Chick flicks are one of my guilty pleasures. (My wife Amelia, on the other hand, likes action adventure. Go figure.) One of my favorites is the British romantic comedy Love Actually. (Who could forget Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love)” or Rowan Atkinson as a goofy, gift-wrapping jewelry salesman?) Set in the days leading up to Christmas, the film follows multiple storylines about love and romance. One story focuses on a trio: Juliet (Keira Knightley), Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Mark (Andrew Lincoln), Peter’s best friend. Mark is both best man and amateur videographer at Juliet and Peter’s wedding. When the professionally made video turns out disappointing, Juliet shows up on Mark’s doorstep unannounced to get a copy of the footage he shot of the nuptials. Much to Juliet’s surprise and Mark’s embarrassment, the video is nothing but close-ups of her, revealing Mark’s secret love for his best friend’s girl. “But you never talk to me. You always talk to Peter,” Juliet protests, “You don’t like me!” How could Juliet have been so close to someone who loved her so much and not even realize it?
I sometimes doubt that God loves me. Do you do that too? Intellectually I know that’s not right, but I do it anyway. I never doubt that God loves my kids or my friends or people in deepest, darkest Africa. But me? Really? You love ME, God? I wonder sometimes. You never talk to me the way you talk to others (at least the way they describe it). Look at all of the stuff you’ve put me through, God. You don’t even like me! At least that’s the way I feel at times. And why should you? My loyalty to you is fickle, my love cold. I’m not the kind of Christian I should be. I’m not very loveable.
Maybe the problem is the word love itself. It’s slippery and hard to define. We use it to describe how we feel about everything from our closest family members (“loved ones”) to sports (“I love the Gators!”) to food and drink (“I love coffee.” Really, I do.) to deity (“I love God.”). I’ve heard all of the sermons about “agape”—unconditional, godlike love. But from reading the Bible, I’d say it appears God does put some conditions on his love. Although he “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” he also damns people to hell. OK, it’s their fault. I get that. But it’s still hard for me to reconcile the idea of “unconditional” love with eternal punishment. It seems to me that either his love is conditional (or unconditional only for a select, arbitrarily chosen few as Calvinists contend) or he shouldn’t damn people to an eternity of outer darkness. Can you love someone unconditionally and still send them to eternity in hell, even if that’s what they deserve? (I realize some of my fundamentalist friends have just written me off as a liberal for even asking the question.)
Karl Barth, one the most famous and sophisticated theologians of the twentieth century, once summed up his theology with these surprisingly simple and familiar words, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” My response: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
I wonder if when I get to heaven God’s going to sit me down and show me a video with all close-ups of me.