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Friday, November 20, 2015

What IS this thing called "love"?

I write a lot about the problem of language, how the words we use are slipping to different, sometimes even opposing definitions until we're two people separated by a common language. Now, of course, given a living language in a shifting culture (which all living cultures are), it is expected that words will drift and new notions will need expression. Unfortunately, in our language, we do that by stealing words from one concept and apply it to another and then forcing everyone to buy into the new one because it's an old word.

There is one word that has shifted so far in our understanding of it that it makes its original concept almost incomprehensible. That word is "love". Now, to be fair, on the face of it the concept is difficult to begin with. I mean, it is very broad and complex. We love pizza and we love our pets and we love our planet and we love our spouses -- not the same things. But similar. Still, our current, most common understanding of "love" is either "sex" or "warm affection". Thus, if you love your spouse it's "sex" and if you love pizza it's "warm affection". Easy!

And I say (like I say so often these days), "You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means." Let me be clear. I'm not merely pointing at you when I say that. We find this word in the Bible and I will willingly admit that I'm not entirely clear on its meaning. I can trip on over to 1 Corinthians 13 and read Paul's description and have some idea of what it means, but I'm still not entirely clear. So, while I admit I don't have the definitive definition (a little play on words, there), I'm still pretty sure that "sex" or "warm affection" are not the primary definitions for the word. The general sense that most people have about the word is that "to love" means "to treat them nice and make them feel good." I'm quite sure that's not it.

Let me offer some illustrations from common human examples. Take, for instance, the parent of an infant who takes her child for necessary inoculations. It hurts the child. That can't be love, can it? Well, I think we would all say that it is, even though this "love" causes pain. I know parents who had a teenage daughter in high school that wanted to try out for cheerleading. The parents were concerned that she was getting too close to the world's glorification of appearance and popularity and felt it was in her best interests to deny her permission. "You're ruining my life!" she told them. Now, that can't be love, can it? I would argue that it could. Motivated by the best interests of the loved one, it would be classified as love even if it doesn't produce warm feelings or make them feel good.
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (1 Cor 13:4-8)
This is a biblical description of love. Well, a biblical description of the love that the Bible is talking about as opposed to your (and my) understanding of the term. None of this includes "sex" or "warm affection". One or both of these may be a pleasant and even unavoidable by-product of this version of love, but a by-product of something is not a definition. The Bible also uses another common phrase to try to flesh out the understanding of the word.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:18)

"And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt 22:39)

Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph 5:33)
There are, of course, a lot more than that, but perhaps you're getting the idea -- "as yourself". How do we treat ourselves? We do not necessarily avoid all pain or do all the things that feel the best. Oh, sure, kids do, but when we get older we learn that there are better things. We learn wise sayings like "No pain, no gain" because we understand that not all pleasure is profitable and not all pain is bad. We gain a better perspective on love ... that kind of love. And that kind of love -- the love where we seek to provide for our own best interests -- is the love we should be providing for others.

Love. It's a common word. I don't think we're really grasping it very well at all. So when we trot out the standard "God loves everyone" and apply our own misguided definition to "love", we're doing Him a great disservice. Perhaps we ought to find out what He means by it, because I'm quite sure it is neither "sex" nor "warm affection".

1 comment:

Marshall Art said...

Having a discussion elsewhere on this very topic. I think the term is further obscured whenever it is attached to sexual acts, as in "sexual intercourse is an act of love". While it is only morally legitimate between a man and woman who are married to each other, and while it is referred to as an act of love within marriage, I have long felt that it is no better than an act of lust no matter when it takes place and between whom. The "love" comes from the fidelity between a husband and wife, that the act is only engaged in between them and not between either and someone not a spouse. But the act itself is only a manifestation of lust.

Put another way, I don't have sex with my wife because I love her. I refuse sex with anyone else to demonstrate my love for her. (One caveat being that not refusing her when she desires intimacy demonstrates my love more than my wanting to be intimate myself, which is really self-gratification.)

Moving on, this other discussion revolves around the notion that "all love is blessed". My objection was that what passes for love by those willing to engage in that which is forbidden by God is not love at all.