For Better or For Worse
The phrase is so well worn that we may no longer catch how truly radical it is. Yet most of us, if we are honest, do not love like this. Most of us, that is, only love “for better” but not “for worse.” We love when things are going well. And we love when we are loved. But when times are tough, or when we are treated poorly, we tend to excuse ourselves from loving, or worse, respond with something that looks more like love’s opposite.
This is, in one sense, natural. For most of human history, the idea of loving “for better or worse” was completely unheard of. Human relationships tended to be defined more by a vicious cycle of violence and retribution. In fact, Hammurabi’s famous law–“an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”–which sounds so harsh to our modern ear, was actually originally considered merciful, in that it at least kept violence and retribution from increasing. It seems that best that we can do on our own is justice. For better—but not for worse.
This was the situation for most of human history. But Jesus turned this upside down. “You have heard it said,” Jesus said to disciples “‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” Jesus said this, and then he did just that. When we were worse, he was our better. While we were yet sinners, he loved us all the way–giving up himself for us on a cross.
The love of God is not justice for the righteous, but grace for the sinner. By pouring out all of his justice on Jesus, God loved us not as we deserved, but precisely as we did not deserve. This is a truth that changes everything, including the shape of our love for others. In John 13:34, Jesus gives a “new commandment”: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The same note is sounded in 1 John 4:11: “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love another.” In being loved unconditionally, we learn to love others unconditionally as well. We love others not as they deserve—but love most precisely when they deserve it the least. Being loved at our worst we are free to love others for better and for worse.
The Rev. Nathaniel (“Nate”) Jung-Chul Lee holds master’s degrees from Duke University (Durham, NC), Trinity School for Ministry (Ambridge, PA), and Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). He is currently a doctoral student at Baylor University (Waco, TX) where he works at the intersection of political theology, ethics, and race/identity theory. Nate is also a priest in the Episcopal Church, and serves as curate to two parishes in Waco while completing his doctorate.