My house is a one-level ranch-style home that is around fifty years old but has been well cared for and remodeled a bit in its interior. At the center of my house is the largest room, with an open floor plan kitchen and a large space with a window and a gas fireplace. The previous owners used this space as a sitting room, but we use it as our dining room. The large window in the room is in the wall next to the fireplace and looks out onto a portion of our backyard deck. Also within the view of this window is a small dead tree. It’s been dead for a while, but it’s not hurting anything where it is, and there is a clematis flower vine growing at its base, so the dead tree serves this plant by giving it a jungle gym to wrap itself up in.
Last year I hung a bird feeder on the outside of the window so that, from inside, I could have a close view of the birds as they ate. So from the latest part of autumn, through winter, and into early spring, if I paid attention, I got to see a few different individual birds that visited regularly, and one cardinal couple who visited once or twice a day for months.
I saw the female first, and though her feathers were more brown than red (which is normal for female birds), she was very large, so I questioned my bird identification. But then I noticed that whenever she came to the feeder she was accompanied by a bright red male, who sat on a branch of the dead tree nearby, watching her carefully as she ate. He even chased off other birds who tried to share the food with her. Then, when she was done, she would land herself in the dead tree, and he would take a brief turn at the feeder before they flew away together. I concluded that the female wasn’t fat, she was pregnant. Full of eggs, I mean, that she hadn’t laid yet. Sure enough, one day in March or April they returned to the feeder, and mama cardinal was back to a normal size. Then, sometime around June, I watched a tiny bird at another feeder in the front yard, a baby cardinal.
Love is a hard word to define, but we usually know it when we see it.
Admittedly, I am personifying the cardinals to use them as an example of love, and it’s more likely that their behavior was simply instinctual acts of protection that have allowed their species to survive and thrive. But in my mind, the male was a proud father, excited to meet his screaming featherless babies and ensuring that their mother got plenty of nourishment so that they would all hatch healthy and strong. But even if cardinals, or crows or cock roaches for that matter, don’t feel love in the way we understand it, they can personify it as an instinct.
The same loving God that created you and me, who designed us, designed and created these animals too, so I can see how, whether cardinals have emotions or not, their instinctual behavior to protect each other and care for their young is a product of love. As our creator, God has woven the world as a gift to mankind (Genesis 1: 29-31), so it’s reasonable to conclude that even birds can reflect their creator in some ways.
Unlike physical safety and security, the third tier up from the base of Maslow’s hierarchy triangle graphic (love and belonging), is enigmatic. Our physiological and safety needs are for the most part black and white, have or don’t have. Yet, as many before me have observed, being safe and healthy in body and mind is only the foundation of the building. Those tiers on the pyramid are in place to provide foundational support so that more complex additions can be added.
Love is complex, but it is also foundational. Although a person needs physical safety and security to stay alive, if we assume that those elements are in place, love is the next step. Before sin entered the world in the earliest, perfect days of God’s initial creation, neither of the bottom two steps in Maslow’s hierarchy were needed. In Eden God provided all that was needed for health, safety, and nourishment in the creation he spoke into existence, and mankind was just there to enjoy it. Only after the fall did we find ourselves working, saving, scraping money together so we could keep refrigerators stocked and locks on our doors and see a doctor once in a while. But when those crucial needs are met, love, as nuanced and confusing as it is, is essential, because it allows us to know and experience God.
But despite being in the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy, love plays a big role in ensuring that both our physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, because love is evident in the people who, having more than they need of the essentials for physiological and safety, invest their time into providing those essentials to others. Paramedics and doctors and firefighters and police provide aid in those areas, yes, but a parent feeding a baby, and one day teaching him to feed himself, or cook his own meals, is providing that child with the ability to one day make his own money, buy his own food, and enjoy it. Providing physiological support and access to physical safety to those who don’t have it is love. Providing a person with the means (information on, access to, skills required) to care for his own physical safety and support is also love.
The love and belonging that most of us crave, however, is one that transcends the sort of love that stops at bare-minimum survival. As Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, even a person who can perform great feats of both power and self-sacrifice is impoverished if he cannot or will not love. But our understanding of what love is, what it looks like in action, and where and when to give and receive it, is unique to each of us. And while loving ourselves, whatever that means, is a good thing, it is inadequate to meet our needs.
Designed in God’s image, we are, like the cardinals at my feeder, programmed to live in and function in relationship with each other, and in relationship with God. He designed us for community, for relationship, and for love. It evidenced in the coupling of the cardinals, and also in our own basic anatomy. But love is far from anatomical. It transcends the physical and gives birth to emotions – fear, worry, anticipation, guilt, remorse, and despair, all of them pointing back to love – our need for it, our inability to provide it or to provide enough of it, our sense of responsibility to others, our grief or anger when we desire or expect love in person or thing that cannot or will not provide it. Love is the cornerstone that connects us to each other and to God, the creator and source of love itself (1 John 4:7-12).
Without love, there can be no shalom, because it and all other good, pure things flow from God, whether we recognize that or not. Conversely, because sin entered the world and worked its way into the gene pool of every living thing, we redefine love, limit love, use it as a weapon or as a panacea, we refuse to give it, we give it away, we give it up in favor of money, status, accomplishments, titles, and plain old stuff.
If love and a sense of belonging is lacking in our lives, God will provide it when we come to him in need, but we must know how to discern real love from false love. Paul defines godly love quite clearly in 1 Corinthians 13, but it is easy to get swallowed up by the poetry and grandiosity of the picture he paints. Paul paints love as a utopia, but no one we meet will be able to fulfill us in this way because it isn’t a loved one’s job to fulfill us. Love on earth will always leave us wanting. But love isn’t all or nothing either. Any person who is genuinely consistently aiming in the right direction toward Paul’s description is worth hanging onto. And like so many other things, learning to genuinely love others unselfishly is an art rather than a science. There is no pinnacle point or final master level. Giving and receiving love is both an art and a practice, and none of us will master it. Love, given and received, will always leave us wanting until we know the God of love face to face.