To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. CS Lewis, The Four Loves
According to a 1976 ballad by the rock band Nazareth, “love hurts.” (Go ahead, you know it, sing a little bit. Ooh, ooh love hurts…) While seventies rockers weren’t known for revealing fresh insight about the human condition, that refrain is nevertheless true: if I love someone, sooner or later my heart is going to hurt. Some of the deepest pain I have known comes when someone I love is hurting, and there is nothing I can do to fix it.
I have three sons, and all have had various medical emergencies over the years. One of the worst came with my youngest child. When Ben was born he was 22 ½ inches long, and his fat, rosy little body stayed in the 90th percentile for almost a year. Without warning at eight months old he quit eating, and by his first birthday Ben had been diagnosed with “failure to thrive.”
Talk about words that will strike fear into a momma’s heart. Failure to thrive? Mealtime was torture for the whole family. Sometimes he would eat everything on his high chair tray, and then vomit what looked like more than he’d eaten. Sometimes he would scream when I tried to feed him, and thirty minutes of effort didn’t get a single calorie into his tiny body. His first birthday pictures show a thin, pale baby with dark circles under his eyes, straining away from his drum-shaped birthday cake. We were weekly regulars down at the Children’s Hospital, as specialist after specialist repeated the awful diagnosis but offered no cure.
Many times I read his “failure” as my failure. After all, it’s a mom’s job to feed her children, right? That’s Motherhood 101. If I couldn’t feed my child, what kind of mom was I? I even felt guilty when he cleaned his tray and then vomited, as if somehow that was my fault. Ben was suffering and sickly, and I could not do a damn thing about it. I had never felt so powerless to help someone I loved so much. Even writing about it makes me anxious all over again.
In the years since, I have become more acquainted with that powerlessness. As a wife, a mother, a daughter and a friend, I have watched people I love wrestle with great darkness, serious sin, tremendous pain and devastating illness. I have not been able to save a single one of those people, to smooth away their struggles or right their wrongs or heal their hurts. If you have ever wanted to “fix” your people’s troubles, you know exactly what I am talking about.
A couple of years ago, I took a Bible study course called “Idol Addiction,” and through the teaching I learned the difference between my role and my responsibility in my relationships. My role is to do the very best I can for the people I love, but because I am human and imperfect and weak, I will often fail. So I am grateful that the final responsibility for the one I love belongs to God, because no matter how hard I try, I cannot bear total responsibility for myself, let alone someone else.
In the study the teacher, Julie Sparkman, uses the illustration of strapping her infant son into a carseat. Now Julie describes herself as a mom who buys cars based on crash-test ratings, so safety is high priority for her. When her son was an infant, she had a top-of-the-line carseat, and she diligently double-checked the seatbelts whenever they drove somewhere. Julie was a great mom on top of her job, except for the time when she didn’t use the belt correctly, and arrived home to find the entire carseat was upside down on top of her infant, who was still buckled in tightly. If they had been hit, he would not have been safe in that seat. Anyone who has ever driven a baby somewhere can imagine the horror of that moment. (Many of us have probably done the same thing.)
Julie’s baby was fine, and my Ben was too, but not because we were such great moms. Julie took her role very seriously, but even giving him her best, her son’s safety was beyond her control. I also threw myself into caring for Ben, but all my effort could not help him gain an ounce. God protected Julie’s son and God renewed Ben’s appetite- He maintains responsibility because we cannot. Even if our boys had not been safe and healthy, neither one of them would have been out of His careful attention for even a moment.
Of course this does not mean I leave my family to fend for themselves, telling them God will cook their dinner and pay the bills. In fact, recognizing that I have an important role but not final responsibility frees me to fulfill that role wholeheartedly. My energy and my attention remain focused on what I can do instead of what I cannot. God equips me for my role in each relationship, but responsibility is an impossible burden for a limited human being, and I am not designed to bear it. If my dear one is, or appears to be, “failing to thrive,” I don’t have to control everything, I don’t have to know the future, and I don’t have to protect from all harm. Those things are His job anyway.
Knowing my role means I no longer have to try to do all those things I can’t do anyway. This much is certain: I can always pray, even when I don’t know what love is supposed to do next. I remain vulnerable; knowing that final responsibility belongs with God does not mean that love won’t hurt me, that my heart won’t be “wrung and quite possibly broken.” It does mean that I can trust God with the ones I love best, knowing they were His responsibility all along. “And GOD will wipe away every tear from their eyes (and from mine), there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain (even the pain that comes with love), for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21: 4)
The lesson in this post comes courtesy of Bible teacher Julie Sparkman, who emphasizes the difference between role and responsibility in her teaching. As a hyper-responsible type A oldest child, I had never made a distinction between the two, so this teaching has been a game changer for me. Hope this helps you as much as it helps me. For more info and the link to Idol Addiction, go to restore-ministries.org.