The Great Adventure
A Christian Take on Love
by Dr. Andrew SwaffordLove, as a theological virtue, is the virtue by which we love God for his own sake and we love others for the sake of God—that is, we love God in others. We put on the “mind of Christ” (see 1 Cor 2:16; Rom 12:2), making his aims our aims—seeing things as he sees them and aligning our hearts accordingly. And we make the needs, sorrows, victories, and aspirations of others our own, seeing to their good as if it were ours.
Journey to GodAs we begin our journey to God, we often first obey out of fear—fear of hell—and not out of love. That is, we often begin with a “servile” fear (i.e., fear of punishment). After all, why do young children obey their parents, at least initially? Because they don’t want to get punished. “Filial” fear, on the other hand, is motivated by love: as one fears disappointing or offending the people whom we respect and love the most.
Further, in the early goings, we usually do not love God for his own sake. Often, the Lord will move us at these early stages with sensible consolations—moments where we feel palpably close to God. These are gentle and loving caresses given by our heavenly Father which keep us going and strengthen us. But as wonderful as these consolations are, we can’t seek them out as ends in themselves. When they are given, we should rejoice; but after a while God will sometimes withhold these consolations as a way to mature and grow our love. After all, we can’t simply love God for how he makes us feel: these consolations are the hor d’oeuvres—God himself is the main course.
Human LoveLove—though it may be accompanied by a feeling—is not just a feeling. As we said above, it’s where I seek the good of the other as if it were my own. Their needs become my needs—their goals, my goals; their victories, my victories; their sorrows, my sorrows. Thus, love inherently unites, making one mind and heart.
Obstacles to LoveEnvy is directly opposed to love (see 1 Cor 13:4). It is sorrow at the good of another; it’s captured in the attitude that says, “If I can’t have it, I don’t want anyone else to have it either.” Thus, envy inherently divides: my good is not wrapped up in the good of the other, since their good is my loss.
Further, especially in the day-to-day, we must be able to rise above our spontaneous emotional reactions. One deadly pattern, for example, in marriage, is “negative interpretation”—where one spouse interprets the motives of the other in an overly negative way. If a negative interpretation becomes strong enough, there is really nothing the other person can do, since all their actions will be read through this negative prism: the good explained away and the bad taking center stage, creating a spiral of negativity from which it can be difficult to break.
So, what can we do?Actively look for evidence to the contrary. Usually, we “select” evidence from our spouse’s behavior that confirms our pre-existing narrative—holding onto evidence that confirms what we already think and ignoring the rest. But if we can rise above our spontaneous emotional reaction in the moment and actively look for evidence contrary to our negative assumptions, we’ll probably start to detect some good will from our spouses, in which case the spiral of negativity begins to subside. But it takes tremendous charity in the moment to rise above our immediate emotional response and overcome our desire to respond by verbally wounding the other.
As we said, love is where we ultimately love God in all things, including our spouses—giving love a truly unconditional anchor. And God gives us the power to do this by pouring the Holy Spirit into our hearts (Rom 5:5). For this is no mere human love, nor is it made possible by merely human power.
How can we rise above our spontaneous emotional reactions today and choose the higher path of love—putting the other first and leaving our egos aside?