The word “bully” has a surprising history. We’re used to its current meaning: a person who harasses or intimidates those who are weaker. But its original meaning is quite different. “Bully” originally meant one’s sweetheart or beloved. Coming later, Shakespeare uses “bully” as a term of endearment between men, similar to “fine fellow” (e.g. Henry V, 4.1, 49).
From sweetheart to intimidator, this one word, “bully,” touches on the volatility of human love. What begins as an exhilarating desire for the other can end with hateful abuse. This tragic turn is the perennial subject of songs and plays. For instance, Othello loves Desdemona with abandon in the first act, but by the final act, he murders her in a rage.
We can glimpse this volatility of love in the very beginning. In Genesis 2, Adam exclaims of Eve, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” His words express delight, respect, and equality. But in the next chapter, after the Fall, God tells Eve, “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Adam and Eve were created equal, but after sin, human love is marred by domination and manipulation.
Human love need not be a tragedy, but it does need help. We need the help of a greater love that can heal our brokenness. We need a love that can steer our loves away from using—and even abusing—the other. And we need a love that leads us in the way of self-gift. Our only help is the love of Jesus Christ.
Remember the wedding at Cana. As the wine of human love fails, Christ offers an overabundance of the choicest wine. This wine prefigures his blood poured out in loving sacrifice. And remember the Samaritan woman at the well. She had suffered five failed marriages and was with a man who was not her husband. To her, Jesus offered the forgiving and life-giving water of the Spirit. That day, she went from outcast to town leader.
Jesus does more than heal our human loves. He offers us his very friendship, a share in his divine love. To befriend us, he endured his terrible passion. Sinful humanity attempted to bully him with whips, spit, thorns, and nails, looking upon him as a weakling, “a worm and no man.” We turned against him who offers us his choicest wine and his living water. Yet he still desires our intimate friendship, begging of us, “I thirst!” Christ’s love will not be bullied, even by our fiercest hate. Rather, Christ proves himself the sweetheart-bully, the true beloved of the redeemed.
Image: An illustration from an 1830 edition of the works of Shakespeare