Love: feeling or choice?

24 Mar

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:

Philippians 1:9–11

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.


Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Pastoral, Theology


3 responses to “Love: feeling or choice?

  1. Steve Thomas

    March 24, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    Your analysis is spot on, even if it is the minority viewpoint. Years ago I usually defined love in terms of “an act of the will,” reacting to those who insisted on following their emotions. It is still important to stress the connection between genuine love and the choices we make (as you have done), but I became convinced that it is a mistake to reduce love to a volitional concept. It is also a mistake to separate it from an enlightened intellect, but that does not mean love is simply a cerebral matter. My commitment to biblical exposition drove me to redefine love in terms of Christian affections. The Scriptures employ “love” terminology in passages that will not allow us to do otherwise. For example, Paul described the goal of his work for the Laodicean believers as a desire that “their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love” (Col 2:2). Neither volition nor cognition can adequately or accurately unpack the author’s intended meaning of “love” in that verse. This is especially obvious once we find the larger context filled with emotional expressions (rejoicing, struggling, striving). Or consider the antitheses that we find scattered throughout the NT: love vs. hate (1 Jn 4:20), love vs. fear (1 Jn 4:18)–undeniably passionate ideas. Finally, imposing a volitional definition of love on many texts creates an interpretation that borders on the absurd. You referred to Eph 5 in your post; consider verse 28: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Most of us have heard sermons that seem to imply that Paul’ axiom simply means that men always feed and clothe themselves. Such sermons conjure up mental images of men dispassionately performing routine maintenance on their bodies. Surely that is a washed out, colorless image that does not do justice to Paul’s point.

  2. Ryan Martin

    March 25, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    My understanding of Edwards is that he distinguished understanding from the will. The understanding is to behold, to see with the mind–the reason. The will is the inclination toward or aversion to what is beheld in the mind. By connecting love (and affections) with the will, he is placing it in the mechanism of what chooses, the will. Now there are bare acts of choosing, wherein we decide to order Chicken Fries instead of a Whopper. But even there, though the affections barely “move the dial,” the will is still involved, and, by extension, is connected to love, albeit to a much less degree. So while I have no problem connecting love to a choice (I certainly choose to love; choice is involved), it is really not fair to use a lesser exercise of the will to render a verdict of whether the will is involved. Perhaps this is outside your scope, but I thought I’d weigh in. Even so, your point that most people fail to distinguish between higher and lower inclinations is correct, and that does lend itself to confusion. Certainly, love is a strong exercise of the will (and it is NOT a strong exercise of the appetites or passions per se).

    Love is, as Pastor Thomas so aptly points out, both cognition and volition, but so is willing. You cannot love what you do not behold (speaking of metaphorical beholding). You cannot love if you are not inclined or willing that thing.

    So the question whether love is a feeling or a choice is confusing at best. It uses confusing, ill-defined categories to create a false choice. If love were irrational (i.e., mere feeling), it would not be love, for the object loved is not properly understood in order for love to answer the beholding. If love were an indifferent volition (i.e., mere choice), then it would not properly be a strong enough exercise of the will to warrant the connotation of love.

    I am probably misreading you at some point. I admittedly only skimmed you. :)

  3. L. Mark Bruffey

    March 26, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    As far as I can tell (and I’ll stand corrected), America is the birthplace of the tri-partite psychology. That notion makes it easy to divest both intellect and “emotion” of any moral content; for neither lie under direct control of the will. Only acts of will (i.e., willing) register on the moral scale. Hence, according to our good friend Finney, love is benevolence (good willing) in the most strict sense of the term. Therefore, “love is not a feeling.” In fairness to Finney, he does insist that right feeling is a sine qua non; it always follows upon right willing—else something is wrong within. Nevertheless, as I have come to believe, he has placed the cart before the horse! But all this is necessary of course, for one who believed that regeneration, being one’s first act of obedience, is purely a matter of the operation of the will. You are fighting (as you well know, of course!) a long history of philosophical aberration in America, Michael. Good luck. Mark

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