Thursday, March 31, 2011

Love, Part 2: What does "I love you" mean?

            Before the book review interlude, I wrote a few thoughts on what it means to say “I love you” to someone and promised a ‘part 2.’ I thought it was time to get back to that. For the purpose of this particular post, I am mainly concerned with the sort of love expected in a marriage relationship where love is vowed or promised, although many of the principles apply to love in general. I ended ‘part 1’ with a question: “What is love?” My answer comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.
            If you make a list of all the ways Paul describes love, one thing is conspicuous by its absence from the list. That one thing is how we feel, our emotions. Why would Paul leave that out? Because for someone like Paul, who was raised as a Jew, love is not primarily about feeling but about doing.  How do you love God? By doing what God asks you to do. Love therefore, is a verb. That is the point of 1 Corinthians 13.
            Some modern wedding vows end with “as long as our love shall last” rather than the traditional “as long as we both shall live.”  I guess that means that if I no longer feel all warm and fuzzy when you walk in the room, or if I am no longer attracted to you because you are bald, or wrinkled, or have a beer gut, or if I am simply tired of your unpleasant habits or behaviors – habits and behaviors I was fully aware of when I married you – I can walk away. “As long as our love shall last” is more a statement of our laziness, our unwillingness to do, than the enduring power of active love.
             If love is primarily in doing, not feeling, our behavior toward the one we say we love is what determines whether we truly love that person. The word for love used here by Paul, is the word that is also used for the self-emptying, self-expending love that God demonstrates to his people. The second person of the Trinity completely emptied himself so that we could flourish, so that we could have the life God intended us to have. Our love for each other should reflect God’s example of love, a love that gives without expecting anything in return. It is love that does not come naturally to any of us.  We need God’s grace to exercise this sort of love.
            Note the word “exercise.” Any athlete will tell you that the more they exercise, the stronger they get.  But if they stop exercising, even for a short time, their muscles will begin to atrophy and they will not be as strong and competitive.  Love is like that.  To be strong, it must be exercised – daily. 
            What might it look like to exercise love for your boy/girlfriend or spouse? It may mean sitting through a concert because you know that he loves the symphony. It may mean enduring a rainy, cold football game because she loves to watch Michigan play. It could mean letting her complain about her job for the fourth night this week because she needs someone to unload on, even though you had hoped for a romantic dinner for two. Or it could mean holding him in your arms and encouraging him when you know he is not only feeling badly about missing out on a promotion, but is trying to be “strong” and act like its no big deal. At its best, love for your partner will show itself in actions that put your needs in second place and help your partner to flourish, to be everything God intended him or her to be.
            This sort of love is frightening in some ways. It demands we give without expecting anything in return – even a nice feeling. It opens us to hurt and disappointment. But this is the love that God through the Holy Spirit helps us emulate if we rely on him. What is truly remarkable in all of this, is that when we practice “doing” love, it often happens that we find ourselves “feeling” love. In other words, if you want to ‘bring back that lovin’ feeling,’ try doing some loving actions.

1 comment:

  1. As I've told you before, I wish more people saw love in this way. I especially wish that the meaning of the word love hadn't become so diluted by superfluous overuse that we now have to explain how we mean the word when we use it in different contexts.