Let’s define love.
My absolute favorite extra-biblical definition of love comes from J. Budziszewski’s “Ask Me Anything.”
“Love is a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person.”
This succinct, profound, and jam-packed definition is my favorite because it clears up so many misconceptions about love that people have these days. Let me show you four of them.
- LOVE IS NOT A FEELING
I think many people would affirm this fact when talking about the definition of love, but forget this fact when they go about loving. Love is not a feeling. As the great theologian Tom Scholz from the band Boston would say, “It’s more than a feeling.” Love sometimes may involve feelings, feelings may be a by-product of love, feelings might make it easier to love, but love is not contingent on nor does it consist of feelings.
As the quote says, it’s “a commitment of the will.”
Love is a choice that one makes with the very core of who they are. It is a cognizant angling of one’s impulses toward the true good of another person. It is a consciously maintained effort.
The human heart is selfish and corrupt, wicked. Love on the other hand is the conscious constant striving to change the heart’s impulses toward selfish, wicked corruption. It’s the deliberate turning away from selfishness toward selflessness.
It is a commitment, meaning it is something that a person has control of: they choose to love, love does not choose them.
Loving someone is different than “being in love” with someone. “Being in love” is the feelings part of love, particularly of erotic love. “Being in love” is the fluttering of the heart, the sweaty hands, the light-headed excitement and electricity of being near a person you really like and are sexually attracted to.
Loving someone, on the other hand, (particularly in the context of a sexual relationship) is a long and often painful road. Loving someone is staying by them when they hurt you, providing for them in their times of sickness, weakness, and need, telling them the truth when they don’t want to hear it, and doing everything in your power to make sure that their true good comes about. Love is a noble and virtuous commitment; being in love is a fun feeling that flees at the first foreboding sign.
The character named love is a courageous hero. The character named “being in love” is a coward afraid of being hurt or inconvenienced at the expense of his own pleasure. Love expresses himself through actions; “being in love” expresses himself in words, and sometimes empty promises. If you want to bring Greek into the mix, “being in love” is eros, but love is agape.
Yes there is a very big difference.
- LOVE IS NOT A COMMITMENT TO ANOTHER PERSON’S IDEA OF GOOD
That’s a long heading, I know, but it has to stay. The word in J. Budziszewski’s definition I like the most is “true.” The “true good” of another person may not always be in line with what that person thinks is good, or what that person wants. As has already been stated, the heart is corrupt, selfish, and wicked. What a selfish person wants isn’t always (and is almost never) what a selfish person needs. Love gives a person what they need, not what they want.
Love has to appeal to an independent standard of morality to determine right course of action. It has to look at a situation and say, “I know this person wants to eat three gallons of ice-cream but that’s not what is truly good for him.”
Love is dependent on a standard established outside of the lover or the loved. Both the lover and the loved are naturally selfish, naturally unloving, naturally sinful humans. Love has to look to something higher and greater than the self. It has to look to true good.
“Where does love find this standard of ‘true good?’” you ask. “From God,” I answer.
Good without God is like sight without light. It can’t happen. Likewise, love without God is like water without wet, or as Jude said, clouds without water. (If you’ll allow me to misquote a passage out of context.)
Love without God isn’t love at all. God is the source of love. He is the definer of love. Love draws its very essence from Him. God is the source of good. He is the definer of good. Good draws its very essence from Him.
When we get to know God through his son, His Spirit, and His written word, we can begin to truly love. We can try to love without God, but we won’t get any farther than a man will be able to see in a pitch black room: the end of his nose. Love without God ends up seeing only the self, and so isn’t really love at all… which brings me to my third point.
- LOVE IS NOT SELFISH
The final part of the definition should be obvious by now. “…of the other person.” Love is about someone other than the lover. Love’s focus is out, not in. Love wants what’s truly good for another person so much that it would sacrifice itself in order to bring about that true good.
Love sees its greatest act of fulfillment on the cross of Calvary. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, in his selfless act of love for sinners, died to save them and received nothing in return. He Himself gave a similar definition of love. “Greater love has no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) I agree wholeheartedly.
No one can have any greater love than when he lays down his life for another person. When the will is so strongly committed to another person’s true good that it would drive a man to his grave, that is the greatest love of all. And boy does it feel to be the one loved in that instance.
Notice I didn’t say “feel good.” Often to be the recipient of true love feels quite the opposite. Often to be the recipient of true love causes one to fall on his face, claiming that he doesn’t deserve it, and that he shouldn’t have received it. That, my friends is exactly the point.
Love is what Paul described in a passage you probably all know. You have to have heard it at a wedding before, or seen it carved in wood hanging on somebody’s wall. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
My favorite part of that? “It does not rejoice at wrongdoings, but rejoices with the truth.”
Love is selflessly committed to the true good of another.
- FORCED LOVE ISN’T TRUE LOVE
You can’t legislate love. No one can force someone to love. Forced love isn’t true love, and it doesn’t have the true good of another at heart. For love to mean anything the option not to love must remain open.
I’m reminded of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which is actually a quite philosophy-laced show) where a villain, Spike, commissioned the building of a robot Buffy to “love” him. The program was so powerful that it turned into obsessive devotion, but Spike didn’t like it. It was fake and he knew it. Not even the physical gratification he programmed the robot to give him was satisfying. Spike wanted the real Buffy to be freely committed to his true good, instead of the robot Buffy to be forced into a commitment. Love must be free not to love, or it isn’t love at all.
There is a possibility of taking my words about freedom and love the wrong way. I’m not promoting “free love” as the hippies did. In fact I’m promoting the opposite. I’m promoting constrained love. Constrained love is the love that means something. It’s exclusionary by nature. It chooses one thing over another. It decides to be committed instead of whoring around with anything else that comes along. Free love, as the hippies meant it, isn’t love at all. It’s eroticism, its feelings, it’s “being in love” and it’s quite inferior to the real thing. True love is free not to love, which is what makes it so amazing.
What is love? It’s selfless devotion to the wellbeing of someone else. It’s a choice someone makes to bring about good things for another. “It’s the commitment of the will to the true good of the other person.”