Is our cultural understanding of love messing up our families? I wonder if our wrong understanding of love could be eroding our culture. How could that happen? Well, if we people of faith misunderstand God’s definition of love then we might offer less than God’s love to the world and thereby fail to offer the light, leaven, witness and glue our society needs.
Love is the central characteristic of the Christian faith. Jesus’ New Commandment is to love each other. The Greatest Commandment is to love God and the Second Command is to love our neighbors. Jesus’ call to love goes beyond any other religious movement, even calling us to love our enemies. So it is a given that we are to love our families. Do we know what Jesus is talking about when he tells us to Love?
We might begin by asking: “How does our culture define love?” What do we mean when we say “we love”? We say we love chocolate. We love red wine. We love the Vols. We love video games. We love America, grandma, God and puppies? What does our culture mean by love?
Our culture defines love as affection, passion, pleasure, warmth, or good feelings. Here are definitions from Encarta.
- to feel tender affection for
- to feel desire for
- to like something very much
- passionate attraction and desire
- something or someone eliciting enthusiasm
Our culture defines love as emotional pleasure or attraction. You can hear it in our language. We say things like: “I do not feel like I love you,” “I feel like you do not love me,” “I would love to have some coffee,” “Do you feel the love?” We speak of “love at first sight,” when what we mean is attraction at first sight! To stay attracted for 27 years you will need more than looks! I am fairly certain my looks are worse for the wear after our 27 years.
Think for a second, what does it mean to say “God is love” with our cultural lens? Do we mean “God is a feeling of tender affection” or “God is a very likable” or “God is a pleasant sensation”? We have propagated a theology of God as a pal. A sweet friendship with Jesus does not demand our allegiance. God as a good feeling forgets that God is Almighty, Sovereign, Above Us, Our Lord, Our Savior, Our Master, Our Judge, Our Guide, Our Standard or even Our Example! To stand with all our deeds lying bare before Almighty God scares me. Have we cast for ourselves an image of God as Pleasant Experience and lost sight of a Holy God?
“God as a Pleasant Experience” fits into our pleasure seeking culture. We love our “loves.” We love to feel good. Friends, I fear we might be bowing down to a Hedonistic god of pleasure. We hold a philosophy of pleasure not principals. We love emotions not ethics. We are hooked on feelings not faithfulness. Even church folks see experiencing pleasure as a pretty huge priority. We consume worship expecting to take something away, instead of offering ourselves to a Holy God. We attended based on our feelings. Our obedience follows our emotions more than our ethics. Now feelings matter: the Bible validates our human feelings but feelings vary wildly form experience to experience. Feelings do not provide steady rudders to guide our lives. When we decided based on our feelings, we have made feeling the center of our living and thus our God.
If we use our cultural understanding of love as “tender affection” then Jesus’ toughest teachings make little sense. If we understand “love your enemies” to mean “feel tender affection for your enemies” we find ourselves in an impossible emotional conundrum. If we understand neighborly love as feeling tender affection for our neighbor who blows his leaves into our yard every fall then we will grow frustrated and may even grow detached from our emotional responses as we seek to force every raw feeling into a smiling plastic Christianized mask. If we see Christian love as good feelings then we may think our mission is to move through life with a concrete smile. This sort of “bless your heart” faith is perhaps not real. The Gospels show Jesus both angry and weeping.
Well, we know our cultural understanding of love as tender affection or desire for. But, do we know how Jesus defines love?
Love (AGAPE a verb and noun) is “the characteristic word of Christianity” so begins the lengthy entry for Agape found in the Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words . Agape was a new word the NT lifted up. There was so little use of the word Agape before the LXX (the Greek Transition of the OT) that some early scholars believed that the LXX translators invented the word “agape.” We now know they did not. However, the translators chose a word with little cultural usage or baggage. Looking at the Greek word for Love, Eros, translators wanted a word for God’s love fundamentally different from the world’s cultural understanding of love. When the Bible translators looked at the Greek definitions of Love, they said these words simply do not work. The prophets and Biblical writers conceive of love in an entirely different understanding than ancient Greek culture. The Greek word for love was “eros,” from which we get the word erotic. Eros means full of passion, good feelings, romance, aroused feelings, or emotional pleasure. In fact, Eros is pretty much the word we use when we say today “I love donuts.” It is a consumer word about taking the things we desire. Indeed, the Hellenistic Bible translators saw “eros” as a rival word in opposition to “agape.” Perhaps we are in the same situation today and need a different word for love than the one appropriated by our modern American culture.
Agape Love expressed “ideas previously unknown” in other Ancient Near East writing or in the Greek. Biblical “Agape” love offered a whole new construct. This cultural separation becomes even more pronounced when you move to the teaching s of Jesus. Kittle writes in regards to love: “Jesus alone broke free from the old foundations and ventured into radically new structure.” “For Jesus, love is a matter of the will and action. He demands a decision and a readiness for God and for God alone.… Jesus frees neighborly love once and for all from its restriction to compatriots. Jesus concentrates love on the helpless person whom we meet on our way”
Martin Luther King said “I am very happy that Jesus did not say ‘like your enemies,’ because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like (tender affection) is sentimental: an affectionate emotion. I can’t like anyone who would bomb my home, who makes my first name boy and my last name… who exploits me… tramples over me… threatens to kill me. But Jesus reminds us love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill towards all people.” (Love, Law and Civil Disobedience & A Christmas Sermon for Peace).
In the Bible love is not an impulse but an act of our will.
The Bible defines love not as affections but as actions.
Christian teaching sees love not as intoxication but as integrity.
Jesus spoke of love not as emotion but ethics.
Christ-like love is not feeling good but doing good.
Love is offering goodwill not feeling good.
Christian Love is not rooted in our passion but in our principles.
Ethics not emotions drive Christian love.
Who really loves a baby? Is it that neighbor at the supermarket who coos at a baby sitting in their child seat giggling and laughing? Is that love? Will that same neighbor look the other way, when the same little tot is throwing a royal fit? Will they offer a judging scowl when the same child leaves a Cheerios trail down the produce isle? If you want to know who loves that baby, look for the one changing diapers at 3am! Who wants to change a diaper? There is nothing pleasant or desirous about that! Who wants to hold the child when she has the flu? You love a child when you long to hold them against the better interest of your health. Every halfway kind person holds tender affection for a well behaved cutie pie that requires no personal sacrifice! Love is action oriented. Love feeds a child, changes a diaper, stays all night and cleans up the bathroom. What we do proves love!
You can hear how love is action oriented in Luke 6:27, a very tough biblical passage. Let’s walk through this especially demanding passage.
“Listen, love your enemies.” What does “love” mean? Well, look to the context of the passage.
“Love your enemies, do good…” What command follows the command to love? Do good! Jesus clarifies love with an action: do good! What does it mean to love? Love means to do good! “Love-doing- good” is not rooted in feelings. You can “love -do-good” when you are angry, hurt, or disappointed. You can do good even when you do not feel good about an enemy. The idea that we hold tender affection for enemies is almost crazy. Jesus does not say hold tender affection for your enemies, but treat them ethically. Treat your enemies in keeping with the golden rule. Do not let opposition change your commitment to doing the right thing. Do good!
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…” How do you respond to your teenager yelling “I hate you”? Well do not be changed too much by it. Love is not about tender affection but ethical action. Love is not blackmailed or derailed by emotions. When you understand that love is doing the right thing, then you can still love even when people hate. Friends, do-gooders are the ones who love. Believing or feeling the right things is nice but not the same as doing the right thing. There is a deep power in this resistance of passion and trusting in principal. Jesus offers no call to feel a certain way, or put on a plastic smile but to act in accordance with righteousness. Do the right thing.
“Bless those who curse you…” The loving response stays rooted in blessings. Feelings fly all over the place. If your sense of loving is wrapped up in feeling affection then you might not feel the power to love when cursed. You may fail to love because you do not feel it! When cursed our cultural tender affection love may say “I don’t feel like making peace, being patient, offering kindness, being gentle, being generous, staying faithful, or living with self-control.” But friends those are the fruits of God’s spiritual love. Agape Love offers a blessing not an emotional response. Agape is not moved off center by cursing or insults or opposition it says “I will do the right thing, even when I do not feel like it.” Doctor King told the Freedom Riders, who simply wanted to sit at a lunch counter, to remain the Christians they were. They were not to respond in kind to the people spitting, cursing, pouring water on their heads as they sat in non-violent protest.
“Pray for those who mistreat you.” Love offers the action of prayer for the one who mistreats. Nowhere does Jesus say hold tender affection for your tormentor. Praying for the oppressor changes you. Praying for your enemies will change you.
“If anyone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Jesus is not calling us to take a beating, but to absorb an ancient insult. There is this strange empowerment here. You choose to be vulnerable, you are not so much a victim but taking the road of non-violent resistance. Doctor King called it “soul-force.”
“Anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt.” Most Bible scholars believe this has to do with our Third Amendment to our Constitution and the quartering of troops without the consent of the owner. Roman troops could force you to share a coat or carry their pack a mile. Jesus says carry it two miles. There is a power in that. It holds a radical resistance to say here is my shirt as well. The dynamics of power are shifted away from the oppressor.
“Give to everyone who begs (alms food) from you…”
“If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them back.” To we who worship our things more than God this may seem like crazy talk. However, Jesus reminds us that it is just stuff. How many families have been wrecked by who gets grandpa’s ‘52 convertible or the jewels that sat in a box in Mom’s dresser, unworn for years? Again, Jesus offers a non-emotional response. The action is to just let it go.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” The Golden Rule defines love. Love is perhaps simply “Doing to others as you would have them do for you.” Agape love might be as simple as that, to “do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Imagine you are at home snuggled up with your sweetie pie watching an action packed thrill ride of deep thoughtful emotionally loaded love story. Everybody is happy. Everyone is experiencing tender affection, when the chestnuts junior decided to roast over an open fire pop out and strike the sleeping dog. The startled dog runs head long into the heirloom grandfather clock which falls onto the wine rack filled with merlots which run crimson across the Persian rug. Friends, now we have a moment where love can be shown. Before the pop all we had was pleasant experience. Now with the living room in tatters there is a chance to love. Imagine your spouse, mate or friend sits on the couch talking about how great it was to snuggle. Well that will offer you the chance to show even more love. You might toss them a towel as say “hey snuggle puppy, can you please help me!” Friends, those who lean into cleaning up the world’s mess are ones who love! Young people you can know love not through attraction but by your date’s actions.
Years ago at church camp, the children were lined up to go into the musical practice they had just left. They were wildly poking, joking, slipping out of line and generally sounding like a hurricane. All of a sudden our music director screamed over the noisy children, “ I am telling you this because I love you!” My best friend and fellow junior counselor whispered, ”that doesn’t sound so loving.” Immediately, she glared at us! We got so tickled doubled over laughing “I am yelling at you because I love you.”
If you love me, treat me in the same way you want to be treated.
Luke 6 continues. We will dig into it next week.
Expect nothing in return.
Be children of the Most High; God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.
Be merciful. Do not judge. Do not condemn. Forgive.
Jesus helps us understand love in Luke 10. Simply listen for who is offering love!
“25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (This is a question of salvation) 26Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27The lawyer answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.’ 28And Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ (Notice, Jesus says nothing about believing the right things here. Jesus speaks of love and we will see that love is defined by actions not ones feelings.)
29 But wanting to justify himself, the religious lawyer asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ (Now the lawyer’s question “who is my neighbor” is really the question “who all am I supposed to love?” Who must I offer love to? Jesus not only clarifies who are our neighbors but what love does. The Good Samaritan defines love!)
30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 He went to the victim and bandaged his wounds. Then the Good Samaritan put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three do you think was a neighbor (loved his neighbor as himself) to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? 37The lawyer said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ ”
I imagine that neither the priest nor the Levite felt like helping the man in need. They both believed the right things. Their beliefs did nothing. Perhaps they said “I do not have a good feeling about this! I don’t feel good about getting over where the robbers might still linger.” I doubt the Samaritan had a good feeling about the dangerous scene before him. Did our Samaritan feel tender affection for the bloody half dead stranger before him? Did the Samaritan enjoy unloading his donkey and carrying the displaced gear on his back? Did Good Sam feel good staying up all night caring for the injured man? Did our Samaritan hero delight at giving five hundred dollars to pay a stranger’s medical bill? Did our hero stick around waiting to be thanked? No Good Old Sam does the right thing and moves on down the road. Kittle says Love “does not imply emotional extravagance … What is demanded is the most unsentimental imaginable readiness to help.” Show mercy. This story is not about passions but principles. Love is not rooted in emotions but ethics. Jesus does not command us to “feel good” but to “do good.”
Love is not an impulse but an act of our will.
Love is not affection but action.
Love is not intoxication but integrity.
Love is not emotions but ethics.
Love is not found in our passions but our principles.
Love is not feeling good but doing good.
Love! Do good. Show mercy. Tend to the sick. Treat the wounded. Give a ride. Stay up all night. Comfort the hurting. Pay someone else’s bill. Expect nothing in return. Give to the poor. Do not worry over those who failed to help. Welcome the stranger. Check on them. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Wash wounds. Wash feet. Change a diaper. Clean up a mess. Make peace. Don’t condemn. Don’t judge. Be merciful. Forgive. Give. Walk the extra mile. Absorb an insult. Bless when cursed. Let it go. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love! And then in your doing you will discover you have become Children of Your Heavenly Father. Amen!
Paul, thank you for this ministry. I look forward to reading each week. Our intent is to love most of the time but these words helped me to clarify what I should do about it. Tell your Mom hello and rest of family too.