In case you don’t know this about me: I’m cross-eyed. I was born with a condition called isotropic strabismus, which means that my brain only sends a signal to focus to one eye at a time, causing the other eye to turn inward. I had been through three failed surgeries by the age of 5, and, more recently, while researching in preparation to have yet another surgery, my parents and I were disheartened to discover an 11% success rate attached to this type of operation, hence having a fourth procedure would potentially be risking irreversible eye damage.
I prayed about the possibility of having the surgery while I was home from college, but as desperately as I wanted my eyes to be fixed and look normal, I knew that surgery was not the path I was meant to take; I cognitively believed that God was fully capable of healing my eyes, but I doubted that I had enough faith to believe for something as counter-intuitive as a miracle. I asked several family members and close friends to prayerfully support me for a week-long fast as I prayed for divine intervention. The response I got from my best friend, Shauna, however, was by far the most unexpected. She said, “Anna Avery, I want to do more than just pray. I want to fast with you.”
….YEAH. I KNOW.
She is one of about zero people on this planet who would do something like that. Who would voluntarily give up eating for 7 DAYS for a cause that would in no way benefit them. Through her selfless labor of love, she illustrated a beautiful truth to me: love is sacrifice.
1 John 3:18 tells us, “…let us not love with words or deeds, but with actions and in truth.”
The epitome of loving with actions and in truth is sacrifice. And we know this because 1 John 4 not only gives us the glorious statement, “God is love,” but it also details how God showed His love to us by sending His Son as a Savior. Love is perfectly exemplified in the person of Jesus, who sacrificed His life on behalf of a world that did not know Him, and a people who did not love Him.
Given the example of love that Jesus personified, the question becomes, “what are the selfless sacrifices we need to make in order to unconditionally love not only those who offer us love in return, but also those from whom we have nothing to gain?” (geez, what a loaded question)
Considering the way that Jesus loved both in His life and in His death, although I knew it was highly unlikely that I would be required to physically die on behalf of someone else, I realized that there is another kind of death that needs to happen if I am to truly love well— a death to self. Honestly, there are some days I would much rather take a bullet than attempt to kill the selfishness in me that wants to take a passive aggressive jab at a roommate who isn’t quite on my same level of OCD when it comes to washing the dishes (love you). But as I began to see in people the weaknesses that frustrate me, and the personality types that clash with my own, I started to view those things in the light of the subconscious conditions I had created for love.
I wasn’t willing to die to self. I wasn’t willing to make any sacrifices or allowances for others, but I expected others to sacrifice and make allowances for me. I only wanted to love people in the ways that were comfortable and convenient for me, in the ways that I best received love and most easily expressed it, but I expected others to be considerate of the ways I specifically needed to be loved and to give me unlimited grace when I messed up. But, on the flip side, the moment someone fell short of my standard, my grace would run out and I would immediately get frustrated and become distant.
I know, I know. It’s quite appalling.
As I was discovering this about myself, the verse that I kept coming back to in my attempt to rewire my mindset about love was Hebrews 10:24, which says, “Let us consider how to stir one another to love and good deeds.” In a sermon I listened to on that passage, the speaker (@JohnPiper) said that in the Greek, the word for “consider” actually means “to study.” He made the point that taking the time to observe and study people as it relates to loving them and fulfilling their specific needs is not just a helpful suggestion, but that it’s actually NECESSARY to experiencing healthy relationships.
I realized that some of the brokenness and frustration I was experiencing in relationships was a direct result of the fact that I was trying to love people without studying them, which was a truly revolutionary concept to me.
The more I reflected on it, the more it made sense. I, as well as 100% of people I have ever known, have a way through which we best receive love. For me, that way is when people spend quality time with me (hint, hint). My love language looks like getting into deep, hours-long conversations that last until 2 a.m; asking “250 road-trip questions” during a long car ride; and adventuring for the sake of new memories and shared experiences. But, as I’m beginning to realize, not everyone wants me to ask them 250 questions, because yeah, apparently that can be really freaking annoying. Who knew.
Some people actually feel most loved when you verbally affirm them. Or give them a thoughtful gift. Or perform an act of service. Or simply give them a hug. Love involves the type of sacrifice where one is aware of the other’s deepest needs, and responds to those needs guided by truth and love as exemplified by Jesus.
As I began to recognize these different ways through which others best receive love, I came to a conclusion: love that is solely rooted in my personal comfort isn’t really love. There is no sacrifice in a love like that.
“Dying to self” in love looks like dying to the ways we are most comfortable with expressing love as well as the scenarios that are most convenient to give love, and instead intentionally studying others to love them in the way that they specifically need to be loved.
And, I’m not going to lie, that kind of sacrificial love is mostly really hard, and I often fail pretty miserably at it.
But it’s also incredibly freeing and completely fulfilling.
As I began to surrender my self-focus and sacrifice my comfort in love, the fears that caused me to be possessive of relationships as well as the insecurities that caused me to be selfish in relationships were slowly starting to diminish. I was actually coming to a place of security and confidence in expressing love to others. I was becoming less anxious and fearful because I was sacrificing the familiar, self-centered ways of love that I had been holding on to, but that were ultimately holding me back. Instead of trying to possess love by only giving it or receiving it on my terms, through surrendering my conditions for love, this unconditional, all-encompassing love was now possessing me.
*A huge thank you to my contributors, Richard and Shauna, and my editor, Kirsten. Y’all are THE BEST.