Love is not just an emotion. It’s not simply some uncontrollable feeling you fall in and out of. It doesn’t have to be here today and gone tomorrow. Nor does it ever have to leave you, in any relational context, if you don’t want it to.
And that’s because love is measured and maintained primarily by what you give, not what you receive. According to scripture, that’s the love metric: what you give to him, what you sacrifice for her, not necessarily what you feel.
Now what’s interesting is that’s not how we typically measure love. When we judge how “in love” we are with a significant other, or when judge our disposition toward another human being, we don’t say, “Well let’s see… how much did I give or sacrifice for them this week?” No, instead, we measure love by how much we get. Do we not?
“What have they done for me lately?” “What’s been my experience with how they’ve treated me?” “Have I lost that loving feeling for him? Because he’s always at work, the sex isn’t as passionate, and he hasn’t taken me on a date or called me baby in months?”
Just think about this principle. It doesn’t take us long to come up with a list of “unlovable people.” Let’s just be honest, outside of you and me, there’s plenty of people out there giving us plenty of reasons not to love them. There are cut-throat bosses who collect fat bonuses while we do the work and they lay on beaches sipping coconut drinks. There are egotistical jocks who speak of themselves in the third person. There are mother-in-laws (for the record, just so I get invited back to Thanksgiving, I love mine), ex-husbands, critics, hypocrites, criminals, that guy who merges at the last second in construction zones, Cardinal fans (the baseball kind), vampires, the cast of Jersey Shore, and whoever thought it was a good idea for N’SYNC and Backstreet Boys to do a reunion tour. (I mean come on ladies, it’s been over a decade. You have a husband, two kids, and are considering a minivan…)
However, despite the degree of unloveability that many people in our lives have earned, that does not mean we can’t still love them.
Anger is a feeling that makes it extremely difficult to love the person who provoked it. Disgust is a feeling that makes it extremely difficult to love the person who is disgusting. Envy, jealousy, indignation, pride, vengeance, fear, apathy, outrage, exhaustion, fatigue, uncertainty, distrust, betrayal, even spite, these are just a few internal states that make different people, to differing degrees, unlovable. But again, that doesn’t mean we can’t still love them. Because love is not just an emotion. It’s not simply a accidental concoction of feelings that you react to. No, instead, love is measured and maintained primarily by what you give, not what you receive.
Just about everyone I speak to, Christian or not, knows of and commends Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor,” or the golden rule “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” But what’s often missed in the translation is that both of these commands are primarily active commands.
It’s difficult, sometimes near impossible, to control your emotions. Your emotions can be inconsistent and irrational. They are combination of physiological, neurological, psychological, sociological, and (in my opinion) illogical factors. And so that’s why Jesus does not call us to feel all warm, fuzzy, and happy toward our neighbor. No, the call is to love! And love is measured and maintained primarily by what you give, not what you receive.
Now do understand, this is not to say that affectionate feelings aren’t a part of love. I think it’s obvious that emotions make the active reality of loving someone else easier or harder. Certainly, it’s easier to serve and be kind to a person who has earned it. Dr. Tim Keller writes, “We are never more satisfied and fulfilled than when affection and action are joined in us, when we are serving someone we delight in.”
But if we don’t understand that love is possible, even amid sometimes impossible feelings, we’ll never be great friends, we’ll lean into resentment at our jobs, we’ll check out of our marriages too early, we’ll put our best foot backward as parents, and we’ll never be quite as effective as we could be in our Kingdom mission. (And we’ll probably end up cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals.)
So this is a call to understand love as an action first, and an emotion second. This is a call to make love an active reality even when it’s hard. This is a call to be unselfish with your heart, despite its better judgment. This is a call to give, give, and give some more, even when you don’t receive. Because that’s the way of the cross.
When you feel like you’ve fallen out of love with your spouse, don’t act like it.
If you’ve had certain experiences with a specific race or nationality that disqualifies them from your kindness, don’t act like it.
If poverty provokes apathy in your heart, don’t act like it.
If sin is what you see in him, reorient your perspective with cross-shaped theology.
If a child betrays your upbringing, don’t forfeit all the years you’ve poured into them.
If a friend seems to just suck the life of you, and they take, take, and take some more without giving anything in return, draw grace from the wealth God has poured on you.
Or if there’s a bully in your day-to-day that deserves to be taught a lesson, teach them a different kind of lesson, the lesson of love.
C.S. Lewis writes:
Though natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings… The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less… Whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less… The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them: the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on – including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.
If you do this, I think you’ll find two things: (1) You’ll be filled with love when you give it (or you’ll be drained of it when you don’t). And (2) often, you’ll receive love in return when you set it as the non-negotiable standard of any and every relationship you have (or you won’t, when you selfishly respond to vacillating emotions and feelings).
Don’t let your definition of love be defined by present feelings, let it be defined by resolute action. Do the actions of love because you are committed to love and you will find love.
This is not the way of tolerance, this is not a door-mat approach to life, because love is messy and looks different person-to-person, day-to-day. Rather, it’s the way of the cross. It’s a Christo-centric approach to the world. We love one another, not because we are always beautiful to one another, but to make one another beautiful in the sight of God.
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