Danny, our 5-year-old, is a little guy — with some very big feelings. On a daily basis, he tries to articulate how much he loves me, often using comparisons like, “I love you so much, Mommy. More at night, and less in the morning.” (Totally true.) “I love you so much, Mommy. More than Millie, Sammy, Daddy, and Suki.” (Again, totally true.) It’s been a joy to watch him figure out love, like where and how it starts, and how he wraps his mind around love never ending.
The other night during his bedtime ritual – in which he tells me he loves me more than the Universe in hopes that I won’t leave his room – he said, “Mommy, I think I have automatic love for you.” And as if on cue, I got choked up, and said, “Awww, thanks, sweetie.”
To which he responded, “Wait. Mom, what’s ‘automatic’?”
In that 2-second pause, I had just enough time to think that maybe Danny had stumbled upon something great: automatic love.
Despite not knowing the exact definition of automatic, I think it’s safe to say that Danny senses – even at 5 years old – that there’s an easy, I-don’t-even-have-to-think-about-it kind of love. Without trying too hard, without much learning, without missing a beat, it just happens. It’s easy to teach, easy to learn, and pretty easy to talk about. No tutorial needed.
And boy, is it great.
I think what Danny also senses is that there’s a more difficult kind of love, the one that doesn’t feel so automatic.
We talk a lot about loving our neighbors in Sunday school, and Danny’s right that it gets more difficult when we talk about loving the neighbor we don’t know, or can’t relate to – or maybe don’t even like. It takes practice, it takes coaching, and it takes gentle reminders what love looks like and why we need to do it. To follow Danny’s metaphor, that love can be more challenging – maybe never easy – and can resemble the stop-start jerking of a new driver in a stick shift vehicle.
The good news is that kind of love can be mastered, too, and feel just like the automatic love that we didn’t really have to learn. The habit of loving your neighbor can – eventually – feel like the comfort of cruise control.
But the biggest news? Whether we realize it or not, every human being in the world is automatically loved by God. All of us have automatic love. So loving your neighbor isn’t just about being nice, it’s about recognizing something that’s true: that the people we find hard to love automatically are already loved automatically and deserve it from us, too.
In our Sunday school, you’ll find that we often say:
Love First. Not because it’s easy, just because it’s right.
And we don’t get too hung up on the steep learning curve.