Love, in its highest form, is a very weighty thing. Unlike the cultural counterfeits so prevalent in our day and age (which degrade love to empty emotionalism or a passive fancy), true love costs something. The greek word for such love: “Agape” is defined as sacrificial love or loving someone at the expense of yourself. Jesus expands this sort of love further when he said that “greater love has no man than this, that a man lays down his life for his friend.”
This true love by definition requires pain to give. But is it also painful to receive I wonder?
That doesn’t sound quite right does it? Receiving love frees us. The whole gospel message hinges on the transforming power of Christ’s great love for us—that gives us joy and eternal hope; and furthermore empowers us to love and forgive one another. Surely it is a delight to embrace, how could it not be?
I ask this question because I recently ran across a passage in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment that stopped me dead in my tracks. Dostoyevsky records a deep and moving exchange between two very opposite characters: Sonia and Raskolnikov. Sonia is an 18 year old girl who has sacrificed her dignity and reputation for her family’s survival, and Raskolnikov, the main character, is a skulking murderer who is persistently haunted by his crime throughout the book. In this discourse, Raskolnikov confesses his cold blooded murder to Sonia—who is at once horrified and brought to tears at the gravity of this man’s sin. Raskolnikov spends a few pages trying to explain to Sonia his philosophical reasoning for doing such a heinous deed; and though she is shattered in both body and heart, Sonia tells him that she will never leave him. Even though he is a murderer and she recoils at the thought of his sin—Sonia assures him that she will help him bear the burden.
A great picture of selfless love, mind you.
Now, one would think that, Raskolnikov, upon confessing his dastardly deed and being met with unmeasured love would respond with joy. This festering sin that had been eating him alive throughout the book was now confessed. And instead of being rejected and scorned for his murder; he is loved and accepted despite what he had done. Could you imagine the freedom you would feel if you were in his shoes?
Instead, what follows is pure literary brilliance from Dostoyevsky:
They sat side by side, both mournful and dejected, as though they had been cast up by the tempest alone on some deserted shore. He looked at Sonia and felt how great was her love for him, and strange to say he felt it suddenly burdensome and painful to be so loved. Yes, it was a strange and awful sensation! On his way to see Sonia he had felt that al his hopes rested on her; he expected to be rid of at least part of his suffering, and now, when all her heart turned towards him, he suddenly felt that he was immeasurably unhappier than before.
By revealing his dark sin to Sonia, Raskolnikov, expected to alleviate at least “part of his suffering”--something any of us would have expected. What he experienced instead was the oppressive weight of being so loved; “a strange and awful sensation” which left him “immeasurably unhappier” than he was prior.
It seems that true love as described is not anything like the lighter “feel good” variation that masquerades as it today. Real love hurts. It is a tough pill to swallow for both parties involved, and though the pain might be different, it is not exclusive only to the giver.
Because receiving love requires that we allow someone else to enter into our pain and share in our suffering. It hurts us to know that what was previously an isolated pain only experienced by us would now pain someone else. Furthermore receiving true love cripples our pretensions of who we are, dashing our pride violently on the rocks below. When we come to grips that we are loved not for what we have done, but despite those many deeds that have given us value, the humiliation can be completely debilitating. This is the weightiness of love.
We see similar heaviness not just in literature but also throughout Scripture. John 21 is one such passage that records Jesus’s confrontation of Peter’s denial of Him just weeks before. What could be worse than denying your Savior three times at the very peak of His suffering—that same Savior whom you had walked with, talked with, and adored these last three years? Peter was likely wondering the same thing. Was he too far gone for the love of Christ? Had he done the unpardonable sin through shouting “I never knew the man!”?
Jesus, now in resurrected form, takes Peter aside and in tenderness asks him “Peter, do you love me more than these?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs.”
This curious dialogue is repeated two more times, no doubt bringing to remembrance Peter’s three denials. But Jesus is not doing this to heap guilt on the already humbled apostle. What he is doing is calling him. Commissioning him. For each time you denied me I will now commission you to do work. The highest sort of work: the work of tending my precious flock.
How does Peter respond to such forgiveness and future purpose? John 21:17 says that Peter was “grieved” that Jesus asked him a third time. The word could also be translated as “thrown into sorrow” or “to affect with sadness.” What was happening to Peter (not unlike Raskolnikov) was that he was experiencing the brutal heaviness of love. And it hurt him to be on the receiving end.
But the beauty of it all is that it does not stay there. Though love is heavy and though it does overwhelm, it does not forever leave us shattered. Once embraced, it frees us like it ultimately freed Peter. It calls us to a new life like it did the apostle Paul. It commissions us like it did the prophet Isaiah. It beckons us to walk in the newness of life with all the saints, free of our guilt and free of ourselves.
But in order to get to that place, we first must be broken by it.