Why is Love so difficult?


As I’ve noted, I’m on retreat with about 15 youth at a monastery. Our topic has been freedom and love – the two most important things necessary in our journey to become fully what God has created us to be. It’s not a complicated subject. “Everybody’s in favor of love,” Fr. Thomas Hopko says. What then, is so difficult about love?

Of course, love is not difficult as a topic. As discussions go, 12-15 year olds seem about as insightful as their adult parents. But, of course, there is something difficult about it or else I would not again be spending half a week on this topic with teenagers in a monastery.

Love is difficult because it comes not from the head but from the heart. If it came from the head only smart people would love – obviously not the case.

What makes it difficult is that we frequently surround it with other things. We disguise it with religion. Indeed, sometimes we may use religious things to confuse the issue and excuse our failures to love. In the name of very specific religious laws, Christ was crucified. Religion does not make us better people.

God makes us better, and although our religion is itself a necessary part of what God has commanded, He has never commanded us not to love. I recall in the early years of our OCA mission, one of our members was unexpectedly killed in a car wreck. We were meeting in a warehouse and were in no way prepared for a funeral. I was still in transition and not yet ordained as an Orthodox priest.

That evening as I sat, in grief and stunned silence, the phone rang. It was the neighboring Greek Orthodox priest. “I insist that you have the funeral here,” he said. I later found out that someone had questioned him. Silly inter-jurisdictional objections. With steadfast goodness he told them, “It’s the Christian thing to do.” Indeed. What is so hard about that?

We made our way through probably one of the most difficult emotional weeks of my life and certainly one that was difficult for our tiny mission. But what was not difficult was the clarity of a brother priest. Nothing is complicated about love unless you don’t want to love.

I continue to give thanks for someone who owed me nothing and was willing to put up with a little grief because he knew God.

Our lives are not terribly complicated. They are as hard as keeping God’s commandments. We were told from the beginning that following Christ may very well get us killed. But we take up the cross, apparently agreeing that we will die when the time comes. Love is not hard – it’s just deadly – in a way that gives us the only life worth having.

I rejoice to be telling this to children. They probably live in far more difficult settings than any adults I know.

Love God. Love your neighbor. Do the Christian thing. What’s so hard? Apparently our hearts are what’s so hard. May God soften them and create a new heart within us. I want as much for us all.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


11 responses to “Why is Love so difficult?”

  1. Eric Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen:

    Your post makes me think of a portion of Auden’s poem September 1, 1939:

    The windiest militant trash
    Important Persons shout
    Is not so crude as our wish:
    What mad Nijinsky wrote
    About Diaghilev
    Is true of the normal heart;
    For the error bred in the bone
    Of each woman and each man
    Craves what it cannot have,
    Not universal love
    But to be loved alone.

    From the conservative dark
    Into the ethical life
    The dense commuters come,
    Repeating their morning vow,
    “I will be true to the wife,
    I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
    And helpless governors wake
    To resume their compulsory game:
    Who can release them now,
    Who can reach the deaf,
    Who can speak for the dumb?

    All I have is a voice
    To undo the folded lie,
    The romantic lie in the brain
    Of the sensual man-in-the-street
    And the lie of Authority
    Whose buildings grope the sky:
    There is no such thing as the State
    And no one exists alone;
    Hunger allows no choice
    To the citizen or the police;
    We must love one another or die.


    Whatever may be said of Auden and his life, I think he grasped the problem of “love” neatly in that one phrase: For the error bred in the bone of each woman and each man craves what it cannot have, not universal love but to be loved alone.

  2. Tracy Gustilo Avatar
    Tracy Gustilo

    Love is hard. In my heart it seems to be hard because there are always conflicting loves pulling in opposite directions: love of God versus love of neighbor, say. I know that sounds like it shouldn’t happen, but in my life, somehow, it does. Outside of Church I live entirely with non-Orthodox people, and there inevitably ensues a conflict over God Himself — even if I say nothing, provoke no one! How to love??

    Or there are other conflicts of love: Mary vs. Martha, all those worldly/churchly “expectations” of service that pull away from the One Thing.

    Or the conflict of love of the Cross itself. How can I bear Him to die? Yet I must love and venerate that Cross which kills Him.

    Love is hard because it hurts.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Last weekend, I had the great good fortune to attend a lecture on the Bible in the Orthodox Church by an exceptional scholar and faithful Christian, Dr. George Bebawi. At one point he noted in his presentation that we do not hug and kiss each other more because of our fear of death.

    Love is difficult because we fear our own mortality and the inconstancy it brings. Perhaps that is why we say the Jesus is the “only lover of mankind”

  4. David_Bryan Avatar

    Love is also difficult because of our fear of the reaction (or lack thereof) of the one loved. Rich Mullins described it better than I ever could, so I’ll just defer to him:

    “God calls us to ‘be strong’ and we mistake that for a call to omnipotence. We confuse strength to endure trials with an ability to walk unfrustrated through life. We convince ourselves that if we were strong we would never fail, never tire, never hurt, never need. We begin to measure strength in terms of ease of progress, equate power with success, endurability with invincibility, and inevitably, when our illusion of omnipotence is shattered, we condemn ourselves for being weak.

    “God has called us to be lovers and we frequently think that He meant us to be saviors. So we ‘love’ as long as we see ‘results.’ We give of ourselves as long as our investments pay off, but if the ones we love do not respond, we tend to despair and blame ourselves and even resent those we pretend to love. Because we love someone, we want them to be free of addictions, of sin, of self–and that is as it should be. But it might be that our love for them and our desire for their well-being will not make them well. And if that is the case, their lack of response no more negates the reality of love than their quickness to respond would confirm it.

    “Love is a virtue and not a feeling. It is fed and fired by God–not by the favorable response of the beloved. Even when it doesn’t seem to make a dime’s worth of difference to the ones on whom it is lavished, it is still the most prized of all virtues because it is at the heart of the very character of God.”

  5. Damaris Avatar

    David Bryan — Thank you for that quotation. It really speaks to me and convicts me. It also explains why I was so offended by something when I was a protestant missionary. I heard another missionary say — boast, almost — that he had been friends with someone for six months now and seen no sign of interest in Christ. “I’m going to have to cut him loose so I can spend more time on people who might be open to the Gospel,” he said. At the time, I knew this bothered me, but I couldn’t have explained why to a group of gung-ho missionaries wanting results. Your post, though, makes it clear to me that he wanted success from his relationships, not perseverance through pain. Is that why I don’t love as I should — because it hurts too much and doesn’t seem to “do any good”?

  6. Eoin Avatar

    The difficulty of love for me is that it requires that I remove my focus from myself and my circumstances. This is exchanged for the value of pleasing God or helping others.
    This transition from self centeredness to love is the height of human existance. This transition requires time, suffering and Gods unlimited help.
    Our reward here is that we have loved. We have attained to the very purpose of our existence.
    May Our Lord bestow on you all His boundless grace and love as you make the difficult journey of transformation as He has with me.

    Word of encouragement: Never feel you can’t get back in the race. I’ve learned from experience Christ bears with the worst of us. Trust Him

  7. Micah Avatar

    This is a pivot easily missed. Thank you for putting it into words — Buona Pasqua !

  8. Michael Avatar

    How do we love unconditionally and serve nonjudgmentally, when we perceive there’s a danger that our actions could promote learned helplessness or that we could be driven mad trying to meet the unreasonable/irrational demands of someone who is mentally unbalanced?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not sure how to answer your question.

  10. Margaret Avatar

    I am glad to read this post again at this time. I work with children with special needs and also have “typical peers” who are very young, preschool age. I am constantly met with the challenge of showing God’s love for these little people and trying to determine how best to help them grow and learn in education. The paragraph above helps tremendously:

    “Our lives are not terribly complicated. They are as hard as keeping God’s commandments. We were told from the beginning that following Christ may very well get us killed. But we take up the cross, apparently agreeing that we will die when the time comes. Love is not hard – it’s just deadly – in a way that gives us the only life worth having.”

    And the added reminder after this to rejoice in sharing these things with children. They indeed have difficult lives. If I stay focused on this, the rest of the minutae I’ve mentioned is taken care of.

  11. Ellen Avatar

    Michael, In response to your question, no one can advise another, (except a professional), as how to respond to a “particular” set of circumstances. However, Christ’s teachings lead us to the Center of the cross where we can meet Him IN the other person….. by recognizing first that ” the Government is on God’s shoulders”. As long as I am not in Judgement but in His unconditional Love, I can be led to do just what is necessary at the moment (even if it be just “a cup of cold water”) and proceed to the next step of whatever rational action should be taken…..With prayer and Trust in His Omnipresence. The center of the Cross, is the meeting point where Our Father can lift us BOTH up to Him, but only with Pure Love and non judgement. Blessings

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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