Adapted from Letters to Bentrock: A Demon's Guide to Trapping Prey
Love is an odd word, especially in our contemporary culture. It is commonplace for people to use the word to describe the most trivial things. They might use it to explain that they enjoy a particular food as in, “I love ice cream.” They can “absolutely love this song”; they can love their jobs; they can love a pet; they can love a sports team or television program or a book; they can even love an article of clothing! On a more serious note, they can love their spouse so much that they promise to remain together until death do they part. As anyone who has watched the Princess Bride will know, "Love, true love, will follow you forever." And, of course, they can strive to love their God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their mind.
Now, you may argue that one sort of love has nothing to do with the other. No one would ever confuse trivial ice cream love for something significant like the revelation that “God is Love.” I disagree. At the core of all these different uses of “love” in our contemporary culture is a common definition that threads them together: when a person says they love something they mean that the thing makes them feel good. From trivial matters like taste of ice cream to profound matters like marriage, it is all the same. The way these things make the individual feel determines if they love it or not. In short, love as it is popularly understood is an entirely self-centered emotion describing how I feel and how you "make me" feel (another subject for another day).
Most of us have effortlessly embraced the deception that “love is a feeling” without ever considering the ridiculousness of the idea.
This is especially true with respect to romantic love. The stew of hormones and endorphins that defines romantic attraction has taken on magical qualities in our culture (just ask the writers of Once Upon a Time where a quality kiss from your true love can repair most any catastrophe). When person falls “in love” with another, they are describing a deeply felt emotion that is more exciting and engaging than most anything else humans experience. Importantly, our contemporary culture insists that this type of romantic desire is the single most authentic version of love conceivable.
When a significant other says they no longer love their partner, what they are really saying is that they no longer feel romantic desire (or more precisely they no longer feel sufficiently intense romantic desire). Never mind that this is inevitable. The emotional and biochemical processes that produce a flood of hormones and endorphins are always temporary. And because we believe that the feelings we describe as romantic love is the most authentic sort of love that exists, when we no longer feel sufficient romantic desire, we are taught that we owe it to ourselves to seek a new partner. (YOLO and all that!) It would be unconscionable and inauthentic to “settle” for a long-term relationship that is “loveless” when life is short and better options are literally at your fingertips, just swipe right and enjoy.
People strive to generate feelings of fondness for strangers and colleagues even when they have none because they believe this is what it means to “love your neighbor."
Most of us have effortlessly embraced the deception that “love is a feeling” without ever considering the ridiculousness of the idea. Even when a happy couple vows to “love, honor, and cherish” one another, it does not occur to them that love as a feeling makes no sense. Do they imagine that the author of the vows, or the many generations that recited various versions of them, believed they could promise their spouse that they would always feel a particular way until death parts them? Yet, as they stand before friends and family (and for the religious among us before our Creator) to vow that they will love one another for all their days, it is exactly this that they have in mind. The Princess Bride promises nothing less. Of course, it will not last. Romantic desire always dissipates.
The older and wiser among us recognize this, but we tend to adopt a no less silly notion that “true love” is that feeling of deep affection we have for another. Indeed, among older couples and friends, the emotion we call love is often little more than the feelings of regret and nostalgic loss we experience whenever we imagine life without the significant other. (As will be obvious to you, this is merely substituting a somewhat less volatile emotion for the original.) The bride or the groom can no more promise life-long feelings of deep affection than they can promise life-long feelings of burning romantic desire. Any promise of feeling a particular way will be broken, guaranteed. Feelings wax and wane.
Our "love as a feeling" confusion goes far beyond the romantic sphere and invades our spiritual lives as well. People strive to generate feelings of fondness for strangers and colleagues even when they have none because they believe this is what it means to “love your neighbor.” After all, if love is a feeling then loving your neighbor must mean feeling at least a modicum of affection for them! We imagine that our faith is somehow defective when those feelings do not arise or when we encounter someone with whom we do not have an emotional connection.
Things can get even more confusing when we are striving to love our God with all our hearts with all our mind and with all our soul. After all, if love is an emotion, then the greatest feelings of desire ought to be directed toward God. So we meditate, pray, and desperately attempt to will into existence feelings of child-like love toward an unseen omnipotent being and secretly feel shame that our faith is weak and substandard when those feelings do not arise. (We are helped along by a few Christian writers who assure us that, yes, our faith really is substandard if this emotional desire for God is modest or absent.)
We are transforming love into a fundamentally selfish act that is all about the emotions of the one who loves and is being loved.
This is not to say that in our contemporary culture we believe the old definitions of love are irrelevant. To the contrary, we still believe love is patient, kind, humble, long-suffering, protective, and all the rest. It is just that we believe these things are the natural result of the loving emotions we feel. Love is still all about us and our feeliings even when those feelings cause us to be patient, kind, and so forth. Should those emotions disappear, as they do, then one has fallen out of love and cannot possibly expect to feel very patient, kind, and so forth (swipe right to continue).
When we are wedded to the idea that love is a feeling, it is simply impossible for us to see the obvious alternative: love is a decision, an action, a commitment. The feelings of desire or affection or delight that may or may not accompany it from time to time are beside the point. Paul did not tell us that if we feel love we will naturally be patient and kind. He told us that love is being patient and kind. When we take vows to “love, comfort, honor, and keep” it is not a promise for one emotion and three actions, it is a commitment to four actions. When God commands us to love our neighbor, he is not suggesting the Samaritan discovered a well of hidden emotion he did not previously know, He is calling us to action no matter how we feel. But to suggest such a thing in our current culture is little short of romantic blasphemy.
We have so thoroughly redefined this word as an emotion that it is cultural heresy to suggest otherwise. There is no husband or wife in the modern world who would dare suggest to their spouse that deep feelings of romantic desire are not, and should not be, the centerpiece of their relationship. It is a sort of culturally unacceptable profanity that few would have the courage to utter and fewer still would be able to live down if they did.
This re-definition of one small word has led to the destruction of countless marriages as we become persuaded that the absence of sufficiently intense desire and affection is proof that the marriage is “loveless” and beyond repair. How often have husbands or wives who are patient and kind and all the rest been left behind for the crime of not demonstrating or eliciting a suitably deep emotional response and romantic desire? The love cannot be real, and, as everyone knows, “Life is too short to settle for a loveless marriage.”
It will be apparent, then, when your too-often-jilted friend says in disgust, “there is no such thing as love” that she is correct. Love as it is popularly defined does not exist except as the most transitory of physiological and emotional states. The evidence for this will be undeniable and everywhere. If love is an emotion, and if what we really mean when we say that we love someone is that they make us feel a particular way, we are transforming love into a fundamentally selfish act that is all about the emotions of the lover.
If, on the other hand, we embrace Paul’s definition of Love, we transform it back into a commitment to selfless action.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
This is true love. It is action. It is commitment. No matter how that makes us feel, it never fails.