defining love 1600

First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: Love Defined, Part 3

January 4, 2021
For a couple of posts now, we have been laboring to understand exactly what we are talking about when we use the word “love.” We began by observing that love language can be used in association with the affinity one person has for another, the affection one person shows to another, the attachment one person experiences with another, and the action one person takes on behalf of another. Then we observed that, while hate can sometimes be seen as love’s opposite, selfishness is always the opposite of love. That is not to say we cannot love ourselves, nor is it to claim love requires the dissolution of the self. It is simply to observe any demonstrably selfish activities are inconsistent with the logic, pathos, and ethos of love.

In today’s post, I would like for us to consider two ways love is often defined by our culture. Desire and acceptance are often assumed to be so essential to love’s nature that one can hardly speak of love without them. As Christians, we recognize there is an important relationship between these phenomena and love, but we also must insist they do not define love’s essence.

The Complex Relationship between Love and Desire

It is Dallas Willard, both in The Divine Conspiracy and in the online lectures which elucidate this important work, who alerts us to the ways we misapply the language of love when we are really talking about desire. Willard asks us to consider what it would be like if we were a chocolate cake. 

If someone walked into the room, licked their lips, and said, “I love chocolate cake,” would we feel good about our prospects for the future? Certainly not! The person who “loves” chocolate cake does not want to nurture it, to care for it, to treasure it as their own for a lifetime. They want to eat the chocolate cake. And if you or I happen to be that cake, we would be wise to quake with fear!

Willard’s point is irrefutable. Desire is, by its very nature, oriented towards the self, whereas love is, by its very nature, oriented towards the other. And yet, genuine love gives rise to a wide range of desires. Certainly, we desire the good of the one we love. But we also desire to receive good from them, to nurture our own hearts and souls by benefiting from those things in our beloved we admire. 

Moreover, the attachment we form with our beloved arouses in us a desire simply to be in his or her presence. This is true even if—and perhaps especially if—the one we love is experiencing pain. The nails which pierce their soul pierce ours, too, but we feel an almost primal yearning to be with them in the midst of their suffering.

So, love is not the same thing as desire, but it does evoke desire. And the desire which emerges from love is radically transformed. It includes the self, but it moves beyond the self. It seeks pleasure, but it gladly endures pain for the sake of a greater good—namely, the well-being of the beloved and the perpetuation of genuine love.

The Complex Relationship between Love and Acceptance

  1. A. Carson is just one of the many voices within contemporary Christianity who has pointed out our society’s elevation of acceptance to the status of an idol. Many people believe one must accept everything about how a person identifies themselves to the world in order to claim love for that person. And this misconception has widespread implications for how we order our society and conceive of personal ethics.

But love is not the same thing as acceptance. Granted, it is hard to imagine how we could love someone without offering them at least a modicum of acceptance. Indeed, Paul commands us to, “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order that you may bring glory to God” (Romans 15:7). Still, love, by its very nature, forces us to repudiate all that is evil (cf. Romans 12:9). 

Sometimes, as a result of our brokenness, we embrace ideologies, values, and patterns of behavior that can only be described as “sin.” They violate God’s expressed will for His creation, and they harm those who hold them, others in the community, or the created order itself. 

Love calls us to repudiate those ideologies, values, and patterns of behavior—whether we find them in others or in ourselves. But love also opens its heart and its hands to the one who holds those defective ideologies, values, or patterns of behavior. It does not repudiate with no possibility of remedy. It makes a way for reconciliation, and it bears patiently with the wrongs committed by its object.

More Work

So, love is not desire or acceptance. But it motivates us to desire fellowship with the ones we love, and it inspires in us a welcoming spirit that imitates the hospitality Christ has shown to us. Clearly, we still have more work to do if we are going to understand this thing called love. In our next post, we will explore some questions about the nature of love that will help us bring even more clarity to our discussion.

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