If there were to be a motto for 2020 from the Bible, it might be this verse from Ecclesiastes: “A time to refrain from embracing”
The key word here is the verb “refrain”. It literally means “to stop oneself from doing”. If i could sum it up – no one single word could probably express my experience in 2020 quite as neatly as this one word. In this one word, we hear “restraint”, “frustration”, “longing”, “hesitating”, “deciding” and “sorrow because of the loss of relationship”.
With this phrase, we can almost see the person lifting their arms to begin to draw near for a handshake, a hug, an arm around the shoulder, a pat on the back, and then hesitating thinking about the risks and possible repercussions, looking longingly at the person they long to touch and then slowly sighing, dropping their arms to their sides rather awkwardly, keeping their distance and shuffling away – untouched, unembraced, unable to connect in a physical way.
What is it we have lost in this era of “refraining from embracing”? I feel as though I have lost something, but it is hard to put into words. Something so fundamentally human, something so close to me that it is hard to articulate.
I have lost the spontaneity of human touch and the power of human presence in my daily interactions. Every encounter has to be carefully thought out and planned out now. I miss being unselfconscious about my interactions with others. I miss being able to reach out and touch someone without hesitating and wondering…
I think it brings up the question: What does love look like for me in these sobering days of “refraining”?
My sister-in-love was talking this morning about dear friends who invited them into their homes over the weekend. She said that it took guts to do that because it is now considered a risk to invite a family over for dinner or a game night. But she said, “We were the first family that they had over and that felt really special to me. They were willing to take that risk for us.”
I think this is part of what love can look like. Love can be inviting others over who are starving for in-person fellowship – that sacred gift of drawing close and being accepted in love. Love is willing to lay down your life for another and being willing to be put at risk in order to give life to another.
In the words of Jesus, “Greater love hath no man than a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This laying down of our lives, means being willing to be put in harm’s way for the benefit and edification of another.
It is natural to associate the picture of Love with the action of “embracing”, rather with the action of “refraining”. But something my experience in 2020 has taught me well, is that demonstrating love and care for others can take many forms. It is the nature of Love to sacrifice for the beloved. To make choices that require a sacrificial dying to self which honors and respects the boundaries of others.
Love can be expressed through the choice to “refrain from embracing” as well as “embracing” when it is a choice motivated by the desire to care for the other person. However, I wonder if I am “refraining from embracing” out of fear or self-protection instead.
I John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
That is a powerful statement.
Acting out of fear is not acting in love.
Love is a laying down of our lives for the other’s highest good. But if that is so, how do we know what is the highest good of the other? This is not an easy question to answer since we hardly know how to answer that question for ourselves. The only one who can truly answer this question is the One who created us and knows us better than we know ourselves. John tells us that “God is Love” so when we act in response to God’s word and direction in our lives, and allow His Spirit to animate our actions, words and choices, then we can trust that we are acting in Love.
The assumption that we see repeated over and over again in the news is that protecting someone’s physical well being is synonymous with their greatest good. From a purely materialistic point of view, this makes perfect sense. If this material life is all you have, it is obvious that physical health should be prized above all else.
But for those who have a Christian perspective, we must evaluate our choices differently. Is physical self-preservation our highest good or the good we desire for others? Are we living in the same daily fear of death as those who have no hope beyond the grave or do we have confidence that our lives belong to God whether we live or die. As Paul says in Romans 14, “For none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
It is in these deep and fine sifting of heart motivations that I have found 2020 to be a very revealing year in many ways.
Instead of making choices because they are the most socially acceptable choices, I want to consider the motivating “why” that is behind the reason I am wearing a mask or not, the why behind inviting someone over or choosing not to, the why behind my choosing to embrace or refrain from embracing.
And when I get to real reason “why” I do many of these things, I realize that at bottom, many of the reasons are self-focused and not done out of sacrificial love in caring for another, but many of my choices are done out of a desire to please others. Or if I listen to my words, I often do not hear the tone of love for my neighbor, but rather the tone of judgement and criticism for those who express different priorities or make different choices than I would in their place.
It hurts to face the base motivations that are lurking in my heart, but it reminds me again and again how thankful I am that I have a Savior who never has refrained from embracing me in His love and His forgiveness. Jesus continues to invite me to come and be yoked to Him and learn from Him what loving actions truly look like from the inside out.
So, whether we are choosing to embrace or refrain from embracing in this Christmas season, whether we are masking during all our human encounters or only with some, whether we are staying connected online or in person…
I pray that we will all allow the Holy Spirit to unmask the deeper motivations of our heart and reveal to us how to walk in fearless love for those around us. A love that neither fears dying nor fears dying to self for the true and eternal good of those around us.