This week we held chapel for our 150 preschoolers. We come together to talk in simple terms about God and the things God does for us, shared in ways three- and four-year-olds might understand. Since this is February, this month we decided to talk about love.
When I asked the preschoolers what “love” means, many of them were able to name people they love. They talked about love between them and their parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, and friends. These were all good things.
Some of them, even at three years old, were able to talk about the concept of romantic love. “Love is when two people kiss each other or get married.”
Their examples of love were well-formed and correct. They still left me worried a little. Even in their earliest experiences, our preschoolers were drifting towards a world where love fulfilled the following conditions:
Again, these descriptions were not inaccurate! How else is a preschooler supposed to talk about love aside from, “What mom and dad give me”?
At the same time, we spent some time talking about the difference between how God loves us and how we normally think of love.
When we limit love to the descriptions found above, we inevitably end up in a place of loneliness and inadequacy. We define love as “not with us”, but then say it will be ours if we find the right person and do the right things for/with them. As children, we hear this kind of love as behavior control: be good or else Jesus/mom/dad/teacher won’t like/love/reward you. As we grow, we port these definitions over to romantic relationships. “I need someone to be with so I’m not alone and unfulfilled. I need to do X, Y, and Z in order to make that happen. If it doesn’t happen with this particular person, my life will remain empty.” Notice how narrow the line is between our love impulses and unhealthiness. Notice how wide open we become to being controlled, even abused, when these definitions of love stand unchecked.
We do not talk about God’s love being localized in a particular time, place, or person. We do not make it conditional, a reward for “good behavior”. We do not speak of it being out there somewhere, waiting for us to find it. When we speak of God’s love, we speak of something that’s here with all of us, at all times. We say God’s love redefines us, not leaving us broken, but filling us up. We say that even if a person were alone, without a friend in the world, they would still be beloved and beautiful.
We talk of our life’s mission not as obtaining or hoarding God’s love, but sharing it just as it has been shared with us. We have plenty to give. Life is better when we do so.
Starting from the assumption that we are being filled, that love is with us every day, and that we have something important to give leads to better relationships with the world—and with ourselves—than we have when we assume that we’re empty, needing to make the right decisions with the right people in order to be loved.