Is there any pain that stings more sharply than the pain of unrequited love? Is there any emotional experience more gut-wrenching, relentless, and unrelieved? Even in the dark of a sleepless night hot tears flow. The impulse is to scream to muted walls. It is pain without relief.
Unrequited love is love that is due -– but withheld.
A mother devotes two decades to doing every selfless thing a mother’s heart is moved to do –- endure labor in giving birth, feed, bathe, launder soiled clothes, soothe fevered forehead, instruct, correct, teach life-lessons, and all this, year after year, right into young adulthood.
But the kind of reciprocal love all this should engender in the growing child either does not seem to form or quickly disappears. With the coming of adulthood, the relationship becomes merely formal, devoid of warmth, coldly proper. Mother-love goes unrequited.
Or, a wife serves her husband out of a great reservoir of covenanted love. She is there for him, tries within her limits to meet his needs, washes his clothes, makes his meals, even blesses him with children. But without explanation he walks out and she is left with a searing sense of loneliness and betrayal. Inexplicably, her heart continues to love him, but her love goes unrequited.
Pictures like these formed as Kathleen and I read from Micah 6 and 7 this morning. The Old Testament is in one sense the the story of unrequited love on a grand scale.
By miracles, the Lord had shown the ancestors of this people covenant love in times of severe hardship in the wilderness. And over and over again he had reminded them of his gracious blessings poured upon them. He shepherded, disciplined, comforted, protected -– all for loving reasons.
Then comes Micah 6 carrying that grand Old Testament declaration of what the Lord wanted: “He has showed you, O man, what is good./ And what does the Lord require of you?/ To act justly and to love mercy/ and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
But these were precisely Israel’s failures. She had not acted justly, cheating and extorting as opportunities presented themselves. She had not loved mercy, leaving poor neighbors to struggle in their destitution. And her people had long since ceased worshiping God in true humility of heart.
They had been reminded often, but this generation refused to remember. They were now settled long after wilderness wanderings and many had become wealthy. They should have remembered with reciprocal love, but they did not. Instead, they had gone their own way, leaving their Lord’s love unrequited.
The result of this neglectful amnesia was that the community of the Lord’s chosen had become a place of moral degeneration. Their society had lost almost all social cohesion (Micah 7: 4-6). Even blood relations were severed: “For a son dishonors his father,/ a daughter rises up against her mother … a man’s enemies are the members of his own household” (Micah 7:6).
This kind of social breakdown is still with us. I saw a woman weeping bitter tears after a church service. I approached her. “My three children have divorced me,” she said through her tears. Christmas was approaching but there would be no Christmas greetings or gifts for her, only a punishing silence, an experience of unrequited love.
Not many come as far as midlife without experiencing in some fashion this kind of unanswered love. It is devastating. How can it be endured? How do we stave off bitterness?
Our model is Jesus. “He came unto his own but his own people did not receive him” (Jn 1:11). Can we imagine his pain? After three years of faithful ministry to his disciples, it was said of them, “Then everyone deserted him and fled” (Mk 14:50). What was his response to such unrequited love? He committed his soul and its suffering to a loving and faithful father and carried on.
Photo credit: THOR (via flickr.com)