“Love is a decision, not a feeling.” You’ve heard this before. I’ve preached it before. Feelings are great, but they’re fickle, and what do you do when you’re not “feeling it”? In order to love his neighbor (who was also his enemy), the Good Samaritan in the parable didn’t have to feel anything for this man left for dead on the side of the highway.
And all that seems true enough, and yet… there’s an often unseen danger in this idea, as Dr. William Lane Craig describes in this podcast of Reasonable Faith. He’s describing an insightful and provocative sermon he recently heard:
It is very often said that when we are commanded to love others—even love our enemy—that this is a decision. It is not some sort of emotional feeling. Thoennes was disagreeing with that, which has become I think sort of the conventional wisdom. He said this can lead to the attitude, “Well, I have to love you but I don’t have to like you.” So, you can regard other people in such a way that you don’t really have any affection or feeling for them, but you treat them in a loving way…
We make a decision to act in a loving way toward them whether we have those feelings or not. And he recognized that. But he said if you think that that is all that love is—that that is the end goal of love—then he says you have fallen short. He says a full and mature love will involve a genuine affection for the other person. This is a reflection of the way that God loves us.
He said that he’s afraid that many people may think of God’s love for them as a love that is without affection. They think, “Well, God loves me but he doesn’t really like me.” When you think of what that would do in your relationship to God, I think you can imagine how debilitating that would be if you think that God really doesn’t like you as a person. But he sort of tolerates you and loves you because he has to. It is almost as though if love were not an essential property of God, if he were freed from the necessity of loving you, then he really wouldn’t love you if he didn’t have to.
What do you think?
In last night’s sermon—which I was definitely preaching to myself, too—I said that whatever else we’re “giving up” during Lent, let’s also give up guilt. Whether or not this is easy to do—and I confess that it’s often difficult for me—depends to a large extent on the picture of God and his love that we hold in our minds.
I think we reduce God down to human size if we imagine that while God loves us, he does so without affection or enthusiasm—he has to love us, after all; he’s God. (Or worse, we imagine that were it not for what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross, God would just as soon send us to hell.)
This can’t be right. While I may not always be able to love others while feeling anything for them (although love comes much easier when I do), and my love may look at times like mere tolerance, do I have to state the painfully obvious? I’m not God. My love, even at its best, will fall far short of God’s love.
Besides, I totally understand that Will Rogers aphorism: “I never met a man I didn’t like.” While that’s not literally true for me, don’t most of us tend to like people in whom we invest ourselves emotionally? No one can possibly be more emotionally invested in us than God.
Also, how do we ascribe to God an unfeeling kind of love when Jesus gives us three parables about God’s love in Luke 15 that plainly contradict this idea?
I’ve heard sermons in which I’m told that the Bible’s teaching (and Jesus’ command) to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves” isn’t a command to love both neighbor and ourselves—that we naturally love ourselves by feeding and clothing and merely keeping ourselves alive. (Notice again that we’re emphasizing love as action only.) But this preaching seems inadequate: I don’t know that I do love myself very well, even though I do plenty of things to take care of myself.
I need to remind myself of something Donald Miller describes in his best-selling memoir Blue Like Jazz. It happened when he was cleaning his toilet. An internal voice was telling him (as it had for years) what a loser he was, that he was as disgusting as the bathroom he was cleaning.
As he was listening to that voice, however, a Bible verse popped into his head. It was a powerful sensation: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He didn’t know what it meant at first. Then he realized it was God telling him that he would never talk to his neighbor the way he talked to himself—because the way he talked to himself wasn’t loving. “[S]omehow I had come to believe it was wrong to kick other people around but it was okay to do it to myself.”[†]
If, like me, you have a voice telling you what a loser you are, please don’t mistake it for God’s voice.
† Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 229-231.