I expect you’ve heard the saying: Love is a verb. It means love translates into action. If we love someone or a place or our pet, but never put that love into action in various ways, it’s a thin love indeed. I came to understand the phrase “love is a verb” a little differently after going to marriage counseling and reading books about how to make my marriage better. I remember an anecdote in one book in which a man told the therapist that he no longer felt love for his wife. The therapist’s response was, “Then love her.” You don’t understand, the man said, I don’t feel love toward her anymore. Again the therapist said, “Then love her.” The man eventually got the point: if we act in a loving way toward others, even when we don’t feel love, the emotion will follow.
My takeaway from that story (and from experience) is that emotions are fleeting. They come and go. But they are also incredibly powerful. When we give in to them—romantic love, anger, even hate—they can sweep us away. It takes a concentrated effort, we have to shake ourselves a little, to remember we have a choice. We don’t have to let our emotions govern us. We can remember that love is a verb. To love someone or something is to start acting like it.
Recently I came across a quote that I wrote down some months ago. The sticky note had lost its “stick” and fallen into the trash next to my desk. When I saw it and fished it out, I was struck again by its truth. Here is the quote:
Have you ever noticed how we tell ourselves stories to justify our actions? We acted badly, but the other person acted worse—so it’s okay. Rarely do we tell ourselves stories in which we are the villain. We’re so good at telling stories to explain away our bad behavior or the hurt we cause others, that we begin to believe them. Research now shows that we alter our memories by the stories we tell about them. Maybe you’ve been in an argument with your loved one in which you each remember a moment very differently. Maybe it’s because you each told yourself a different story about that memory.
In any event, it’s not easy to admit when we’re wrong, and we are often willing to do so only in private. It’s rare to make a public apology or to set about trying to undo the hurt we caused.
And yet. The unattributed quote suggests that making amends is a form of prayer. Even more, it’s like actually having a conversation with God. It’s a way of overcoming our shame and our pride to put into action our feelings of remorse and our deep need to be right with other people and with God. It’s a difficult way of acting. And yet my limited experience has shown it to be a crossroads next to which grace bubbles like a wellspring.
I have hurt other people lots. I have hurt my husband. One time I hurt him so badly, he wasn’t sure he wanted to live with me any longer, and he moved out. He moved in with his mother, whom I had also hurt with my words and actions. I was in a state of heartbreak so severe I didn’t know if I would ever recover. Then an idea came to me that I believe was a nudge from the Holy Spirit. I told my husband I would move in with his mother, so he could come back home. He was a bit astonished, but he took me up on it. So did his mother. During that week, she and I ate meals together and watched TV. We talked about the pain in our past. Slowly we renewed our relationship, which in turn helped renew my relationship with my husband.
That was many years ago. My husband and I have now been married thirty years. I can’t tell you that was the last time we had difficulties, but I can tell you I knew a path forward out of heartbreak after that. I knew that to begin to make things right after hurting someone, more than confession is needed. I had to commit to setting things at least a little bit more right.
My prayers in my head are often jumbled. They flit from thank you’s to outright pleas. I often wonder what God makes of these disjointed, half-hearted attempts at conversation. I have noticed, though, when my attempts to love as God commanded are rooted in action, God has a way of letting me know God is very near.