A look at the early desert mothers and fathers reveals that the kind of love we are describing came at great cost. Far from being quick and easy, it was prolonged and challenging. And far from being cheap grace, it was the offering of grace precisely as it had been offered to them–something undeserved. Early Christian unconditional love had the nailprints of Christ on it, and it took everyone who practiced it to the Cross.
Douglas Burton Christie captures the essence of love’s cost for the early Christians in these words, “having the courage to love in circumstances where one’s natural response would lead precisely in the opposite direction” (The Word in the Desert, p. 265). The courage described here included the early Christians being thought crazy by some and soft on sin by those for whom justice was the discerned means for others to get right with God, and for the community to be right with God.
But for these men and women, justice could not be the end game because it was not where God had stopped with them. God had taken them all to mercy (hesed, charis), and paradoxically the new covenant of love became a more powerful incentive to change than the old covenant of obeying the law. The early Christians were not doing anything other than offering others the invitation to be transformed through the same means God had transformed them–the way of love. Amazing love!
And today,as then, we follow the phrase ‘amazing love’ with the same question that Charles Wesley penned to his hymn, “How can it be?” How could they offer such love when the other person was so clearly sinful? Only because they understood they were sinners too. How could they offer such love when people were caught in the act of sinning? Only because they too had been caught and found guilty, but were forgiven.
The cost of love finally boiled down to one thing: the early Christians were brought to the place of seeing that they were not in charge of the redemptive process, God was. The cost of love was coming to understand that some might be reconciled to God in ways we do not regulate or control. The cost of love was ultimately the sacrifice of ego, revealing to the desert fathers and mothers that it was their job to love, the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, and God’s job to judge. The cost of love was Christo-form, calling these first monastics to realize that they had to die in order for others to live.
But they did it! The pages of early-church history are filled with sayings and stories documenting that these early Christians literally lived out Jesus’ declaration to love everyone–even one’s enemies, because there is no greater love than for one person to lay down his/her life (figuratively or literally) for another. That is always the cost of love, and the desert mothers and fathers paid it over and over again.