By Brett Berger
Faculty, College of Theology
Four weeks and two Theology Thursdays ago, Jason Hiles wrote a post on Jesus’ call to love our enemies. In it, he described the costly and almost incomprehensible implications of loving as Jesus has commanded.
Love is a word that rolls easy off the tongue. Very few object to it as an idea or even as a command to follow. In fact, even the secular spheres of our culture repeat with exhortations to love. (As I write, I am sitting in an eatery called Waffle Love with a painting on the wall that reads, “All you need is love.”)
Though “love” is oft repeated, I find very few take the time to consider what it is. It seems like a question too simple to ask. However, simple questions like this often expose just how incomplete our understanding is.
We have vague notions of love. We say everyone ought to love, but what does that mean? We put it in the category of “you know it when you see it,” but can we be certain? As Christians, do we know or do we assume we love as the Bible calls? Can we be clear whether all that our world associates with love is in fact love?
In a very basic sense, love is associated with sexual attraction or romance. We all have heard something like, “One should be able to love whomever he or she wants,” in the context of marriage equality matters.
On the other hand, it is common for us to use love in a sense equal to acceptance. In other words, to love someone is to accept them. To accept them is to validate them as is, without judgment of either beliefs or behaviors. Most of what we encounter when it comes to defining love does not go beyond these two ideas, except for when we use it for matters of affection like “I love breakfast burritos” or “I love football.”
It is no wonder why so few comprehend the biblical notion of love because these concepts do not capture what the Bible means when it commands us “to love our neighbor as ourselves” or “to love our enemies.” Attraction, acceptance or affection could be a piece of it, perhaps, but it cannot bear the weight of the whole definition.
I want to propose that only one definition really can bear that weight and makes sense of the biblical commandment to love. That is the commitment to one’s good.
The clue may be in the comparative phrase “as ourselves” because the way that we love ourselves is to seek our good. Every decision that we make naturally has our interest or our happiness in mind. We may be mistaken about what is good or will make us happy, but we cannot help but pursue it for ourselves. The command to love our neighbors as ourselves is, therefore, to do the same for others. Our commitment is not merely to our good but for the good of others.
Why is it important for us to be clear in our understanding of love? The command to love does not answer the question of what we should do! Love, as the commitment to others’ good, means that we must pursue what is good for them – not just what they want, not what we want, not what is convenient, not what is the least painful nor what is most pleasant.
The most foundational good for everyone is to be reconciled to God, to know Him and to have our lives conformed to his designs and purposes. Therefore, love cannot accept beliefs or deeds that estrange them from this good. Love must be committed to truth. Love must be committed to justice. Love must be committed to reconciliation. Love will frequently mean that we have to do things that are uncomfortable and costly. It will mean setting aside what is expedient and practical.
The commitment to one’s good compels us to love when we do not have natural affection. In short, we are to love as God loves us and as we love ourselves. This calls us beyond mere attraction, acceptance or affection. It calls us to a commitment to consider every day what is good for our neighbors and even our enemies, and then the hard part – to want it and to pursue it. I guess this leaves us with two more questions:
“Who is my neighbor?”
“What is good?”
We’ll leave those for another Theology Thursday!
Grace and Peace,
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