I wrote this a few years ago. I would probably write something slightly different now. It is still a work-in-progress and I think there is room for improvement. I do not think it is as well expressed as it might be. However it is what I think and it is, I hope, helpful, interesting and insightful. I hope.
Well done to anyone who manages to read all of it!
Towards a Definition of Love
For some time I have trying to construct a working definition of love. An important question that was posed recently to me is why? – why bother? Surely how one acts is actually all that matters and any kind of definition is simply irrelevant. I almost agree with this. Academic argument and discussion that does not result in any real difference is clearly, well, academic. However, understanding is very important. We all talk about love and use the word so much, but to actually explain what it is, is more difficult. My aim with this essay is that to understand the nature and character of love, as to understand love is to become a more loving person.
Some would perhaps begin with the age-old question of whether love is a feeling or an action. I do not intent to do this because I believe the answer to that question is implicit. It seems to be clearly the case that love is both a feeling and an action, and that this does not require much discussion. One can feel love, and one can be loving when one does not feel like it. Often love is at its most powerful when we continue to love without feeling it. We feel love for someone and we show love by our actions. Love is both a feeling and an action. The importance of this is that any definition of love must encompass this duality.
1 Corinthians 13 contains a description of love, this is helpful but not actually a definition; Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. [NIV] If this description is true, then any valid definition of love must correspond with this description.
So what is love, this feeling and action that we all want and aspire to? This definition is about relationships and does not allow for concepts such as I love chips as I feel that is an entirely different use of the word.
My contention is that love is a balance of three aspects and that love must always be proactive in each of these. I will refer to these three aspects as acceptance, growth promotion and the desire for intimacy. I do not claim to have the answer to any great mysteries here, and do not think there is anything special about having three aspects, I simply believe that these three aspects, as I understand them, constitute a definition that works. The terminology is somewhat limited and I feel it is difficult to express these concepts. However I hope you will bear with me whilst I expand of these three and explain precisely how I understand love.
I do not like the term 'unconditional love.' I believe this is tautology, but that it is not constructive because it implies that there is such a thing as conditional love. The first aspect of love is unconditional acceptance. To not accept unconditionally is to not love. We must begin we acceptance; what each of us needs before all other things is to be accepted as we are. To be accepted with all our strengths and weaknesses. Love must therefore not be blind, as one cannot accept unless one knows what one is accepting. To see someone as faultless or perfect is not to love but to be stupid. Love sees and yet accepts the person. That is not to find all behaviours acceptable, as I will expand later, but to say that my love for the person is not dependent. It does not depend on what someone can do for me. However acceptance on its own is not love. Acceptance alone is indulgence.
This is the terminology that I have wrestled with most. I do not think that growth promotion really explains what I mean but is the best I have thus far manage to devise. Hopefully this section will explain all that I mean by this term. It must encompass a wanting of the very best for the object of one's love.
Perhaps to most difficult concept to express is the paradox between acceptance and growth promotion. Acceptance without growth promotion is indulgence; growth promotion without acceptance is judgmentalism and counterproductive. We humans are able to grow when we know we are accepted and have the opportunity to grow. Without that acceptance growth is retarded. It must be in that order; acceptance and then the encouragement to grow. It has been argued to me that growth promotion denies acceptance. I do not believe this because to wish someone to grow and to aid that growth is not to un-accept them, if one will love just as much if that despite the desire and promotion, growth does not occur. Put simply, love says 'I want you to grow and I will do all I can to help you to grow. But if not, I will still accept you as you are.' So what is growth? I believe that real love encourages and nurtures growth emotionally, spiritually, physically - in every way. Love wants the very best for the object of that love, and nothing less will do. That is why love can be helping a sick relative to wash and dress and love can be the extravagant gift that makes someone feel special and valuable and happy. Love can be the soldier diving on a grenade to save his comrades as that is the very best for them.
Desire for Intimacy
It is entirely deliberate that I suggest the third aspect of love is a desire for intimacy rather than intimacy itself. If love is, as I believe it must be, proactive in each aspect, then clearly wherever intimacy is possible, the desire for intimacy will result is intimacy consequentially. However I believe that love is still love when intimacy is not possible for some reason. Intimacy is a two-way-street. True intimacy is only possible as a result of mutual love, but when we love someone who does not return that love (such as a parent to a wayward teenager) the desire for intimacy remains. And is the cause of much pain. The desire for intimacy is why we miss people. True friends are those whom I talk to till 3 am with only breaks to refill the wine glasses. For in those times I share more than at any other, the real me with any true depth and meet with the real them.
Intimacy is a broad term. If we are talking about sexual love (eros) then the intimacy will be sexual, but if we are talking about parental love the intimacy will be the special bond that a parent and child share but that changes as we grow up. With friends it is another kind of intimacy again. I do not think that one kind of intimacy is better than another but they are clearly different.
Desire for intimacy without acceptance and promotion of growth is selfish and not love. It leads merely to manipulation or lust or to a lack of fulfilment and eventually a denial of this desire and cold-heartedness. True intimacy is only possible with acceptance and a desire for growth.
Implicitly love must be proactive in each of these aspects. Love is not lazy. Love says I accept this person and I want them to know they are accepted. Especially love deals with minor annoyances. Love decides that this person is more important to me than my being annoyed so that I will still accept them. Love decides that with true wrong, acceptance demands forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of the will which love demands.
Proactive growth promotion says I want the very best for this person, I will do whatever I can do to help that person grow. Love says I will do everything possible for the very best for this person. Hence the generosity of love.
And love desires intimacy and will move mountains to make it possible. The proactiveness of love inspires us to drive all night or to cross continents or to make long phone calls in order to be close to someone.
Clearly to have some vague concept of accepting someone because you do not really care what they are like, to wish them well but not do anything about it and do desire closeness and not strife to achieve this is not love.
Different kinds of Love: Love of self
It is generally assumed that people have no difficulty with loving themselves. I do not believe this is true. However that is a subject for another time. My definition of love does not, at first glance, easily fit with the concept of loving oneself. The need for unconditional acceptance is clearly relevant to love of oneself. I firmly believe this is where many people who struggle to love themselves have difficulty, because they find it very difficult to accept their failings and weaknesses. But acceptance is the first thing we all need, even from ourselves. If people feel unacceptable then they feel unlovable. The other extreme is people who totally accept themselves uncritically, without any desire to grow in anyway. Without any need to look for what is best for them.
The problem with applying this definition of love to love of oneself is, of course with the issue of intimacy. How can one be intimate with oneself. This may require some poetic license but I am not the first to suggest that being comfortable with oneself, for time spent alone and for self-awareness to be the equivalent of intimacy with another person. If one can accept this equivalence then this three-aspect definition does describe love of oneself.
Different Kinds of Love: Parental Love
Those displaying parental love are not always parents. There seems to me to be two main ways is which parental love goes wrong. Firstly parents can be totally accepting without promoting growth. These are the spoilt children who never really develop as the parent is always reinforcing that whatever they do is acceptable. To reiterate I contend that unconditional acceptance of a person does not require unconditional acceptance of their behaviour. Simply that one's love should not depend upon that person's actions.
The other extreme is the promotion of growth without acceptance; the pushy parent for whom nothing is ever good enough. Of course these children do not really grow and never feel good enough no matter what they do. With either of these extremes true intimacy is an early casualty.
What we all need as children and, for that matter as adults, is to be accepted, to have our growth aided and supported and to have a depth of intimacy with other human beings. That is love.
Different Kinds of Love: Love for God
Another difficulty is to explain love for God within this definition. Christians and people of other religions will contend that they love God, so any useful definition of love should encompass this.
There are two obvious problems; firstly acceptance and secondly growth promotion. How can God need our acceptance is he is God and perfect and how can we promote the growth of God.
Having already stated that acceptance is vital to the object of love, I need to add that in order to love acceptance is obviously vital. We cannot feel love and we cannot act lovingly if we do not accept someone. But why should acceptance of God be an issue if He is perfect and thus faultless. I do not consider this a major issue as experientially all find God difficult to accept. Not because God is not perfect, but because He is not what we would always wish him to be. In order to love God we must accept Him as He is and on His terms. He is not a sugar-daddy and He is not remotely easy-going on issues of holiness. Life, it seems, would be much easier if he was. He is a perfect father and he is love, but He is also holy and sovereign and to love God is to accept that He does not fit in a box and will not do what we want.
Perhaps more difficult to reconcile is to concept of growth promotion and love of God. Clearly if God is God then he does not need to grow, nor can he grow, and there is nothing we can give him anyway. I would argue that each human being can give something to God that He does not need, but He would not have is we did not give it to Him. And it gives Him Joy. You see each of us can give ourselves to God, can respond to His Love by loving Him back and by giving out lives to His glory. Obviously He does not need anything from us, but one of the most awesome things about God is that in giving us freewill He has given us a genuine choice to love Him or Not. The awesome part is that He will not remove that choice from us, and thus our love, which He wishes to have can only be His if we give it to Him. This I believe fits with what Jesus said; "If you love me, you will obey my commands." Love for God is expressed in a desire to please Him, and hence give him yourself. To give him yourself is to give to God the only thing we have to give.
Problems with Love
Love is not a digital concept but an analogue one. It is not all or nothing. Only God can claim to have perfect love. Perfect love is totally accepting even when we are completely intolerable. Perfect love is ruthless in its pursuit of the very best for the object of that love. And perfect love leads to genuine and lasting intimacy.
However human experience of loving someone is not quite like that. We find accepting people very difficult and growth promotion requires effort and sacrifice. As for intimacy there are some people whom we would rather not get close to. Real love goes beyond the easy and accepts and nurtures and desires closeness even with those who are very difficult to like. That is the act of will to love one's enemy.
Fundamentally I think that the problems with love are two-fold. Firstly we tend to get unbalanced in our efforts to love. If maturity is defined in terms of balance, then mature love is a balance of these three aspects. The second problem is that we do not allow love to deepen. Over time, we should accept more, be more and more prepared to do things for a true good of another and intimacy should become greater.
As I have mentioned above often we tend to accept without growth promotion or to want the best for someone without accepting them first. I believe both of these errors constitute not-love. Acceptance on its own is indulgence and does not result in the true good for the object of love and thus is not love. With simple acceptance we do not grow or change or benefit, we simply regress and potentially become increasingly selfish which makes true intimacy impossible. To love is to accept and then to aid the moving-on of the object of love. This paradox is fundamental. It works because real love is able to promote growth without depending on it.
To want the very best for someone without accepting them is perhaps even more dangerous. It is so damaging to try to change someone before accepting all that they are. All that has gone into making them what they are. The successes and failures, the joys and the deep hurts. Any attempt to promote growth without accepting all that makes up a person is doomed to both hurt them deeply and fail in terms of true growth. I am confident of this analysis because I believe this is how God deals with each of us. True Christianity is salvation by faith is Jesus. What that means is that God meets us where we are, he totally accepts us as we are and then begins a process of changing us (only by consent). The fact that God's acceptance of us depends upon Jesus' death merely affirms how powerful God's love is and how ruthless it is that he would go that far to accept us and enable us to grow and have true intimacy with Him.
Intimacy is slightly strange. It is often suggested that there is a selfish aspect to love, of wanting to be close to someone. I do not believe real love is selfish. The desire for intimacy is fundamental to love and is obviously something that rewards the lover but it is a two-way process and a major aspect of promoting growth in someone and it is to their benefit. The most difficult experiences of my life have been when I have loved someone and known that the best thing for me is for them to leave me. For to love is to desire intimacy, but love is not selfish because real love is prepared to give up intimacy if that is what is best for the object of that love. Of course, this hurts. But real love is sacrificial and desiring the very best for the object of that love can sometimes mean giving up intimacy. The simple example of this is the parent saying goodbye to the child-now-grown leaving for university and the conflict of emotions this produces. A desire for intimacy alone - because of loneliness or whatever - is of course selfish and doomed to fail, as true intimacy is dependent upon acceptance and the desire for growth.
In this essay I have attempted to construct and explain a working-definition of love. A definition that is useful and explains how love does work, as well as how love should work. To understand the inter-relationship between acceptance, the desire to see growth and our need and desire for intimacy, is I hope, to be able to begin to love more and to love better.