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the danger in undefined love

Readers of this blog will remember my friend Emily Timbol, who wrote a wonderful post for us earlier this year.  Emily is a passionate author who always has sharp, incisive things to say, someone who consistently communicates her message in an empathetic, pleasant-to-read way.  I’m excited for her to share some thoughts here on a subject we all could stand to think more about.

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I recently participated in a rather lively Facebook discussion on this NY Times video, titled “An Imperfect Beginning.” In it you meet a couple, Vince and Rebekah, who talk about how their “love” has overcome baggage and obstacles – mainly the obstacle of Vince’s wife, who he left to be with Rebekah. In the video Rebekah says, “Love is one of those things where it doesn’t always happen the way you think it’s going to happen.”

Sure, she has a point there. But “love” is not something that leads you to break up another person’s marriage. Lust, selfishness, fear, or infatuation, maybe. But love? No. Love is not merely a feeling, a “spark” that draws us to another person. That is attraction, and sex. If you truly loved someone and they were married to another person, you’d leave them alone. Love is not about what you want – it’s about putting another person’s needs and wants above your own, and caring about them more than you care about yourself. Just because you badly want to be with someone doesn’t mean it’s love that drives you to break up their marriage and leave their three kids in a fractured home. Love doesn’t do that. Selfishness and lust does. Love would be walking away. Or, at the very least, waiting and seeing if that person is truly unhappy, unloved, or miserable enough on their own to end a marriage, without you being a catalyst for its dissolution.

I don’t really blame Rebekah and Vince though, for thinking that what brought them together was “love.” We, as a society, have a truly warped idea of what love really is. We often confuse it with the heady emotions that go with a new relationship, or the magnetic pull that causes us to want to spend every waking moment with another person who seems impossibly perfect (or at least perfect for us.) But while those feelings and emotions can certainly lead us into love, they are not what love is in itself.

What separates love from like, or lust, is not just a commitment, but a removal of self. When you like someone it can be because of how they make you feel, and when you lust after someone, well, that’s all about feelings. But when you love someone – truly love them – you care more about them than yourself and your feelings. You choose to do things that might be better for them than yourself, because you care about their well-being more than or as much as your own. Loving someone means being committed to another person’s wants, needs, and emotions, often times at the sacrifice of your own. People rarely want or need the same thing at the same time.

The only way love really works then, is when two people in a relationship are both doing this, for each other. When a marriage or relationship is healthy, it’s not just a sacrificial commitment devoid of feelings or emotions, but one that is filled with the feelings that go with love, because the love has created the kind of foundation required to allow those feelings to grow. To use a Biblical example, it’s like the parable of the seeds. If you don’t have the rich soil of mutual commitment and selflessness for love to grow, than any emotional seeds of attraction, friendship, or “love” will be choked out and eventually die.

It’s not just romantic love though, that people tend to get confused about. Especially when the people we’re talking about are Christians (of which I am one.) One of the concepts I see most abused and misused in the church today is the one of “love.” Specifically, “loving your neighbors” or “loving your enemies.”

the food of love

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a Christian say that they are doing something because it’s “the most loving thing to do.” However, as I’ve often been the one either on the receiving end of that “love”, or supporting the person who it was directed to, I can say that love is usually the last thing being felt. Rejection, shame, anger, and pain are the result instead. But the person doling out this “love” truly believes in their heart that they care for the person, and feels no malice towards them.

Which raises the question – if the person on the other end of your “love” feels hated, is what you’re doing truly loving?

As Christians, it’s not hard for us to find a Biblical definition of love. It’s right there in 1 Corinthians 13, spelled out for us in easy-to-understand terms. But it can be hard to look at instructions on being patient, kind, and keeping no record of wrongs, and applying that to how you should treat someone to whom you’re trying to give “tough” love.

That’s the main problem Christians face when we conflate love – agape love, with our own feelings – we center more on our feelings about what is best for this person, than about what this person needs from us. Even if you insist that it’s not your personal feelings you’re operating from, but what the Bible says, if you’re making someone recoil in hurt and shame, you’re not loving as Jesus taught us to love.

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Emily Timbol is a blogger and author who writes faith, life and humor related essays. Her work can be found on theHuffington PostThe Burnside Writers CollectiveRed Letter Christians, Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics, and RELEVANT magazine online. Her first book, Two Words: Why Hearing “I’m Gay” Changed My Straight, Christian Life is available now on Kindle, and paperback. You can find links to all her published works on her blog and on her Twitter, @EmilyTimbol.

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