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? The word love is used for everything from clothes, to music, to foods, pets, and on and on. In all of this "love" we've actually lost the true sense of what love actually is. What is needed is for our culture to have a proper 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 only provide pedestrian examples of love for us; mere emotional effects that love has on us. What, then, is a divine love? 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, each with its own unique characteristics.

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 points in a Biblical, or divine, 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 been the result of a self-centered "love". That is, a love seeking emotional benefits purely for the self, without regard for the "other". While emotional satisfaction is certainly an effect of Biblical love, it is only experienced in its purest form to the extent that our disposition and motivation are rightly focused on the "other", or the beloved. 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. Ethical love need not be expressed through emotion, but through moral duty. In other words, it is my moral duty to protect a defenseless child against a violent attacker. I need not have emotional involvement to act on my ethical duty. This is not to suggest, as I have noted, that emotions play no part. They certainly do. I might indeed feel  the emotions of righteous anger, and even a protective, selfless love (agape) in fulfilling my moral duty. Again, emotion need not be present for it to be love. One can be emotional, and yet not really loving at all, since actions without the proper disposition and motivation may have the appearance of love, but be defective, masking a selfishness.

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