Against my better judgment and normal practice, I involved myself in a Facebook theology discussion last night. Because I maintain a view that, for those participating in that discussion thread, is more than a bit outside the norm, I felt it worthwhile to offer a clarification and expanded defense of my position.
The debate question was of the basic nature of love: is it a feeling or a choice? I offered a briefly sketched defense of the view that love is a feeling. As expected, my position was a distinct minority in that thread, but as my theological convictions aren’t formed by counting Facebook affirmations, I remain undaunted.
Let me begin here by commending what I take to be the core concern of those who define love as a choice. Characteristic of our time and place is a lack of loyalty to anything outside a decidedly rosy image of self. This is a narcissistic astigmatism, a self-love that sees no real faults in the hero of our autobiographical epic. People thus afflicted value other people only inasmuch as they reinforce their narcissism. Unsurprisingly, then, relationships ride surges of passions.
Those who insist that love is a choice rightly understand that love grounded in this way is no love at all. There is no constancy here; commitment exists only insofar as the one loved affirms the lover. That is to say, then, that commitment doesn’t exist at all. And if commitment doesn’t exist, biblical love doesn’t exist there, either.
This, I say, is an admirable critique of a certain kind of distorted feeling. However, the reduction of love to mere choice and pure volition is an unbiblical overreaction to a real problem. I say reduction here because there are many who will flatly say that love is a choice and not a feeling.
Let’s begin with a point of clarification: the word feeling, like the parallel term emotion, is far too broad to be useful here. Love, biblical love, is more properly an affection. The distinction is important, even in this discussion. First, let’s let Jonathan Edwards sketch the difference, and then we’ll apply it to our present topic:
The affections and passions are frequently spoken of as the same, and yet in the more common use of speech, there is in some respect a difference. Affection is a word that in the ordinary signification, seems to be something more extensive than passion, being used for all vigorous lively actings of the will or inclination, but passion for those that are more sudden, and whose effects on the animal spirits are more violent, and the mind more over powered, and less in its own command.
First, note that Edwards defines affections as “lively actings of the will.” Already, the distinction between love as a feeling and as a choice is blurred here, and rightly so. But even more that this, Edwards wishes to distinguish affections from passions; the latter are the kind of sudden and overwhelming feelings that overrun the mind. Because many people do not distinguish between affections and passions, lumping them together as emotions or feelings, and because living by passions is in fact decidedly unbiblical, the assumption is that feeling is itself suspect. This is a category mistake.
Why then did I take the side that love is a feeling? Because it was a discussion on Facebook, which as a medium is unserious and discourages nuance. Do you see how many paragraphs I’ve already written here? I skip Facebook comments that look like this, and so do you.
Let’s begin to cash this out. I was asked, “On that inevitable day when the feelings just ain’t a-coming with respect to your wife, will that mean you have stopped loving her?” We now have categories to clarify, first, what is meant by feelings in this question. If we’re talking about an absence of fluttery butterflies in the belly, something rightly identified as a passion, then I can certainly love my wife without those. In fact, mature love isn’t characterized by passions.
But if we frame this in terms of the affections, the question (I think) becomes more revealing: “So on the day in which you no longer cherish your wife, you do not value her, you do not wish her good, have you stopped loving her?” The only answer I can see to this question is “Yes, if that accurately describes my case, I could not be said to love her.” And what must I do if I were to reach such a deplorable situation? I must repent, because I have covenanted to have that affection for her; I have vowed to cherish her. The choice that I have made (and continue to make) isn’t the love, but it establishes the obligation to love. This is the point of Bonhoeffer’s aphorism, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”
To illustrate this further, allow me to bring it into the realm of sanctification. The first and greatest commandment is love for God. Is love for God merely volitional? If I obey God by rote choice, have I loved him?
I think we all recognize that, in our progress in sanctification, we have truly advanced only to the degree that our values have been re-inclined. Suppose I decide that I have been slacking in daily Bible reading, and purpose to rise each morning a half-hour earlier than usual to read the Word. When the alarm sounds, I grumble, but drag myself out of bed and read the Word. And it is better to have chosen to do so, even absent any positive inclinations, than to be unfaithful in this matter. But suppose my reaction to my time in the Word remains similarly bitter and loathsome to me for decades. We might admire the persistence involved in such a life, but there is something deeply amiss here. Such a person could never rightly affirm Psalm 119, what Kevin DeYoung calls a “love letter to Scripture.” Do we not see that the Psalmist here not only chooses the Word, but delights in the Word?
One more Scriptural appeal:
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Here is a prayer of Paul for the Philippian church. The climax of the prayer suggests its importance: if his prayer is answered, the Philippians will be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” It’s hard not to read this as a summary of the entire goal of the Christian life.
What might accomplish this goal? Paul’s prayer is that the Philippians would abound in discerning love, so that they give their approval to truly excellent things. Does it not seem evident that Paul’s prayer is for a certain inclination of heart, and not merely a set of choices?
Once again, I understand the suspicion attached to love as feeling, especially if we make no effort to distinguish kinds of feelings. But to advocate a definition of love that is absent feeling is to run counter to what it is that we must pursue.