Growing In Love: One Theory On Why We Don't Get Along and What We Can Do About It

This past week my kids were on break.  I got home and found my son watching a movie that I wasn’t expecting him to watch.  Now understand, I trust my son.  I wasn’t upset with him per se, just surprised. The language was a bit harsh.  I noted that fact.  His response?  “Well, [unnamed teenager’s] parents let her watch it and they are about as strict as you guys are.”

Seriously?!?!  Did he just say that?  Part of me wanted to tell him to go get Bambi and have fun watching it the rest of the day but I didn’t.

What floored me was his perception.  Of course my kids think we’re crazy strict.  In reality, I think we’re quite far from it and I’ve got a number of friends who’d agree.  I loosely use the term “liberal” to describe us.  Everything is in the eye of the beholder though.

This applies only to well to the myriad of cultures and sub-cultures which make up our society.  Even so, there is an observed consistency around our development, how we think and reason as we grow.  Jean Piaget began making this observation decades ago and his theories of moral development and those of others who followed him, confirmed many of them and their characteristics.  While debated, one of those characteristics is the idea that moral development is culturally universal (Carol Gilligan is the most famous, I think, to question this in her book “In A Different Voice,” but it has still been observed across cultures).

Before I go too far afield, let me bring this back to the point I was heading toward, namely, that though my kids are growing up within a sub-culture different from mine, their developmental growth as people, is largely following the same path.  This doesn’t mean I don’t forgo punishments and consequences for wrong behavior, but it ought to give me pause to understand and remember my kids are “coming from a different place.”

Developmental theories tell us we're all coming from different places, even as adults. So just "where" is my neighbor coming from?  What about my co-worker?  My friend?  My spouse?  My fellow clergy person?  Consider, if only for a second, your most recent argument or disagreement with someone.  Did they seem like they were coming from an entirely different planet?  Did it frustrate you to no end?  Did it ultimately lead you to make belittling or snide comments on social media?  I wonder.

So I started digging into my notes and came across an interesting piece that Dr. Donald Joy seemed to refer to every class I took with him in graduate school.  It came from Bill Hubbell who described how, based on moral development theory, individuals viewed love in their marriage (it isn’t hard to consider how this works in other relationships).  Each person could “love” another but then their actions seem to be totally contradictory!  

As you read Hubbell’s “I Love You” statements below, you’ll see how they progress.  We all go through these stages in our lives.  Over our lifetime, we’ll settle into one that becomes a home base to us.  You’ll likely see too, how Jesus’ words throughout the Gospels, will challenge the ways we love.  If you are loving from the first stage, it will be hard to handle Jesus’ words in Matthew when he says, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' (44)  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”  (Matthew 5:43-44 ESV).

Take a moment to read Hubbell’s “Six Pack:”

I LOVE YOU.  I love all that you do for me.  I love you so long as I am not being hurt.  If you ever hurt me, I’ll stop loving you.

I LOVE YOU.  I love all the neat things you do for me.  I love you because I know you are always going to come when I need you.

I LOVE YOU.  I think you are nice, and I feel nice when I am with you.  My friends really think you are neat.  I need you because you make me look really cool.

I LOVE YOU.  I’m committed to you, and I want to give to you.  I hate to tell you this, but sometimes I don’t like you. Sometimes, well, I even hate you.  (I hate it when I hate you.) But we are stuck with each other, like it or not, “for better or for worse.”  Please, I wish this obligation could be more pleasant.

I LOVE YOU.  I’m committed to you and to your welfare.  I enjoy making you look good and seeing you pleased and happy.  I don’t always feel attracted to you; sometimes you plain make me angry.  But I love you.  Deep down I really want what is best for you.

I LOVE YOU.  I’m concerned and committed to you.  Whatever you do, whether I like it or not, I love you.  Whether you are attracted to me, love me, hate me, or ignore me, I love you.  Whatever is best for you, I want it  and I will do it for you, regardless of what the cost may be to me.

As we grow in grace and in our understanding of love and moral reasoning, grace ought to extend to those with whom we do not agree.  Because we view the world differently, at different stages, we often reach very different conclusions regarding beliefs and how we ought to act (and react).  It isn’t hard, I think, to be challenged by Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” regardless of where you are on your journey.  Who isn’t still struggling to grasp and live Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:39, when he says, “...I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek?”

One of the implications is to recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence and leading in our lives.  The nature of God’s love, represented in Jesus Christ’s life, does not even register in the theory (For more on this, I’d recommend Michael J. Gorman’s book, “Cruciformity”).  But our growth, should be in response to a growth in grace and lead us to offering more grace to others.  What I’m saying is those of us who perceive we have grown to more mature love and grace, should be more gracious and merciful to those living in stages we have already passed through.

This keeps with what Paul’s pleas to the Romans (and Corinthians (1 Cor 8:13)) regarding food.  Paul writes, “(19) So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.  (20)  Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.  (21)  It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. (Rom 14:19-21 ESV)”  Our growth in grace ought not to lead us to pride but to offer more grace, to be merciful to those who, on their journey, have not grown as you or I might have done.

Going back to Michael Gorman’s work, he describes God’s love as a “cruciform” love, which helps us grasp why God’s love would not fit in Hubbell’s “Six Pack.”  The very nature of God’s love as demonstrated in Jesus Christ’s death is it takes shape in the cross, thus it is cruciform.  Gorman writes, “Cruciform love resists the temptation to make myself the focus of everything, even of my spirituality.  Cruciform love refuses to exercise rights, powers, privileges, spiritual gifts, and so forth, if their use will do me good…(389)” but cause others harm.  Nor does cruciform love tear down others, be it through sarcasm, implication, memes, or the like, to make a point.  

Like any theory, developmental theories of moral and spiritual development have their gaps. But there is a consistency in what has been observed in studies. Besides this, Jesus’ words call us to be loving and Jesus’ actions demonstrate the extent of God’s gracious love for us. If we have perceived and responded to God’s love in our fallen, sinful, and love-limited state, we are called and empowered by the Spirit to show, in our way, love to others (including Christians we don't get along with too!). Maybe, this means we have to make room for people to grow. We need to remember we have our own growing up to do as well and keep it in mind as we journey together.


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