Love’s Labor’s Lost, and Learning

Making mistakes, being a failure, growing and maturing, learning how to love — these are all things we spend most of our lives both doing and analyzing. I think my language learning experience in China (both as a student and as a teacher) not only taught me new ways to understand these things, but it also guided me into actually living them in ways I could never have fathomed in the before-China days.

Making Sentences

I started out in China studying Chinese during all my free time. It took about two months for me to burn down to a smoking black crisp. Those of you who have tried to mature as quickly as possible in any realm of life (most importantly character) know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s kind of like digging into the bark of a sapling to try to harvest some fruit* when what the poor thing really needs is some weeding and watering, and time to soak in the sunlight.

I actually started learning Chinese when I started making sentences, out loud, to people. I felt embarrassed, up until I finally realized that I was essentially a walking entertainment system for the people of China. I was like a great big blonde-ish puppy dog toy who says ridiculous things and makes everyone laugh. One time I told some coworkers we Americans traditionally eat “a kind of penis” on Thanksgiving. It wasn’t long before the whole school was teasing me and I’m pretty sure my face was permanently red for that whole week. There was also the time I tried to order soup with my meal over the phone and was told they didn’t sell extra soup on the side, only to discover later that I’d been asking emphatically for sugar. And I ended my first response to a housing advertisement with “Are you romantically interested in me?”

Of course, this made me ask: What role do mistakes play in the daily process of learning to love — that slow reversing of my cramped self-focused psyche and turning of my energies outwards: towards first God and then neighbor?
Well, most of the Chinese I speak is really only a product of the mistakes I made and the feedback I received. I can only guess that learning love is not much different.

Meaningful Feedback

One of the key things we learned in teacher training was that our only unique task as teachers was to provide our students with feedback. Unlike internet resources and foreigners chatting in bars, teachers can provide an attentive ear for mistakes and then careful guidance to help students listen for and correct their own errors. We usually do this with questions:

“Are you sure ‘horrible’ is the word you want?”

“Which of these sentences has the verb in the right tense?”

“How do you pronounce this word?”

As one of those people who shies fearfully away from challenging others as well as being challenged, thinking about feedback in the realm of life was eye-opening for me. Just in these past months I’ve asked, or been asked:

“How do you know that’s the right thing to do?”

“What concrete changes will that realization cause you to make in your life?”

“How exactly do you see the Christian doctrine of people as sinners empower its believers?”

Neither the asker nor the answerer really knew the answer. But good feedback doesn’t give an answer. It trains us learners to think critically about and change what we believe, say, and do.

Love’s Labor’s Lost

I lost a friend last summer by over-scheduling myself, cutting a lunch date short, and hurting her. The experience of her anger and refusal to forgive felt crushing. But I knew, even in the midst of the despair I felt, that this failure was going to change the way I express love forever.

I stole the title of this post from a Shakespeare play that I love because it ends, not with the superficial chemical high of a couple’s kiss and rash promise to be together forever, but with a challenge to wait and to grow. The leading lady challenges the leading man (who is known for being a funny guy) to spend a year in a hospital bringing laughter into the life of the dying. She says she will accept him after a year if one of two things happens: He manages to use his gift for the good of others, or he discovers this “gift” is meaningless and discards it. As he cleverly points out, twelve months is “too long for a play”.

If I were to follow the leading lady’s advice and try to redeem my vast sea of mistakes by making something out of them, perhaps I could hold out for a time. But I know I would eventually drown. Miraculously, because of something as weak, foolish, un- sophisticated and anti-intellectual as the Cross of Jesus, I can walk on the sea of my failures. The redemption is done, Christ beckons, and all I have to do is trust and follow.

It’s not an easy walk. Sometimes I just want to sit down and let Him go do His own thing. I get sick of making sentences that turn out to be wrong or are ridiculed, and I get tired of trying to express love to people and hurting them instead. But each time I’m tempted to stop my stumbling, I’ve been unable to deny that He Himself is enough reason to keep going.

To paraphrase Peter, “Who else am I gonna follow? You have the words of life.”  With each labor I lose, I step into a new twelvemonth which presents a new challenge, and the kind of growth that only actually living my mistakes could ever produce in me.


And now we get to the part that is exciting for me: the part where you share the ways you have been learning how to love!


Photo Credit: Michael J. Linden via Compfight cc


  1. Shelly Page February 12, 2014

    I am learning that loving is messy and hard; it demands that I give in ways I am still unfamiliar with, and that I hold loosely to the other. I am learning that loving requires a lot of waiting. I am learning that loving might necessitate letting go of the other for a time, or forever. I am learning that I cannot love apart from Love Himself–and that in His graciousness, my imperfect efforts are still much better than no effort.

    Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,And all is darkened in the vale of tears,Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repayFrom His own fullness all He takes away.

  2. Morielle February 13, 2014

    Shelly, these are all lessons I need encouragement in: waiting, letting go, giving in uncomfortable ways, and – most important – growing in my trust of Love Himself. Now you have named them, I hope I can be more aware. Also THAT SONG! I am crying. It has been so long I had forgotten the lyrics. I will memorize them tonight.

  3. Jennifer February 13, 2014

    One song that has been significant to me since I was a child is “What a Friend we have in Jesus” especially the lines which say “Do your friends despise, forsake you, take it to the Lord in prayer. In his arms he’ll take and shield you. You will find a solace there”. Another song that has spoken often to me in the challenges of the last year has been “Bow the Knee”. It touches me deeply. They both remind me what I need to do when challenges come and while I would love to have a few less challenges I equally cannot deny that God is working in me through them. Trusting God when we don’t feel loved and feel alone is not easy. Sometimes hiding in a safe place until I feel better sounds like a great idea, and sometimes it is the right thing to do, but often what I am called to do is as the song says “when you don’t understand the purpose of His plan, In the presence of the King, bow the knee”. I will leave you with the words of the song.

    Bow the Knee

    “There are moments on our journey following the Lord
    Where God illumines ev’ry step we take.
    There are times when circumstances make perfect sense to us,
    As we try to understand each move He makes.
    When the path grows dim and our questions have no answers, turn to Him.

    Bow the knee;
    Trust the heart of your Father when the answer goes beyond what you can see.
    Bow the knee;
    Lift your eyes toward heaven and believe the One who holds eternity.
    And when you don’t understand the purpose of His plan,
    In the presence of the King, bow the knee.

    There are days when clouds surround us, and the rain begins to fall,
    The cold and lonely winds won’t cease to blow.
    And there seems to be no reason for the suffering we feel;
    We are tempted to believe God does not know.
    When the storms arise, don’t forget we live by faith and not by sight.”


  4. Cecily February 13, 2014

    Love this post, and especially the part about language!  I just assume that everyone (except me) visiting Velvet Ashes has mastered the language of their new country and I, alone, after 6 years, am still struggling profoundly in this arena.  Thanks for the Thanksgiving story.  Had a similar situation in which I innocently looked up the words I was using to complete a written homework assignment.  And I chose a word that meant “excitement” but I found out that it was the wrong kind!  (Somehow the dictionary gave me no indication of this fact!)

    Now, on to the business of love and friendship… Messy, uneven, nonlinear, scary, painful, deep, unclear…  How many books on “relationships” have I read, trying to find the answer to the questions that nobody seems willing to address.  But, oh how thankful I am for those friends who have continued to be friends with me when I have REALLY messed up!  There have been a few friends who dropped me like a hot potato when I made an innocent mistake, but oh!  For the friends who stay on the journey with me–I am so thankful for your steadfastness!

  5. Morielle February 14, 2014

    Jennifer, the lyrics of that song are gorgeous. I am definitely in a place where I do not understand whats going on. Clinging to the verse in Proverbs, “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” It gets tough to turn to Him with every decision, I guess Ive got pretty rebellious knees that dont wanna bow. But what a promise for when I do!

    1. Jennifer February 14, 2014

      Don’t understand… Just want to understand… has been the story of my life the last year. Which is probably why that song, challenging has it is to do, as spoken so strongly and deeply to me. Needing to understand is part of me. One of my strengths which often serves me well is pulling together lots of information, integrating it and making sense of it. Too many unanswered questions means I can’t do that, though I have learnt that I do not give up trying… But frustrating and painful as much of it has been walking that road, at the same time that song does keep coming back to me, and many, many times has helped me simply to stop for a moment and trust a little more. At some of the most challenging times listening to the song (sometimes over and over) has helped. Sometimes songs, with the right words, can speak to us for powerfully than just words can, or say what we cannot say, until we can. Saying I want to trust you, I want to bow the knee, but it is so hard, is ok. It is one more step along the road. One of the most important lessons I think I am slowly learning is that I do not have to do it, I do not have to be strong enough or wise enough to do it on my own. I do not even have to try to understand. All that I need to do is to walk one moment at a time, one step at a time, trusting God in that moment and that step. And whenever I simply feel I cannot take another moment or another step, simply to stop and ask God to help me to do what I know I cannot do, but He can, and then take the next step with him. It is a challenging road that we are on, but we do not need to take even one step alone.

  6. Morielle February 14, 2014

    Cecily, language is such a struggle for me. But I do love those moments when my mistakes get people giggly, even when they are embarassing. Great homework story!

    Out of curiosity, what questions do you wish the relationship books would tackle? Right now, I wish I had more guidance in the “how to know when to let go, and when to pursue” area. But I guess it seems best to pray for opportunities to pursue friends who have become distant for whatever reason, and then take them when God gives them to me.

    1. Cecily February 20, 2014

      Morielle, ever since you asked, on February 14, what questions I wished the relationship books would tackle–I have been trying to put into words the questions I seek answers for…  And I still haven’t figured out how to even formulate the questions!  I guess it is no wonder that no author has tried to tackle my nebulous questions!

      As for your question concerning letting go vs. pursuing relationships, I wonder if this is a very individualized thing that we need specific wisdom from the Lord about.  Certainly there have been relationships that I have had to let go of, even though I didn’t want to.  But even in the letting go, I had to keep my heart in a place of love toward those I was letting go of–for I can never afford to stop loving.  I think what I am trying to say is that love  is never meant to stop, but it often has to be remodeled 🙂

      I don’t know if I am making ANY sense at all!  But the more I write, the more I see.  Maybe the question for us is this:  Are we willing to be broken and bruised in our relationships in order to keep our hearts in love to all?  Isn’t that what Jesus does?  He waits, He backs off, He serves, He died.  All for those He still loves.  Oh, to be like Him!

      1. Morielle February 21, 2014

        You are right, Cecily, each situation needs specific guidance. I really like your choice of words about remodeling love. My love for one friend definitely needs some remodeling. And yeah, I’m feeling bruised. But, with God’s help, I know I can continue to love as I step back and wait (when part of me so doesn’t want to!)

  7. Morielle February 14, 2014

    Jennifer, sorry I cant post directly on your comment, my phone doesnt seem to understand thats what I want to do. But I so want to reply to what youve written! I too share this longing to pull things, sometimes things that seem entirely unrelated, together to gain insight…and a sense of control. If I cant control what happens, I turn to writing, in the hope that I can at least explain it. But this leads to the dangerous desire to write my own story. And so God blesses me with confusion (even though I hate it, and it frustrates me to death because by nature I keep trying and trying to understand). Jennifer, your words here have really helped me. Especially your thoughts on how we never walk alone. I just read in Romans 9:26 that we do not really know what to pray for, but as we pray imperfectly, the Spirit intercedes for us with groaning that cannot be uttered. Thank you for your comfort and for sharing what the Lord has been teaching you. I needed to hear those words today.

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