Sacrificial love can be a bit of an abstract concept. Agape. In Greek, it means “highest love.” We hear about it all the time, in devotions and from pulpits; we all know it’s an important and lovely idea. Just an idea, however, not something that takes concrete form in our everyday lives.
My all-time favorite show is the miniseries Band of Brothers, about an elite paratrooper unit in WWII. One of the show’s most powerful scenes (spoilers ahead!) involves the men trying to survive a hellish bombardment. A sergeant, Joe Toye, is running past foxholes, making sure his men are safe, when he’s caught in one of the explosions. He’s left lying in a snowdrift, one leg completely blown off. When Joe’s friend, Bill Guarnere, hears his cries for help, he leaps out of the safety of his foxhole and takes off through the woods to find him. The bombardment returns, worse than before—shrapnel everywhere, entire trees exploding. Bill’s comrades yell at him to get under cover, that he’s going to die, but Bill refuses to leave his friend alone and wounded. He finds Joe, picking him up and trying to drag his dead weight to safety. And then…the screen goes black. A shell’s hit them. When the smoke clears, the two soldiers are down, crumpled together in the bloodstained snow, and now Bill’s leg is gone, too.
In another of my favorite shows, Avatar: the Last Airbender, the series finale has one of the main characters, Prince Zuko, in the fight of his life alongside his best friend Katara. The battle’s turning in their favor when the villain sends a bolt of lightning at Katara. It’s not an attack she can repel, and Zuko knows this. So he turns and throws himself bodily in front of the lightning, absorbing the electricity into his chest. In an instant, he sacrifices his life and his chance at the throne for his friend. Although Katara manages to save him and the wound heals, it leaves a permanent, blood-red scar on his torso.
We’re all told from an early age that love hurts. “Life is pain,” says Westley in The Princess Bride. Switch out “life” for “love”, and the quote still rings true. C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one… Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
As humans, we hide our scars. The trigger points, the painful memories, the shouted words that still echo in our heads. We bury it all and present a flawless front, because we think admitting that we’re vulnerable enough for love to hurt is a sign of weakness.
When Jesus was resurrected, He still had the marks of the spear-thrust in His side and the nails in His wrists. I always found this interesting—His resurrection body was a preview of the unfallen, eternal bodies we’ll be given in the New Earth. In other words, physical perfection. And yet, He carried those wounds. Of course, one purpose for this was to convince the disciples (ahem, Thomas) that He was real, but what if it went deeper than that? I wonder if the scars were kept not because they were beautiful, but because they alone could truly tell the story of the love Jesus has for us, the love the Father has for his son. They were agape, written all over the body of God.
Of course, it’s easier to understand the worth of scars like that, physical reminders of a straightforward, big-gesture act of love. I don’t have any of those scars. When I look at the sore spots in my soul, they’re the result of messy human relationships, where people hurt and disparaged and failed me. But wounds like that still mean we loved. We didn’t walk out of the relationship. We were the soft-spoken listener while someone lashed out. We made dinner, bought a birthday gift, went to sleep under the same roof, even though there’d just been a fight. We got hurt, and we still came back the next day.
Not all scars happen as the price of loving people, however. Sometimes humans hurt each other and there’s nothing sacrificial or loving about it. Sometimes we hurt ourselves. That might be you.
Maybe there are scabs on your wrists. Maybe your body is damaged from years of struggling to eat. Maybe you go to war everyday against the cruel voices in your head, voices that you’ve allowed and encouraged. Maybe you sabotaged a relationship and would give anything to do it differently. Maybe you’re like a friend of mine, who’s just now starting to wear short sleeves that show the cuts on her arms from when she was a teenager.
The last thing I want to do is romanticize any of these experiences. Scars aren’t beautiful on their own; they’re ugly reminders of terrible pain that should never have happened to you.
But they’re also a sign that you’re still here, still living. That your heart isn’t locked up in the casket yet. That you are loved by a God who has not given you up—who would leap out of a safe foxhole, jump in front of lightning, hang on a cross for you. They’re love’s history, written on your body.
And one miracle of the healing process is how often God chooses us to help heal people who’ve been wounded the same way we have. Your scars may not remind you of love now, but you’ll probably find in your lifetime that they become a reminder of love to someone else.
So even if it hurts, show your scars. Like Bill Guarnere, walking on one leg for the rest of his life. Like Zuko, who sees the lightning-burn on his chest every time he changes clothes. Wear them like a badge of honor –the tangible marks of how you’ve sacrificially loved someone, or of how you will someday. Our God wears His, too.