My understanding of love has drastically changed, and we might need to talk about it…
*TLDR version: I know this is long, so I’ve made it skimmable. If you just read everything that’s in bold you will get the main points (but you won’t get as much of my sweet prose skills.)
I: LOVE AND ACTION
Correcting a worldly error
We Christians talk about love a lot. And we should. We all know that love is a concept that lies at the very centre of the Christian faith. And it should. As Jesus said, the greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:37-39). And of course, as John said, “God is love,” (1 John 4:8).
And here’s the thing. The contemporary Church has needed to combat many worldly distortions of what love is, because the World so often teaches us that love is a kind of euphoric feeling that comes over you whenever and however it pleases, that can neither be cultivated nor controlled, and ought to be obeyed above any considerations of morality – we ought to follow our hearts. The Church has rightly corrected the problems with this notion of love, reminding us that love, according to the Bible, is not merely euphoric but is maintained by discipline and is expressed through action, that it is not convenient but is self-sacrificial. In reaction to the over-romanticised Disney brand of love, the Church has reminded us that God demonstrated his love for us by the ultimate sacrifice of sending his Son to die a brutal death for us, that we may have eternal life. To correct an erroneous emphasis on emotion, the Church has taught us that the best way to love our neighbour is by treating them the way God’s law tells us to treat them.
And again this is absolutely right. After all, when Jesus gives the great twofold commandment, he says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 22:40). Paul reiterates this in Galatians 5:13-14: “Through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” Clearly, to love people is to obey the law, and to obey the law is to love people, because God gave the law to show us what real love should look like in practice.
But some time lately (ok, it was about a year ago now – that’s how long it’s taken me to write this), I began to rethink entirely the nature of this commandment to love one another, as I became confronted with how much deeper – and how much more challenging, powerful, and exciting – it is than I thought.
To-do list love
When I look at contemporary Western Christianity, I notice some things. As we endeavoured to combat against cheap, flippant, passive, convenient love, I fear that we have sometimes overly intellectualised and externalised love into a concept, and a to-do list. Please hear me right: We have made love about helping people, meeting people’s physical and spiritual needs, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, defending the oppressed, visiting the lonely, liberating the enslaved. We have preached, “Love your neighbour,” and meant, “Get out there and do something!” We have made the topic of love into a “how to” topic, writing books and articles suggesting practical ideas on how to literally “love our neighbour” – with the help of baked goods and power tools. We have asked ourselves, “How can I love this person,” and meant, “What does this person need that I can give them?” Indeed, we have made “love” a verb, and we have synonymised it with “serve”. And what wonderful things these are!
But if this were all our love was, there would be something missing, something we have maybe forgotten about love (even though it is perhaps the most basic, intuitive fact about love that there is to know), something I am beginning to think is actually the main thing God is trying to get us on board with when he tells us to “love”.
Love is a feeling
Now before I explain the main point of this article, I first need to briefly point out a foundational premise that I’m working with: love is indeed a feeling. While we need to combat our culture’s notions of love as a warm, fuzzy, passive feeling that makes no sacrifices and stands for nothing, it is a mistake to, as is sometimes done, take this so far as to externalise love itself by defining love as an action. The Biblical notion of love has always been something internal. This is no better expressed than in 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” For all the Bible says about how true love will result in action, Paul here unmistakably internalises love – locates love not in our deeds, but in our hearts. In a way that should frighten us, he makes it clear that it is possible to be the most charitable person in the world, do all the things that loving people do, and make millions of people’s lives better… without loving those people – and that if we do this, we are nothing. God calls us to more than actions; he calls us to feelings. He doesn’t just care how we treat our neighbour; he cares how we feel towards them.
Hopefully this is received by most of us as old news, and not too radical an idea. Because, while it is to my mind an incredibly important topic and I could elaborate on it at length, it is not the main point of this post, but rather a premise that must be grasped before my point can be made. So love is not an action, though it produces actions. It is a feeling that exists (or fails to exist) in our hearts. When God tells us to love, he is telling us to feel a certain way towards our neighbours. The question I want to consider from this point onward is, what exactly does he want us to feel?
II: WANT YOUR NEIGHBOUR
What is love? Baby don’t hurt me…
When I was a child, my mum said to me once that true love is when you put someone else first. She only needed to say it once, because as soon as she said it I knew it to be true, and it has stuck with me ever since. As I grew up, became a Christian, became philosophically inclined, and thus began to do my own serious thinking on the subject, I personally refined that idea into a concise attempt at a definition of love: To love is to desire someone’s wellbeing. And with forthcoming qualifications, I still hold to this definition.
But even back then, as I landed on this definition of love, I knew there was a problem. And it was this: there is another aspect of love that needs to fit in somewhere. Yes, love is a desire for someone’s wellbeing, but it can also be a desire for relationship with someone. In fact, a desire to have relationship with someone is all most of us thought love was until we were taught by older and wiser people that love involves sacrifice for the sake of its objects wellbeing. Why did I find this second aspect of love problematic? Well, because we are human.
Ok, let’s first consider God’s love. He loves us, and what does this entail? It surely entails, and unreservedly so, both wings of this idea of love: he desires our wellbeing, and he desires relationship with us. Now, he commands us to love each other in the way that he has loved us, but does this really include that we seek relationship with our neighbour? The problem is, God is the only person in the universe for whom to have relationship with him is always, and absolutely, good for you. For God to bring us into relationship with himself is for God to fulfil our greatest need, because our greatest need is relationship with God. And thus God can passionately desire our wellbeing, while also passionately desiring to have relationship with us, without ever remotely risking a conflict between these two desires. It is not so with us. We are limited and broken creatures. Limited in that we cannot practically pursue close relationship with every person we come into contact with, and broken in that we sometimes hurt people, and we sometimes hurt people so deeply that the only avenue left by which we can serve them is by removing ourselves from their company.
And so here was my approach to that problem: I reasoned that desiring relationship with humans is primarily God’s job, but our job is to desire relationship with God, while passionately desiring the wellbeing of our neighbour. To put it another way, God is to have both “compassion” and “affection” for us, while we are to divide the two – directing affection towards God, and directing compassion towards people. Intimacy and affection between people is good and appropriate, but only insofar as it benefits those people, especially if it benefits them by causing them to grow deeper in their knowledge of and affection towards God.
Now I don’t know whether I’m the only one who’s thought these things through in this particular way – it is a pretty obscure thing to think about, I admit. But what I do think is that, in my experience, whether we have consciously thought about it or not, we as Christians have tended to focus entirely on the mandate to love one another in terms of generosity, service, and compassion, and we almost never talk or think about this love commandment in terms of closeness or affection. Even though we know God’s love for us includes a passionate desire for relationship, we don’t seem to apply that aspect to ourselves when we talk about how he wants us to love each other in the way that he has loved us.
Another look at the Bible
And so here it is: I now think I was wrong to separate compassionate love from affectionate love. I have started to realise that to desire relationship with one another is indeed exactly what God wants us to do when he commands us to love.
Of course, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Sure, it’s nice when people are close to each other and sharing life together and enjoying one another’s company, and it’s a good thing in itself, and God allows us to do that, but surely it’s not something God prioritises or even commands for us, right?” Yeah. That’s what I thought too. But then I noticed some things in the Bible that I hadn’t quite noticed before.
It all started with this little verse in Romans 12:10, which says, “Love one another with brotherly affection.” I started to actually question what Paul really meant by that. Could he be talking about more than to desire the best for one another, more than to long for one another’s happiness? Could it be that Paul is charging us to affectionately long for one another? To miss each other when we’re apart? To look forward to talking to one another? Could he be commanding us to be fond of one another?
God’s vision for Creation
From there, I found myself rethinking what was going on in the opening chapters of Genesis. A couple of different books I was reading, within a month of each other, pointed out something that should have been glaringly obvious to me: Adam and Eve were not only created for relationship with God, but also for relationship with each other. I kind of already knew this, but never having really thought it through, I think I had subconsciously assumed that all it meant was that we were designed to be to be relationally compatible with each other, such that we find relationship with other humans fulfilling. But suddenly it dawned on me that, far from an incidental side effect of creation, this was one of the purposes of our existence. Adam and Eve were created in order to have relationship with one another. Of course, there can be no other way to make sense of the structure of God’s creation in Genesis, in which humanity exists as a plurality – a plurality intended to multiply, and to multiply through a kind of interaction (yes, sex) the relational dimensions of which the Bible will later unpack at profound length.
And then we see something amazing in Genesis 3, with the account of The Fall. In verse 7, as soon as Adam and Eve eat the fruit and “realise that they are naked,” they sew fig leaves together into loincloths to cover themselves up. Why do they do this? I always thought that it was because they were now ashamed in front of God. But that can’t be the whole reason, because their shame before God causes them to hide their entire bodies from his presence. If that was their plan to hide from God, a loincloth would have been a little superfluous. It was behind the trees, as Adam and Eve hid together, that the loincloths were serving their intended function: that they would not see each other’s nakedness.
Now I already knew that we see in The Fall not only a fracture of our relationship with God, but also a fracture of our relationship with each other. But I had always thought that this fracture in inter-human relationships first manifested itself in the conflict between Cane and Abel. But no, the fracture was exposed from the very beginning of The Fall, when Adam and Eve lost a connection with one another, lost a trust that enabled them to freely move in relationship, to freely know one another. There now existed a gap, a barrier, a mutual alienation between every human in the world that prevents us from quite reaching utter intimacy. And this is the experience of life that we all know. But what we may not have assumed is that, (given that this disconnect between us all has taken place as a direct consequence of The Fall, good Biblical theology tells us that) it is something God considers an aberration, a problem to be fixed. God is not just displeased with the presence of conflict between people; he is displeased with the absence of connection between people. And we know that if this is fracture was not a part of human experience before The Fall, then it will no longer be a part the human experience in God’s coming Kingdom. Like all the others, it is a problem that he will fix.
God’s vision for his Church
And this brings me to an amazing passage in Ephesians that describes God’s vision for his Church (I explain it right after if you don’t want to read the whole thing):
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness and deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” – Ephesians 4:11-16
To me the most amazing thing about that whole passage is that the last word in it is “love.” Let me explain. This is Paul’s description of God’s whole entire plan for his Church: God gave the apostles and prophets and so on in order to enable the rest of the believers to do the real ministry work of building one another up into Christ-like maturity, so that they would know for themselves the will and character of God, so that they would function together properly according to all their parts, so that they would build one another up in… love. I find this hard to wrap my head around. Paul is placing love at the very, very end of his means/end chain of succession. He is saying that, after all these other things are sorted out, then the Church can really get down to the business of loving.
Love as a means to an end
You see, I think we often make love into a means toward other things. We need to love people in order for those people’s needs to be met, right? People are important, and so we need to help them. Oh, and we need to be genuine about it too, because it’s bad to not be genuine. So we need to love refugees so that we will be genuinely moved to act to do something to help them; we need to love poor children so that we will be moved to sacrifice some of our material wealth to release them from poverty; we need to love the marginalised and dysfunctional people in our community so that they can experience the healthy relationships of a welcoming church community so that they can hopefully experience the love of God and have their lives changed. But God sees things differently. To God, love, while it may be a means to some ends along the way, it is the end at the end of the line. Love is the final goal that God wants us to attain, not because of what love leads to, but because of what it is. When everyone in the whole Body of Christ is serving everyone else in the Body in completely the right way – the Christlike, sacrificial way – it is then that we will be able to love. Hear me correctly: he does not say that when everyone is functioning properly and not hurting people, that that is the definition of love (though it is a part of it); he says that everyone functioning properly is what creates the environment in which love can grow.
If this is true, love can’t just be the thing that fixes the world; it must also be the thing that brings joy to a world already free of pain. Haven’t you ever wondered, how will we ever serve one another in the perfect New Creation? If there are no wounds to patch up, no diseases to heal, no poverty to alleviate, no slavery to abolish, no heartbreak to sooth, what could compassion look like? Could there be any meaning to “wishing you the best,” when the best has already arrived? I’m not sure; perhaps we will find ways to serve one another in the New Creation. But I have come to think that the main thing love will look like in the next life will be our fondness and enjoyment of one another.
“Love your neighbour,” does not just mean, “Serve your neighbour.” It means something so much crazier, and even harder, and more exciting, and simpler: “Want your neighbour.”
III: LOVE IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD
A new vision for humanity
So what then? Suddenly God has instilled in me this new vision for life in his Kingdom; a new understanding of what it is to be human; even a new hope to await in the New Creation which, through us, his Church, God is building – a world where people are not only peaceful, but are together. I’ve arrived at a slightly higher glimpse of God’s plan for this human project of his, where he hasn’t merely created us so that we could respect one another and treat each other kindly, but so we could actually come together and practice relationship.
It’s like someone who has a birthday party and decorates their house and invites a hundred people. If there are no brawls, no fires, no injuries, and no police, that’s all really good and positive, but none of that means the party was anywhere near a success if none of the people talk to each other! The point of the party is not to not ruin the party, but to have the party and have fun at it! You can imagine if God had gone to the trouble of making all us people, and found that none of us were actually interacting – that we were happy to ensure that everybody was well fed and clothed, but didn’t want to be together – this project of his would have been one big, lame, boring failure. Love is not just about not harming one another; love is about the togetherness that our harmful tendencies have been getting in the way of all this time. But let not the conflicts and dysfunctions that have endangered that togetherness make us think that eradicating conflict is in itself either the final goal, or the essence of love. Eliminating conflict is only a ladder to climb before we can get on with the whole purpose this thing was started up for in the first place – it is after conflict is done away with that love can really begin, and this love is God’s final goal in this great social event of his called humanity. And yes it will be fun and yes it will be awesome, and yes God cares about those types of things.
So where does that leave us? Well here are 5 things. They’re not the only things. But they’re the 5 things that come to my mind.
1. A deeper challenge
All throughout the ages, God, in his communications with us, has been telling us to love each other. He has been trying to get us to understand that love is what this life is all about. And now I understand more than I ever have what it is that he has been trying to get us to do all this time. I have come to understand that love is more than just wanting a person to be well off, but is also about wanting relationship with that person. It seems that it is simply not enough to want the best for people if we are indifferent to whether or not we are near them. After all, that is not how God loves us – he is not a disinterestedly benevolent caretaker or a distantly objective ruler, but a deeply invested friend, lover, and father. It turns out that he wants us to be the same to each other. It seems that I could do everything in my power to ensure that a homeless man will be eating a nutritious dinner tonight, but may have failed to love him if I have no desire to sit down and eat that meal with him, because love isn’t only about longing for someone’s happiness, but also about longing for them.
This to me is a challenge. Let’s acknowledge it. Sometimes it’s easier to just serve people, because we can serve people from a distance. And we can do this with genuine compassion, truly hoping for the best for them, but simultaneously hoping we don’t have to have a relationship with them. Sometimes it’s easier to invest money, resources, energy, and even time into someone than it is to invest that other thing – ourselves. But really, aren’t we the best thing we have to offer someone?
Think about it.
2. A license to love
But this isn’t just a challenge; this is surely good, even relieving news for many of us. Because this means that the dissatisfaction we feel when we lack the fellowship of a community, the companionship of a close friend, or the intimacy of a marriage, is not a defective failure to be content in Christ, but is a divine impulse. We understand that all physical pain is there for our benefit: it is our nervous system telling us that something is wrong and requires our attention. In the same way, loneliness hurts because it is our spirit telling us something: “It is not good that man should be alone.” Our desire for human affection is not only divinely approved, but is divinely mandated. “Love one another,” comes to us as both a commandment and a licence. A commandment to the part of us that, for our whole host of reasons, has learned to do without close relationship; a licence to the part of us that still longs for it, hoping that it can be found. God says to us, “What you seek you don’t seek in vain; by pursuing relationships you are not straying from my path, nor betraying my design. This is what I made you for. Go on. Seek relationship. Desire friends. Desire marriage. Enjoy people.”
3. Loving vs. liking
This all means, to my great surprise and dismay, that there actually is something wrong with the phrase, “I have to love you, but I don’t have to like you.” It seems to me that, in the end, these two phrases cannot go together, that we do not fully love someone until we also like them. In our inter-human relationships we have managed to distinguish and dissect these concepts and work out ways of “loving” without “liking.” We say, “I want the best for that person; I want her to be blessed and happy, but she’s not the type of person I get along with, or want to be close to; in fact, it would probably be best for us to not be friends because we might drive each other crazy.” But we would never talk about God’s love like that, would we? We can’t talk about God’s love like that. What would God’s love mean if he didn’t like us? At the divine level, any distinction between the two simply breaks down. We do not say that God loves all people, but prefers the company of some people to others; the nature of his love for us would force us to say that this really means he loves us unequally. God’s love for us is an impassioned, intimacy-craving, fixated preoccupation. It’s not objective. It’s not some calculated, rationalised decision to just do what’s best for us. It is a 100% biased, hell-bent attraction to the thing he treasures: us.
The Psalms tell us of the care with which God fashioned every single one of us in painstaking detail. But we weren’t there to witness the creative process by which we each came about. And so as a diverse array of end products, all we see are the similarities and dissimilarities to ourselves. Each of us being specific creatures with specific likes and dislikes, we are all attracted to and repelled from different sets of specificities in our fellow creatures. However all of these attributes have their origin in God’s imagination and craftsmanship. Other than sinful traits, there is no trait in any person on Earth – whether I find it preferable or not – that was not placed there according to the artistic preferences of God’s affectionate design. We, in our limitedness, only have a taste for certain kinds of people. But God’s palate is far wider, able to appreciate and treasure all the various kinds of people that he has made for his pleasure. Does God like everybody? You’d better believe it.
And so, and while I fully sympathise with the “We can’t like everybody” mentality (and before writing this article I fully subscribed to it) I have come to think that we can aim higher than that. I don’t know that we are necessarily in sin every time we find someone’s company less than preferable. But what I do know is that God doesn’t view anyone in that way. He doesn’t find anyone boring, or weird, or repulsive. Each one of us is a divine-image-bearing, handcrafted work of his creative genius whom he finds endlessly fascinating and attractive. God never created anyone out of necessity or a forced hand; every person he has created he has done so for pleasure – each one a unique project that God considered better to make than to leave unmade. Does God have poor taste? Is he not a good people maker? Surely it would glorify God to like what he likes, to enjoy what he has made and himself enjoys. So I have come to think that when we find someone’s personality unpleasant, or uninteresting, that God doesn’t intend for us to settle with that sentiment, but he would want us to take the time to learn what it is about them that he finds so irresistible.
And if we approach everyone we meet with an assumption that they are a totally unique, inexhaustibly rich, deep and complex treasury of gifts, quirks, and passions – one that is able to entertain the mind of God – then maybe we will start to find things we like in more people.
4. Loving the sinner
The Church has been and always will be fighting this age old battle of loving people – in and out of the Church – who commit terrible sins. That is, the challenge of hating the sin while loving the sinner. Apart from being hard to love (the most important part of the battle), these people often don’t believe us when we tell them we love them, because they are so conscious of our disapproval of their actions.
What if, rather than communicating our love for them in terms of our desire for their wellbeing and happiness, we simply told them how much we want them? What if we just make them aware how much we like them and want to be around them? I’m not saying this is the silver bullet that will single-handedly win this battle, but I think it could help a lot. The problem with telling the sinner that we want the best for them is that they often either don’t believe us, or don’t care. They don’t believe us because they find our actions in telling them about our disapproval of their behaviour so offensive as to be incompatible with any real wishes for their welfare. And they don’t care because what we think is best for them is manifestly different to what they think is best for them, or (if they agree with us on the wrongness of their behaviour) it only serves as a reminder of their failure to live up to what’s best for them.
But telling someone you simply want them bypasses that whole conversation. It is a statement so simple that it cuts directly to the person’s heart, and places unambiguous, intrinsic value on them. It has no risk of any strings attached, because it expresses no desires about the outcome of that person’s life, except to be included in it.
I am convinced that there is nothing people want more than to be wanted. And so I’m not saying that we should stop telling people we want the best for them. But I just wonder, when we come to these situations, if we were to emphasise our desire for closeness with the person instead of for their welfare, whether that might speak to them on the level they actually need more than anything else.
We talk much of the power of being there for someone. But let’s not forget the power to simply being there.
5. An encouragement to keep going
Of course, the funny thing about a commandment to seek relationship with other people is that, while it has its challenges, pretty much everybody is already doing it. In fact, I wonder if this is why this aspect of love isn’t emphasised in the Bible – because people don’t really need to be told to do something they are doing instinctively. It doesn’t seem that we need to be told to want friends, family, and marriage.
I want to point it out because I think it has been a commandment largely forgotten, at least by myself. And so while we do it naturally, if we are only doing it because of the blind promptings of our own hearts, and are not led by a consciousness of the divinely sanctioned goodness of it, we may begin to do it wrongly, inconsistently only when it is convenient, or even guiltily, thinking we are being selfish.
And on that note, I want this to be an encouragement to keep going. Sometimes it is good to hear that what we have already been doing is the right thing. Love is so often, and rightly, posed to us as a challenge, the hardest thing in the world! But sometimes love is easy. Every time we hang out with our crew, or invite someone over for dinner, we are obeying God. Every time someone gets married (or perhaps even asks someone out on a date?) they are obeying God. Every joke laughed at, movie watched, and meal shared is a small, God-glorifying win for his Kingdom, because it is his people doing what he made us to do: enjoy our neighbour.
Conclusion: Embracing the Church’s destiny
Does all this come with complications in our fallen world? Yes, it does. There is still dysfunction in creation. We will still hurt people, and be hurt by them, and there will be times when the only remedy to a poisoned relationship is to part ways and wish each other the best, but the point is that God considers every instance of this a great tragedy! He wants us to mourn the necessity of any separation between two individuals. He never intended it to be this way, and he will not allow things to continue this way forever.
God is making a world in which people can dwell together in love and perfect peace; a world where there is no barrier between us all, no reason to hesitate to connect with one another, no fear of abused trust; a world where we are free to move in unreserved intimacy with without any risk of harm. As the people of God, this is our destiny. But the people of God are also the ones who have been charged with the task of breaking in God’s coming Kingdom by living in it now. So let us, the Church, practise togetherness, practise relationship.
Let us want one another as God has wanted us.
Enjoy one another as God enjoys us.
Let’s hang out.
Let’s practise the fullness of love.