far as to be totally alone, naked, and forsaken. I stop in stupefied awe at that reality.
So we have no category for the limit of love. To put it another way, the absolute fullness of love has been demonstrated in a great mystery. But it’s ours to receive. You see why this has been referred to as good news (εὐαγγέλιον or gospel). This is why St. Paul could simultaneously be filled with joy and say, “I know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” It’s why Christians are the only joyful martyrs; they’re just following in the trail already blazed by Christ Jesus. They’re returning the love. It’s why I, when stopped in stupefied awe, am the most sane I will ever be. Everything else falls away, and the cross remains.