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Autism and Agape: What Max and Emily Taught Me

Late one Saturday afternoon, when Max was five years old, Emily and I took him to a shopping mall. Max became fascinated by a certain toy and was oblivious to everything else, including the announcement that the mall was closing in 20 minutes.

Emily started to gently try and move Max toward the door. And that’s when everything fell apart. He started to scream as she and I each took him by the hand and tried to get him to leave. People stared at us as we dragged him out of the mall, all the while avoiding looking at the people looking at us.

All in all, not one of my fonder memories, yet it’s one I value, because it’s a reminder of how Max and Emily have taught me the meaning of love.

To be honest, I can be judgmental towards other people. A child crying on a plane for example, when I wanted to work, made me wonder what is wrong with the parents. The patience and generosity that enables us to understand the plight of others doesn’t come naturally to me, or to just about anyone else, for that matter.

To the extent that I have learned it, I have learned it from watching Emily and Max. Watching Emily, and other parents of children with special needs, has taught me what it means to love in the biblical sense of the word agape.

It’s a kind of love that the secular, materialistic worldview cannot account for, much less inspire. The best explanation it can give is a condescending, Darwinian explanation for altruism. In this account, a parent’s self-sacrificing care for the child isn’t altruistic at all. It is merely a way of assuring that our selfish genes are passed on.

In other words, what we think is love and altruism is really a selfish investment.

People like Emily put the lie to this idea, precisely because the objects of their love are, evolutionarily speaking, terrible investments. They can’t take care of you in your old age and they are unlikely to pass on your genes.

None of that matters, these children are loved in a manner that can best described as fierce. There is nothing that their parents wouldn’t do for them, no sacrifice too great to make. The idea that their own “needs” should somehow take precedence over their child’s is literally nonsensical to them.

And that’s what agape is. It’s giving yourself away for the sake of the other person.

This is of course what God did in Christ. Christ emptied himself for our sake. The hardest thing about being a Christian isn’t following rules, it’s the willingness to give ourselves way in imitation of the Savior.

Remember, there are four words in Greek used to describe love. Every one is self-serving except agape, which is totally self-giving. It knows that the things this world puts so much stock in such as possessions and status, aren’t ours, they are meant to be given away unconditionally.

As Paul wrote in Galatians 5, the only thing that counts if faith expressing itself through love. Through agape love.

As I write in the epilogue of Emily’s wonderful book, Dancing with Max, that’s what my daughter has taught me — for which I will be eternally grateful. It’s the kind of treasure I wouldn't trade for anything in life.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: August 9, 2011.

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