My roommate walked in the door as I finished typing an email. As she asked me a question, my fingers went into autopilot. I clicked a few words, hit send, and started to answer her when it broke onto my consciousness that I’d tacked “Love you, Shannon” onto an email to one of my professors, a man in his fifties who also attends my church.
“Oh crap!” I burst into the middle of my roommate’s sentence, “I just typed ‘Love you’ to Dr. Zhivago.”¹
While her diaphragm nearly seized up with laugher, I typed a hasty apology explaining how my roommate came in right as I was finishing the email and how my fingers went into autopilot and how I always sign emails to my family that way. I hit send again and, rubbing my face in disbelief, turned around to finish the conversation.
A shocking response
My roommate and I were still standing in the kitchen, my laptop doing penance on the counter, when his response popped onto the screen.
“Oh my word,” I said to her, “listen to this:
“‘Shannon, Your hasty benediction was taken as encouragement, not offense. I would love to live in an expression of the kingdom where brothers and sisters in Christ could say “love you” without fear of professional impropriety, misinterpretation, or sexual messaging. I took it without suspicion. Unfortunately, I am frequently reminded in this position that our corrupt world perverts even the best intentioned gestures…God help us rise above all that!'”
When I looked up, my roommate’s jaw slacked open and her eyes looked a bit more glossy than normal.
“I’m going to cry,” she said, “That was so…unnecessary.”
Love and Gender Lines
Within the week I found myself leaving a voicemail for another church friend who is also a professor, this one a female, to check in on her adult daughter’s recovery from open heart surgery. Before hanging up the phone, I said, “Thinking about you and love you lots.”
As I put my phone away, the email fiasco from earlier in the week came to mind. Both of these professors comprise some of my closest friends at church. They’ve both mentored and challenged me. We’ve worked side by side on projects at church. What was it about these interactions—my awkward email sign off, his response, and the voicemail to her—that niggled under the surface?
I took out the mental shovel and started digging. The first thing I hit was the cultural soil, American and Evangelical, that makes it inappropriate to sign “love you” to a brother in Christ, but not a sister. Perhaps both the oversexed Americanism and purity culture of Evangelicalism stunt the expressions of genuine love that God meant for his family.
Heaving up another shovelful, I wondered if our fear of sexual sin sometimes eclipses our trust in the Holy Spirit. Another heave ho, and I decided that an overly acute anxiety about how we appear to onlookers can occlude holy expressions of love.
But then I hit a rock. Purity also honors God and we can’t just launch that over the fence. My own lived experience with temptation testifies to the fact that I interact differently with different men depending on their marital status, my attraction level, and any vibes they give off. Love needs wisdom and that looks different for each of us.
Fixated on love
I paused, shovel in hand, feeling like I’d made no progress and tired from the mental effort. I gave up the project for a while until I found myself listening to Philippians in the car one morning. Paul’s love for that dysfunctional bunch just erupts through the pages. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown…” (Phil 4:1). And Paul wasn’t the only apostle fixated on love.
Peter begged his readers to “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22) and to “Above all, love each other deeply” (1 Peter 4:8). According to Peter, such love finds expression in hospitality, service, and encouragement, using our gifts to benefit others (1 Peter 4:9-11).
Equipped with this, I went back to digging and the dirt gave way. The niggling thought I was trying to excavate—under Dr. Zhivago’s response to my accidental “love you” and my freely given “love you lots” to my friend whose daughter had heart surgery—has as much to do with my own self-centered approach to love as with Evangelical and American culture.
Truth is, I love when it’s convenient, when I like the people I’m loving, and when it doesn’t interfere too much with my schedule. My own comfort determines how and when I love others.
Our #1 calling
A quick mental survey of the New Testament, though, leaves me wincing under the penetrating call to love. Love is the main thing, the only thing. The two greatest commandments in the Old Testament, according to Jesus, center on love (Matthew 22:36-40). God is love (1 John 4:8). The world will know we belong to Jesus when we love each other (John 13:35). If we excel in every spiritual category but fail in love, we’ve failed completely (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). The three lasting virtues are faith, hope, and love, but love trumps them all (1 Corinthians 13:13). Clearly, when I put love second, I’m missing the whole point.
Perhaps we need to exercise caution when crossing gender boundaries, but God’s call to love also means following his Spirit and serving people the way they need even if that risks misunderstanding and disapproval from others. Love means extending hospitality, service, and encouragement, but it may also mean a hug, a punch in the shoulder, or signing off an email “love you.”
¹ Name changed, not in reflection of the original 1965 film but of my favorite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, “My Husband Is Not a Drunk.”
* This post first appeared on Converge Magazine on September 19, 2016