by Troy Chapman
(published January 06)
I’ve learned and experienced countless things during my time in prison but whenever anyone asks me, “What changed you?” I always point to one thing: love. By this I don’t mean people being nice to me or making me feel good or giving me hugs. I’m not talking about love I received at all. That has certainly been important for sustaining my spirit but the practice of love has been responsible for whatever transformation has occurred in my life.
If we want to tap into love as a means to reach our true spiritual potential and change our world we have to be ready to embrace it as a spiritual practice and this demands that we expand our understanding of love and begin to think of it in new ways.
We can begin with this distinction between love as something that happens to us and love as something we practice. We’re all familiar with the first kind of love and have experienced it in the form of romance or when we first laid eyes on a baby or even a puppy and felt the emotions of protectiveness and a desire to please and nurture.
I think of this as unintentional love because it grabs us and takes possession of us with very little intention or effort on our part. This kind of love is a wonderful experience and it often has a profound effect on our lives. It is a spiritual experience that can lift us higher — and drop us lower — than almost any other human experience. And it is certainly transformative to some extent.
But there is another form of love that transforms us far more consistently and profoundly — intentional love. Intentional love is something we choose to practice the way someone might choose to practice medicine. It’s a philosophy of life that we believe in and commit ourselves to the way someone might believe in and commit themselves to a religious or political ideology.
We do it with an expectation that it will cost us something in the way of sacrifice and with a complete willingness to bear that cost. We commit ourselves to the study, defense, and advancement of love. We turn “love” into “love-ism” and ourselves into “love-ists,” and when this change occurs in the way we think about love, love itself becomes a radically different thing.
This view of love is based on the belief that love is the ultimate good and is therefore always the right response to life. Which means that intentional love is universal and unconditional. It draws no distinction between those who treat us well and those who treat us poorly. This love isn’t given or withheld according to who others are but according to who we are. It is driven from within in the form of action rather than from without as a reaction.
It’s the love Jesus was talking about when he said: “You have heard it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The original Aramaic word translated here as “perfect” can be more accurately rendered as “all-encompassing.” Jesus is telling us that the love of God is universal and unconditional. God loves his enemies as much as he loves his friends. It is an intentional and proactive love that does not depend on peoples’ behavior.
Furthermore, the “reward” he speaks of is a transformation of our spirit. Loving only those who love us causes no transformation, no fundamental change in us. Only by pushing ourselves beyond our own boundaries to love even those who hate us, are we able to tap into the full transformative power of love.
This is intentional love, and it is a whole different animal than the love we usually think of when we hear the word. Over the years I’ve identified three aspects of intentional love that define it for me. They are:
1) Recognizing the intrinsic value of the person or thing in question;
2) Having a desire for this person or thing to reach its highest potential;
3) Turning that desire into some form of action.
We can think of these as reverence, goodwill, and assistance.
They are the three faces of intentional love and together they constitute the only means for us to realize our full spiritual potential. Practicing them consistently leads to our own fulfillment as surely as failing to practice them leads to unfulfillment.
In the next three Sacred Living letters, we’ll explore each of these in turn. Stay tuned!