Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Ethics of Love, Part One

Love is perhaps one of the most abused words in the English vocabulary. People often use it in ways that really do not speak to the realities of love. For example, we see such comments as, "I love ice cream". While there is no doubt that ice cream is delicious to many, can one really love ice cream? What is needed is a working definition of love. The dictionary offers the following definitions:

1. an intense feeling of deep affection.
"babies fill parents with intense feelings of love"

2. feel a deep romantic or sexual attachment to (someone).
"do you love me?"

While these definitions are certainly true, they do not reflect the Biblical definition of real love. These definitions do not actually define love for us, but merely describe some of the emotional effects that love has on us. Clement of Alexandria wrote, "One gains immortality by the very exercise of loving the Father to the extent of one's might and power. For the more one loves God, the more he enters within God (reflects God's character). In both of the commandments (Matthew 22:36-40), then, He introduces love."

Lactantius writes, "What else is the preservation of humanity than to love a man because he is a man and the same as ourselves?"

We can offer a Biblical definition of love as follows:

1. To love God is to self-sacrificially commit oneself to delight in Him, to rejoice in serving Him, to desire continually to please Him, to seek our happiness in Him, and to thirst day and night for a fuller enjoyment of Him and Him alone.

2. To love our neighbor as ourselves is to self sacrificially commit oneself to seek my, neighbor's highest good, even as Christ sought our highest good.

These definitions are more to the heart of what love is as they speak to the ethics of love rather than just the emotional effects of love. What emerges from these definitions are three central aspects of love.

1. Emotions- Joy, Delight, Happiness, Thirst, Enjoyment

2. Disposition- Commitment, Self Sacrifice

3. Motivation- Desire, Highest Good

As we can see, emotional states are only one of three central points in a Biblical definition of love. Therefore we can say that our own emotional satisfaction should not be the primary motivation for love, though it is an effect of love. Marriage therapists have repeatedly shared stories of failed relationships and wrecked families that have emerged from a self-centered "love". That is, a love seeking emotional benefits purely for the self. While emotional states are certainly an effect of Biblical love they are only experienced in  their purest form to the extent that our disposition and motivation are rightly focused. Robertson McQuilkin encapsulates love, in his book "An Introduction to Biblical Ethics", this way: 

"An affectionate disposition that motivates the lover to consistently act for the welfare of another, whether or not the other deserves it or reciprocates." (pg. 10)

He also notes that, "The choice to act lovingly, not the intensity of feeling, is the test and ultimate proof of love." (pg.7, ibid.)

This cuts to the heart of an ethical love as opposed to a purely emotional love. This is not to suggest, as I have noted, that emotions play no part. They certainly do. Just as love without the proper disposition and motivation is defective, love without emotion can be authentic, but not complete. Its expression will be there, but missing the components of joy, delight, happiness, thirst, and enjoyment. It becomes an impersonal "love", and does nothing to benefit the soul- that is, on the level of the internal. We will examine the externals of love and proper objects of love in the next installment of this short study.

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