March 25, 2012

A love beyond what I can do

Those who care for elderly or ill family members are told that they cannot do this care by themselves. They will burn out from the stress of it and not be able to carry on. At present, at least three of my family are in this situation. A man in his nineties is taking care of his wife who has severe dementia. A wife is caring for her spouse who has had a stroke and is unable to think straight. A husband is caring for his wife who has a severe illness. 

As I watch them, I wonder about the advice given to caregivers. Is this a cultural admonition based on the busyness of North American life? Have people lost the capacity to care for their loved ones?

A few years ago, both my parents lived in our home. After a year, they moved into a residence for retired people, and from there to a care facility. I was criticized by one person who told me that in other cultures, the burden of family care is seldom passed on to the government or social agencies. The family did it and I was wrong to “put my parents in an old folks’ home.” 

I felt guilty, but at the same time knew that my father was okay with outside help. He would never accept family care when it came to giving him a bath. How could I push that against his own wishes? 

Yet in the Bible, the Lord exhorts His people to care for each other. The burdens are not always related to health or other infirmities, yet regardless of the burden, the attitude I’m supposed to have toward those in need is clear from today’s verse, and from the others that follow it.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. (Romans 15:1)
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:21)
Love isn’t about cultural norms, nor is it about warm, fuzzy feelings. Clearly, it is about helping someone else with their struggles, sometimes at great personal cost. It is also putting the best interests of other people at the top of the list, not doing what I want, but what that other person needs.

I’m impressed by my relative who cares for his wife with dementia. He knows that she is severely confused. Moving her out of her home would increase her confusion to the point that she would be in great stress. He loves her too much to do that to her. Somehow, in that self-sacrificial love, he finds the strength.

I’m also impressed by the woman who cares for her husband. She put him in a care facility, knowing that if she kept him at home, she could not provide 24/7 care and would eventually burn out herself. She does not want to leave him without anyone to help him with his burdens. She loves him too much to do that.

Deciding the best way to love others and bear burdens is not easy. The man who has been caring for his ill wife has not looked for or accepted help. He felt this was his duty, yet he has burned out and now in the hospital. His family must now make arrangements for night nurses and home care to take over his role. He admits that in trying to keep up the appearance of being “okay” he failed the one he loves and now cannot do anything to care for her. 

How can I obey God in loving others without falling apart? Part of the answer is in the fact that this love God asks me to give is not about me or from me. It is not about feelings, or any self-determination, or what I can do on my own. This love is agape, the love of God that is “shed abroad in the heart” of those who believe in Jesus Christ. He was willing to die for my sin. I cannot muster up or make happen that kind of love. It must flow from Him through me. Yet because He lives in me, such great love is available. 

I also think about why God wants me to do this. Of course love gives good things that others need. It is never about what I might get out of it. This love also has great purpose in that it demonstrates the love of Jesus Christ so others can see what He is like. One other reason is that this love of God speaks volumes about me and all those who can love in this burden-bearing way . . .
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35)

Lord, I know that I cannot love as You command apart from believing in You and abiding in Christ. Your love is different from human love. It stands out because of its eternal source and everlasting quality. It is a love without limits because You love everyone, even Your enemies. While we were still sinners, You died for us. Because of Your love, I can depend on You to help me know and do what is the best for others. I can put aside all my “I wants” and lift burdens because You graciously give the strength and the love needed to do it.  

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