At the end of the 2002 sci-fi film Serenity, the gruff, Han Solo-esque Captain Malcolm Reynolds is having a conversation with his ship’s new pilot, River Tam. She’s already quite adept, but he still takes a moment to offer this profound reflection on flying a spaceship: “You know what the first rule of flying is? Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love and she’ll shake you off just as sure as a turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, tells you she’s hurting before she keels. Makes her a home.”
There. I’m done. I just wanted to share that movie quote because it’s stuck with me from the very first moment I heard it. I love it. Sometimes it takes a poet, perhaps a pilot, or even a screenwiter to capture important truths.
But seriously, don’t those words from Reynolds sum up the meaning of love perfectly? Or at least sum up quite a bit of what love is about? Well, let’s unpack the Captain’s words a bit in the event that it isn’t clear, that he’s not only talking about piloting, but about a reality that lies at the very heart of life.
Love is a word easily tossed about in our vocabulary. We use it to describe our feelings for favourite foods almost as easily as we use it for the people to whom we are closest. And in popular culture it usually refers exclusively to our emotions, to those feelings of infatuation or romance or attraction. Characters recite the mantra, “Follow your feelings,” like clockwork, as if this were the most important advice we could receive about relationships.
Consider the first he says about love: “You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love and she’ll shake you off just as sure as a turn of the worlds.” Without love, a relationship can’t even get off the ground. Without love, a relationship won’t even be able to remain in the air. Love is foundational, fundamental; apart from love the very notion of relationship is incomprehensible. Cold knowledge is never enough. Love can’t be mastered using manuals.
All relationships experience strain. Life provides pressure, sometimes pressure enough that over time cracks and crevices can begin to appear in the infrastructure of love. Long past the point where romantic feelings buoy a relationship, love keeps it afloat. Reynolds speaks to this also when he says that “Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, tells you she’s hurting before she keels.”
Circumstances can come close to getting the better of us, and I know that even in our own marriage my wife and I have had a few difficult moments. Frankly, sometimes it is amazing what situations relationships can survive. And surely those that do make it, do so only because of a deep commitment and the day by day decision to be there for this person. While involving our feelings, love is a choice.
That love is a choice certainly runs counter to much of our culture’s view of love, which often appears predicated on continuing feelings of physical attraction and affection, that initial sense of infatuation that first arouses our attention in the other person. Yes, if such feelings persist over the long-term, it’s wonderful. And certainly those feelings should never completely disappear. Indeed, such passion can even be rekindled. But life takes unexpected turns, ones that can have a profound impact on our relationships and how we experience love within these relationships. Qualities that led to our infatuation may disappear. Changed circumstances may impact a couple’s ability to express and experience intimacy. In such cases, do we cut and run or do we continue to love despite illness, aging, or personality changes?
So here is love: committed, protective, foundational. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, gives us a similar portrait of love. “And the greatest of these [virtues] is love,” Paul says. And why is it the greatest? Paul tells us, and in telling us that it’s also clear that for him love is foundational to human relationships. The love of which he speaks is “patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful . . . It bears all things . . . endures all things.” Such love is not a fair weather friend, and is there through thick and thin. Such love is other-focused; there isn’t a selfish bone in its body. Telling is the fact that Paul is describing the way relationships ought to be within the church.
Most incredibly, not only does the Bible portray love in this way; the Bible also says “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Of course, the danger in isolating this scriptural description of God from its larger context is that we’ll interpret it according to our human experiences of love. We’ll make the mistake of turning the statement around: “Love is God.” Biblically, it doesn’t work that way.
In fact, the passage where we find the statement “God is love” is also the place where we discover that we really only understand love because God reveals what love actually is. The more we learn about the God of the Bible, the more we learn about love. There we see that love, more than anything else, is sacrificial.
1 John 4:9—11 says this: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”
Key to understanding love, then, is realizing that intrinsic to love is the willingness to give oneself up for the sake of the other. Key to getting love is realizing that God not only shows us this love; he is this love. Given that this is so, this means God is the source of all the real and true love that we can know and experience. God is also the source of the greatest love we can ever experience: his love, the love he has shown us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
If I am to love—to love fully and truly—I have to know the love God has for me. Indeed, it is in being captured by the love that God has for me that I am able to love others in return. So tenuous is the human grasp on love that we require divine aid to receive and give it. As much as we want—and, yes, need—love, we’re largely incapable of being lovely and loving on our own. But God, who is love, makes it possible, and it’s because “God is love” that love is also “the greatest of these.” Calling it the first rule of flying, therefore, is not just insightful but a divine revelation.