“Love you, guys!” I called across the expansive lawn my classmates and I had walked together almost thirty years ago, our paths diverging once again.
I hadn’t seen most of them during those thirty years and hadn’t expected to see them again until this summer when we had our 30th high school reunion, but one of us passed away unexpectedly last week.
It was a shock, to say the least. Recent events had lulled me into a false sense of physical security. Everyone in my circle who’d passed away lately had had some kind of warning first, a diagnosis, advanced age, a known risk taken. This friend, however, just died. Going about her business, having no reason to think anything big was about to happen to her and her family, she just stopped living, right there in the left lane of life.
So my friends and I gathered to pay our respects.
Seeing their faces, I was caught off guard by the deep emotion I felt for each and every one of them, memories rushing in and over each other like tide waters. We hadn’t spent every day of our younger years as an exclusive group or anything, but we had cared about each other and were part of a collective whole that had survived the struggle and inherent pain of adolescence together, an accomplishment that tends to bind hearts.
Mourning alongside my friends in the crowded bleachers of our high school gymnasium, their anguish deeper than my own because they’d known our mutual friend better, I felt inadequate. Hoping my presence was a comfort on some level, I longed to do so much more, but there just wasn’t time. We exchanged hugs, offered smiles, and spoke words of encouragement before parting, and when we did, my heart tore a little.
It felt strange to say “I love you” to people who had no tangible reason to believe me after our having spent so many years apart, but it was true, both in the popular and spiritual sense.
Yes, I was compelled by affection in that moment, but the sentiment behind my “I love you” went much deeper than this pledge-turned-status-update now conveys in our culture. When I told my friends I loved them, I wasn’t just telling them how I felt. I was committing to be for them what Jesus has been for me, a conduit of God’s love.
That includes being kind, of course, welcoming, inclusive, attentive…all the ways people traditionally express love. Let’s be honest, though, every decent person, Christian or not, does these things to some degree for the people they care about—sometimes for people they don’t—more often if these behaviors come naturally to people with their personality type.
Loving people God’s way, however, requires something that doesn’t come naturally to anyone, consistent obedience to His commands, all of them (1 John 5:2, 2 John 1:5-6).
You see, when we obey the One Who is not only able to comfort us in times of loss, but also able to rescue us from the consequences of sin, sustain us through life’s challenges, and set us down safely on the other side of death when it’s our time to go, allowing His Holy Spirit to correct, equip, empower, and guide us, we do more than make people feel better about themselves, their circumstances, and/or us. We give God room to show the world Who He is, what He’s like, and what He can do, increasing the likelihood they will either find or continue to cling to Him, the One who loves them more than they could possibly imagine and holds their eternity in His hands (John 3:16, Matthew 10:28).
It may sound a little extreme, but this is the love we’re called to (John 13:34), friends, whether or not anyone ever recognizes or notes it.
As for me, my “I love you” is a promise, and I intend to keep it.