Confusion about the Definition of Love
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most influential theologians and Christian activists, the celebrated martyr of the twentieth century, once wrote:
The worth of a life is measured by how much love it has. Everything else is nothing, nothing at all, totally indifferent, totally unimportant…Life is really not worth living at all without love…the sole purpose of happiness as well as unhappiness, poverty as well as wealth, honor as well as disgrace, living at home or abroad, living and dying is to love all the more strongly, purely, fully. It is the one thing beyond all distinctions, before all distinctions, in all distinctions. ‘Love is as strong as death’ (Song of Songs, 8:6).1
It seems, according to multiple testimonies of those who understood its nature, that the phenomenon of love makes our lives meaningful, maybe not always happy, but certainly meaningful. Though love is the most important and pleasant ingredient of the phenomenon of human life, most of us still do not agree on what the nature of love is. Love is not easy to define. It defies logic and resists any rational definitions.
Speaking about love, especially love for enemies, Martin Luther King Jr. tried to elaborate on this existing confusion: “The meaning of love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring. Love is something much deeper than emotional bosh.”2 King continued, presenting the traditional understanding of love in the New Testament described by three Greek words for love (eros, philia, and agape).3
My point here is not to define all these nuances of love (erotic, friendly, parental/unconditional/divine) widely accepted in the ethical-theological interpretation of the Bible and Christian tradition, but rather to point to the fact that love is not simply emotional/sentimental expression. The definition and reality of love, at least in the Christian community of faith, cannot be understood in the context of the complex emotional or volitional structure of human beings. Love has no source and origin in the emotional aspiration and will power of humans.
Furthermore, the meaning of love cannot be exhausted on the ethical level. Love is not just a moral mandate prescribed for humans as moral beings. Love is more than just the commandment to fulfill. According to Scott B. Rae, an ethicist widely respected in college circles, New Testament ethics considers love as a central virtue.4 Indeed, in all Paul’s writings love is at the top of the list of virtues (Colossians 3:12-17; Philippians 2:2-3; Ephesians 4:2-3; Galatians 5:22-23). Of all the Gospel virtues or high moral mandate, love occupies the special place in New Testament ethic, and there is a reason for it. Love is certainly more than just a virtue; it is more than just a principle of behavior. Biblically speaking, love is a way of life and therefore, should be lived in the certain context of God-given reality.
That love is the principle of the way of life is clearly articulated in Ellen G. White’s following statement: “True love is not merely a sentiment or an emotion. It is a living principle, a principle that is manifest in action. True love, wherever it exists, will control the life. Thus it is with the love of God”5 (emphasis mine). The life-controlling principle of love is a God-given gift, not an impulse of emotional or moral nature of human beings.
Why is love so unique in Christian expression of the communion with God? Why does the call to love always transcend emotional/sentimental or even ethical/moral aspirations of a human being? Where is the ultimate source of love and how can love be lived in complete alignment with this source? What kind of understanding and living experience of love should we proclaim to the world
Love: Moral Mandate or Presence?
The love of God, presented as revealed in the Holy Scripture and reality, is the most glorious experience a human being can have in this loveless and unloving world. The undeserving favor of God expressed in the miracle of the glorious Grace, which is in reality divine love, still captivates our minds and souls with awe and trembling. Despite the amazing and enlightening revelation we have in Holy Scripture, it is still extremely difficult to probe into the nature of this transcendent love of divine reality. John the Apostle tried to fathom the depth and breadth of this reality by his words:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (John 4:7-12)
Allow me to unpack this flagship text about love. Notice here that John is seemingly starting with an ethical/moral phenomenon about the commandment of love. The ethic of love and embracing one another is the indispensable principle of the Christian experience, call, and life. It appears love is the moral imperative and that according to biblical revelation and Christ’s example we should love God and love one another. The key question here is why we are not able to imitate Christ in this regard and love God and neighbor as ourselves. What is the main obstacle to practicing the principle of divine love and way of life expressed in this sacred text?
If love is understood only as a moral principle or virtue, or a moral mandate, we will encounter some difficulties in this project of love. When we look at love as an emotional expression of the moral mandate we all agree that the commandment is impossible to fulfill mentally, emotionally, volitionally. We are stretched beyond our possible horizons.
Jesus made it even harder when he mentioned to his disciples that they should love one another as He loved them (John 13:34-35). He shocked them with this alien experience to ordinary emotional machinery and His call to an extreme sacrificial form of divine love. By the way, this new commandment is not just simply the eleventh commandment as some would love to say, but the foundational principle or mandate of ALL commandments ever revealed by the will of God. This “commandment” is the expression of the way of life in the very presence of God.
The love commandment understood as a commandment and moral mandate is, therefore, doomed to fail as our experience and knowledge clearly prove that this expression of Christian love must lie beyond ethical demands. Individuals and nations tried to follow Jesus by keeping this commandment of love and the whole project ended as a clear overturn or distortion of everything God represents. There must be something deeper here that transforms us to the point of loving God and loving neighbor universally, perfectly, unconditionally. There must be a way to the fulfillment of this glorious “commandment.” God must remain faithful to His promise of transforming His people.
John clearly articulates this reality in his words: love comes from God, God showed his love, this is love: not that we first loved God, but he loved us….
For John, the commandment to love is not a moral imperative, virtue, or mandate, or sentimental/emotional expression of affectionate attachment to the God of love. It is not even a commandment. When John cries out: God is love, the emphasis is not on love but God. That reality called love, affection, impulse to be beneficially generous and kind and caring is not produced by human will power, nor emotional commitment, nor moral imperative, nor reality stimulated by true convictions, dogmas, or belief system.
That reality called love is a manifestation of the transcendental presence of God Himself. If God is love then it cannot be found anywhere else except in God, and incarnated Christ Jesus, the Lord of love. Bonhoeffer explains:
God is love: that is to say not a human attitude, a conviction or a deed, but God Himself is love. Only he who knows God knows what love is; it is not the other way round; it is not that we first of all by nature know what love is and therefore know also what God is. No one knows God unless God reveals Himself to him. And so no one knows what love is except in the self-revelation of God. Love, then, is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ… (1 John 4:9).6
If God is love, according to this powerful testimony, then love can be found only in his ultimate expression of incarnating presence and death of Christ as well as His glorious personal post-resurrecting communion with us. Love is the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Notice that in the biblical text, John mentions several times that love of God is shown to us in Christ who died as an atoning sacrifice. Love of God is an action of caring for the dying world, and this action is the transcendent presence of God Himself (namely, the revelation of God). The revelation of God makes love possible and doable. The origin of love is in this revelatory presence.
If we love, God lives in us, says John. This means that love is guaranteed when the overwhelming and transcendent presence of God is present within us as a new dimension of life, life itself revealed in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is clear that John does not speak about love only as a moral mandate or emotional attachment but as transformed expression and extension of divine reality itself, as the incarnated reality of God’s life in us. If God’s life and his presence are extended through us, if it lives in us, only then can we love like God and become love. We can love like Christ (loving God and perfectly loving humanity universally and unconditionally). If we receive His Spirit (His full presence) and His life in its fullness, we can start loving God in return and loving our neighbor. Love is not just simply an ethical demand, it is the very presence of God.
Preaching and Teaching of Love as Presence of God
Thus, preaching of love as an emotional attachment or moral mandate will not be able to transform the community of faith. Preaching and teaching of love as the glorious embodiment of God’s very presence and transcendental overwhelming extension of His Life and presence of His Spirit coming as result of a commitment to the Crucified and the Risen One, will be able to make an impact in the community of faith.
Preaching of God’s love in this regard will create a new birth of love. “Everyone who is born of God” (by His Spirit), says the apostle, will be able to love God and love humanity.
Therefore, if we focus on the moral mandate and emotional aspect of love we can miss the wholeness of God’s love. Furthermore, if we insist on the pristine doctrinal articulation of God’s love as a sign of belonging to a community of love, we will miss the living incarnational presence of God which is a clear manifestation of His love. The community of faith should not just believe or talk about love—it should love. Love is a gift of His transforming presence, not the impulse of human will, education, religiosity, spirituality, or belief. Only if God lives in us and performs His presence among us, will His love be made perfect among and through us.
This might be bad news for the community of faith heavily dependent on the correctness of beliefs and convictions as a sign of the presence of God’s love in the community. If the love of God is revealed only among those who believe correctly or have enough will power to promote this moral mandate, then it is not universal. If this were true, the Pharisees would be the best candidates for the kingdom of God. However, as we know, they crucified the Lord of love. The love of God as the mighty presence of God is universal and, therefore, belongs to everyone who is open to recognizing love based on this presence, irrespective of their dark past or lack of sense for religion. In fact, the world is loved even before its openness to the presence of God.
We should not preach love to the world as a moral mandate, or expression of the deepest emotion, or the highest central virtue, or fulfillment of all God’s commandments, or as a sign of belonging to a morally and doctrinally pristine community of faith. Rather, we should teach that the universal presence of God’s revelation transforms, shapes, and mightily leads toward the complete image of Christ Jesus. The overwhelming presence of God makes this “commandment” sweet and desirable, makes it fully livable and completely fulfilled.
Love is God. God is love. “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them,” (1 John 4:16).
Notes & References:
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testimony to Freedom, 241 quoted in A Year With Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Daily Meditations From His Writings, Letters and Sermons, ed. Carla Barnhill (New York: Harper One, 2005), p. 170.
2. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2010, p. 46.
3. Ibid., 46-47.
4. Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009 ed., p. 42.
5. Ellen G. White, How God’s Love is Manifested, Part 1, Published in The [Australasian] Union Conference Record, June 1, 1900. Retrieved from the web May 31, 2018 (http://www.whiteestate.org/message/Love_Manifested1.asp).
6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge (Touchstone: 1995), p. 53.
Alex S. Santrac, DPhil, Ph.D., is a Professor of Ethics, Philosophy, and Religion and the Chair of Religion and Philosophy Department at Washington Adventist University, Takoma Park, MD. Alex is also an extraordinary [research] professor of dogmatics and dogma and Church history at North-West University, South Africa and Tutor for Graduate Studies at Greenwich School of Theology, UK.
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