Certainly, we have all kinds of ideas about what love means to us. In our culture, when we think of love, we think of love primarily in romantic terms and secondarily in familial terms. But as Christ followers, we're called to think of love from a third perspective—one that does not come naturally to us, as self-centered human beings, because it is a Christ-like way of love that has nothing to do with the way we feel or what we think about it.
Around Christmas time, if we're not too busy with hectic family arrangements or fervent material concerns, we take some time to think about what God's love means. We reflect on the Christmas story. All over the nation, we ponder the idyllic manger scene. Maybe those of us out here in farm country have a slightly different perspective. We weren't all born in a barn, but we sure know what one smells like. As my lead pastor asked during Sunday service, "Can you smell the stink of the stable this Christmas?"
The love of Christ is counter-intuitive from the beginning. Here is the coming of our Savior: born in the cow poop, sent to deal with our B.S. This isn't exactly the stuff of Hollywood romance. Yet this birth scene is graphically illustrative of the self-forgetting act of love immortalized in that touchstone verse of all Christianity. John 3:16—"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
That's the kind of love we're going to consider from another one of the books named for John, but first, let’s look a bit more at this idea of love as we know it.
That's a question the poets and songwriters have been answering for millennia... who asked them, anyway? First, there’s the romantic kind of love—perhaps better known as "infatuation" or "obsession." Now, as we speak, you might be in love; you might be out of love; you might be looking for love. Whether or not you’re a part of a couple right now, doubtless you carry with you, in your mental and emotional makeup, some personal definition of what that romantic kind of love is supposed to be like.
We think, What do you mean, love is not a feeling? I’ve felt love! That’s because most of us have indeed felt emotional feelings of love, or at least whatever chemical mix we call love. On top of that, we’ve been programmed by the culture in which we live to expect that feeling all the time. We're surrounded with the demand to understand love as an emotional, irrational, romantic phenomenon—the stuff they write songs about. Sometimes, we get married before we figure out that stuff isn’t what life or love is about. We usually commit our lives to one another long before we understand the deep and abiding romance of taking an extra turn at washing dishes or helping to shovel snow in the morning.
So what happens? Life happens. The shine wears off. Some of us haven’t been there yet, but a lot of us have. We were on cloud nine, but the real world is still here, waiting for us to get back. We’ve been mindlessly infatuated for a month or six months or a year or maybe even two years, and then we come to our senses. Eventually, inevitably, the honeymoon is over. And whether it's you or the person you're with who first needs to get back to normal life, it can be extremely disorienting and disappointing to climb off that wild ride.
But for me, the life-changing part of this book comes before the author even gets into the meat of his content. The book begins with a few introductory chapters, and one of those introductory chapters is called “Falling in Love.” Now, tell me if any of this sounds familiar:
At its peak, the ‘in love’ experience is euphoric. We are emotionally obsessed with each other. We go to sleep thinking of one another. When we rise that person is the first thought on our minds. We long to be together. Spending time together is like playing in the anteroom of heaven. When we hold hands, it seems as if our blood flows together. We could kiss forever if we didn’t have to go to school or work. Embracing stimulates dreams of marriage and ecstasy...
We have been led to believe that if we are really in love, it will last forever. We will always have the wonderful feelings that we have at this moment. Nothing could ever come between us. Nothing will ever overcome our love for each other. We are enamored and caught up in the beauty and charm of the other’s personality. Our love is the most wonderful thing we have ever experienced. We observe that some married couples seem to have lost that feeling, but it will never happen to us. ‘Maybe they did not have the real thing,’ we reason."
Then comes the reality, when it's time to either get married or call it quits. Somebody starts stalling, and the other somebody can't figure out why. She's ready to become one with him. He's looking for the escape hatch. Or he's ready to move her into his apartment, but she's still waiting for a proposal. This person is getting a bit irritating. Life gets good, and we get lazy. Expectations are clashing. Things are going basically well, but something seems to be missing.
This relationship is feeling kind of ordinary, and that's frightening. Somebody feels like they're losing someone. The fire isn't as hot as it used to be. Some people get married to try and re-ignite the spark. Other people are already married and go looking to light a new one somewhere else.
This stage is called "disenchantment" in premarital counseling literature. But understanding its commonality does little to ease its sting. Our confusion seems evident enough. We used to inspire battle and romance, and now we inspire binge-watching and afternoon naps. Some start wondering, "What's so wrong with me?" and "What if I was wrong (again)?"
In the chapter “Falling in Love,” I read this:
Dr. Dorothy Tennov, a psychologist, has done long-range studies on the in-love phenomenon. After studying scores of couples, she concluded that the average life span of a romantic obsession is two years."
Luckily, I kept reading. On the next page, I read this:
Once the experience of falling in love has run its natural course (remember, the average in-love experience lasts two years), we will return to the world of reality… [A couple falls] out of love, and at that point either they withdraw, separate, divorce, and set off in search of a new in-love experience, or they begin the hard work of learning to love each other without the euphoria of the in-love experience."
Of course, some couples don't have it in them to do that. One can have all the best intentions in the world, but it takes two to tango. When the going gets tough, the strength of the relationship will reveal itself. Some marriages break down at the first exertion. And our modern divorce culture tells us if we don't like it, we can get rid of it and go get another one. Easy, right? We want love to be effortless. In a past life, before I came to faith, I was married to someone who told me, "I shouldn't have to work at it. It should just work." Guess what? It didn't work.
In The 5 Love Languages, the author goes on to quote the work of another psychiatrist named M. Scott Peck, who concludes that the falling in love experience is not "real love" for the following reasons:
First, falling in love is not an act of the will or a conscious choice. No matter how much we may want to fall in love, we cannot make it happen. On the other hand, we may not be seeking the experience when it overtakes us. Often, we fall in love at inopportune times and with unlikely people.
Second, falling in love is not real love because it is effortless. Whatever we do in the in-love state requires little discipline or conscious effort on our part. The long, expensive phone calls we make to each other, the money we spend traveling to see each other, the gifts we give, the work projects we do are as nothing to us… so the instinctual nature of the in-love experience pushes us to do outlandish and unnatural things for each other.
Third, one who is ‘in love’ is not genuinely interested in fostering the personal growth of the other person. ‘If we have any purpose in mind when we fall in love it is to terminate our own loneliness and perhaps ensure this result through marriage.’ The in-love experience does not focus on our own growth or on the growth and development of the other person. Rather, it gives us the sense that we have arrived and that we do not need further growth. We are at the apex of life’s happiness, and our only desire is to stay there. Certainly our beloved does not need to grow, because she is perfect. We simply hope she will remain perfect."
Some folks make it into their third or fourth marriage believing this time, it's different. But since we all experience the same darn thing, often with more than one person, it is a far less than unique phenomenon, this in-love thing we go through. The honeymoon does not last forever. The new-car smell wears off. There comes a time in every romantic relationship when we come to a fork in the road and we go one of two directions: either we move from feeling love to doing love, or we fall out of love and can’t understand what happened. We can keep looking for a new love to be different, or we can start loving for real.
Research seems to indicate that… we can recognize the in-love experience for what it was—a temporary emotional high—and now pursue ‘real love’ with our spouse. That kind of love is emotional in nature but not obsessional. It is a love that unites reason and emotion. It involves an act of the will and requires discipline, and it recognizes the need for personal growth. Our most basic need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving. That kind of love requires effort and discipline. It is the choice to expend energy in an effort to benefit the other person, knowing that if his or her life is enriched by your effort, you too will find a sense of satisfaction—the satisfaction of having genuinely loved another. It does not require the euphoria of the ‘in love’ experience. In fact, true love cannot begin until the ‘in love’ experience has run its course." (The 5 Love Languages)
This is why so many of us struggle so much with this biblical concept of loving our neighbors. We go out of our way and bend over backward to show love for the people we want to love, but what about the rest of them? We know that the Greatest Commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors, but we look around at our neighbors and think, God, I don’t even like these people. How can You expect me to love them?
That’s because we think of love as a feeling, and we can’t wrap our heads around the idea of feeling love for people we don't feel like loving. We've been programmed with a self-gratifying view of love as something we're owed--a noun we receive. But when we look at Scripture, we find time after time that love is something we give, and that love is an action. Love “requires effort and discipline.”
As Christians, our relationships change. Love is something we share with God the Father and God the Son. Love flows into us from the Spirit and through us among our brothers and sisters in Christ. Love is something we pour into our body of believers, and it is something we bring to a fallen world full of other people who don’t feel the same way we do. In fact, sometimes, the greatest love we can share is the love we give when we don’t feel like it.
Next >>> It's All in the Family: Love is an Action, Not a Feeling (Part Two)