In the last post, I wrote about the nature and logic of hatred. Hatred is seething anger at perceived insults. And the logic of hatred is “you are like what you hate.” Jesus demands that we replace anger with kindness and hatred with love. In this post I want to ask about the nature and logic of love.
What is Love?
What is love, Christianly understood? Let’s begin by defining love in opposition to hatred. True love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. It’s so deep you could almost call it a “longing.” Hate is deep and habitual desire for harm to come on another in response to harm cause by the other. Notice that I have included the cause of hatred in its definition but I did not mention a cause for love in its definition. Hateful people hate those who insult them. In contrast, loving people love others whatever they do or say. Hence the “cause” of love does reside in the deeds and words of the loved one. Christianity teaches clearly that the “cause” of love is God’s love, which is made known in his action for us and in us. John summarizes the message of the entire New Testament when he says:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:7-19).
John grounds our love for others in God’s eternal nature and in his loving act of sending his Son for our salvation. Our love for others is not merely a dutiful imitation of God’s love for others. John makes this interpretation impossible when he says, “God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (verse 12). That is to say, through Christ and the Spirit, God unites his loving heart with ours and changes us from the inside out. We not only act like God in our external acts but become like him in the depths of our being. We love because it is now our nature to love. Because “God is love” and we are united to God, we are in a derived sense love as well. What God is in his eternal nature, we become by grace. Resonating in harmony with God’s love, we love others for the same reason God’s loves others. In loving us, God bestows on us the supreme good, that is, himself. And in our love for others we desire for them that same supreme good, which is God. Allow me to quote again one of my favorite passages from Kierkegaard:
Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).
How Does Love Act?
How does love act? What does it do and what does it avoid doing? In Paul’s justly famous hymn about love in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, rather than attempting to define love as I have done, he describes how it acts:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
For most people, it is not enough to explain that true love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. Most people are not very clear about what the “supreme good” is or how a person who desires it for others would act in various situations. Paul lists 15 things love does or does not do. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but illustrative. We could add many more. In each case, the loving person seeks something good for others or avoids doing harm to others. We are a bit fuzzy at times about what is good and bad for others. Listing ways of doing good and harm in specific ways helps us get a feel for what love would do or not do in other situations.
However, there is much confusion in contemporary culture about the nature of love, and there are many counterfeits. Love, in the Christian understanding of it, is grounded in truth, guided by wisdom, and aimed at good. Love, Paul asserts, “does not rejoice in evil but rejoices with the truth” (verse 6). Only a superficial love hides from the truth and reinforces another person’s ignorance and self-deception—or you own. Compassion that concerns itself only with how people feel and doesn’t bother itself with their true condition is cowardly and selfish, concerned with its own feelings more than with the genuine welfare of others. You do not love others truly when you rejoice with them in the harm they do to others or to themselves. True love knows that the supreme good for every person they meet is fellowship with God. Wisdom informed by Jesus’ example and teaching guides us to those goods and activities that further others on their journey toward God.
The Real Thing
Jesus Christ is the act and revelation of the love of God. He is the wisdom that teaches us how to love and power that moves us to love others in truth. In him, the supreme good and final end of human life is made known. I will say it again: True love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. And, in the Christian understanding of it, love is grounded in truth, guided by wisdom, and aimed at good.
Our present society is at war with itself, largely because we are deeply dived over the question: “What is the end (telos) of love?” The candidates, as I see it, are as follows:
1) Maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain for the beloved
2) Affirming the autonomy and choices of the beloved
3) Seeking to facilitate the beloved’s growing into deeper relationship with God and conformed to His purposes for his/her life
Because of this disagreement in what the telos of love is, great subliminal chasms have formed in our public discourse whenever the rhetoric of love and hate is used. Taking either 1) or 2), it is immediately clear why the Christian cannot be in accord with either’s account of the ontology of love. The Christian is called to take up our cross and follow Jesus into self-sacrificial agape and encourage others to do the same. The Christian also is commissioned to call all people out of their fallen sense of false autonomy in order to conform to the true sovereignty of the living God. Seen thusly, it should be of no surprise—though still severe tragedy—when the communication of our discourse breaks down.
Well-said. I find it interesting that “love” is still a norm for ethical relations in our culture long after the Christian faith’s assertions about reality ceased to be taken realistically by the culture. How long will it be until even the word is repudiated? Even now, the culture loves only selectively, which is precisely the pagan attitude Jesus exposed as enlightened selfishness. There are many other “gods” that bind people together in groups: race, political ideology, class, gender, age, and others. When faith in the universal God of creation and salvation revealed in Jesus grows weak, these other gods assert their attractive force to give meaning, identity, and purpose to the faithless. And the result is division and hatred toward outsiders and false love for those inside.
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