Ahh, good ole love: an idea as old as time itself, but a word so mis-defined that people don’t even know what they mean when they say it.
I mean, let’s be real here: what does it mean to say you love something? You can love a spouse and you can love a child, but you can also love a dog and, if Brick Tamland from Anchorman has any say in the matter, you can also love a lamp. But surely you don’t love all these things in the same way, right? Surely the feeling of love you get when sharing an embrace with your loved one isn’t on par with the love you get when the initial tastes of an award-winning hamburger pass through your senses with that first delicious bite. Surely man’s love for a movie is not on par with his love for a child, and surely his love for a dog is not on par with his love for the God who created him. When we say “love” we proceed to define it in various different ways – many times describing something be more so just adequately approve of – and thus the word “love” itself has lost much [if not all] of its meaning.
To be honest with you, I think that the true source of my frustration here begins with the English language. You see, whereas other languages have multiple different words to describe that which we call “love” – each denoting a different form of that longing desire – we have only one word, which we then proceed to use incorrectly the majority of the time. Hebrew gives us words like ahabah, hesed, and rayah, while Greek gives us words like agape, phila, eros, and storge. But what do we have? We have one word, “love.”
…and it is meant to account for all of the above implications.
See how that’s kind of a problem?
The place where this becomes particular problematic is in terms of romantic relationships, because that is where the word “love” needs be clearly defined, lest any misunderstanding come about as a result of misinterpreted usage. Surely a dog doesn’t care if you say you love it in the wrong form – and the lamp has no opinion to give whatsoever – but in a romantic relationship, love needs to be clearly defined so that two partners can know where the other stands without any false presumptions. And this is, I believe, where our culture has failed us.
You see, whenever we say the word “love” in our modern day and age, I think we most often proceed to define that which is called “lust” in the Bible. We live in the day of instant gratification – where a sudden longing for good can be satisfied within a minute and waiting for the next panel of a revolving door can be the most frustrating lagged moment known to man – and we do not hesitate to apply that same need for instantaneous satisfaction to our relationships with those whom we claim to romantically “love.” (I am currently a college student growing up amidst a generation of people typically classified as members of the “hook-up culture,” so I can testify to this problem.) We live in a “Treat yoself” world, where the worst thing you can do, according to the masses, is restrain yourself from that which you desire. Why not bring yourself pleasure, even it it’s followed by guilt? Why not do whatever it takes to satisfy your own desires, even at the expense of others? Forsake all thoughts of the hearts you may break, the souls you may shake, and the lives you may take; as long as you are happy, things are good. This is the argument of our culture, the lie we are bombarded with each and every day.
Do you see how this is a problem? Do you see how this is unbiblical?
I think of modern art – especially in regards to film – and how far we have strayed from the romantic ideal. Take Hallmark movies, blockbuster romantic comedies, and pornography, for instance: three different extremes, each of them extremely unbiblical of their representation of romantic love. Perhaps the truest, realist form of romance in modern cinema is from La La Land, but even then we are given a relationship driven primarily by selfishness, presented under a light that doesn’t leave you feeling very great once you leave the movie afterwards (to stay it is “true” and “real” is not to say that it is “right”). It’s a good movie, but even it has flaws in regards to what love is meant to be.
For a moment, though, let us take a step back and zoom in on those three different movie-types I listed above, because I think that, in observing those, we can gather a pretty good idea of where society has gone wrong. Then – and only then – can we turn to the Biblical idea of romantic love, and see how perhaps we can begin to mend the hole that society has drilled into us. Sound like a plan, Stan?
(I) THE HALLMARK INFATUATION. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Hallmark movies – I really do – but there is so much wrong with their idea of love. The moment you become discontented with one partner, you can [and will] stumble across a more appealing person, according to these movies, and once you stumble across [and meet] this person, you can and will and should pursue this new romantic partner that you shared but a few tender moment with over the course of the few days (our hours) that you have known each other. (Don’t bother breaking up with your old boyfriend or girlfriend; since they are a snob anyways, they deserve to be cheated on.) And when conflict with this new “love” arises, what do you do? You turn away from them, of course, going back to your old way of life and putting on a brave face as you promise yourself to never go back to them. But then, in a moment of clarity – usually spurred on by your friends who lack any form of proper judgment – you will rush back to that person, an apology on your tongue as you try to stop yourself from ruining your life. After saying an extremely smooth one-liner everything is magically restored, and the movie ends with the promise of living happily ever after. This, my friends, is what I call infatuation. It is not love, but over-zealous desire, forsaking logic to pursue irrational and biased emotion, with little-to-no judgment calls or wisdom being used in regards to the decision you make. No bueno.
(II) HOLLYWOOD'S LUSTFUL INFATUATION. When we get to the realm of rom-coms, things get even more murky. Once again, I should specify that I love myself a good “chick flick” (see how I used “love” there, but in a sense that is way different than the type I’m discussing?), but it’s important to separate fiction from reality. The movies typically go like this: Guy meets girl, girl meets guy. Guy says catchy one-liner or proves himself a quirky, odd, strange-yet-adorable kind of dude that kicks off a rigorous love affair – a.k.a. we cut to the next morning, where the two of them are waking up next to each other in the same bed, a “comedic” moment that typically ends with one of them admitting that they are afraid of commitment and running off without bothering to remind the other of what their name was (I forgot to mention that they were drunk when they met each other, and remember nothing from the previous night). Eventually they reconcile and their relationship blossoms, but the honeymoon phase quickly comes to an end in the last third of the movie because of some minor “misunderstanding” (often in the form of one of the two partners “accidentally” sleeping with or being caught in a dark corner with a past flame). They separate for what appears to be good and one spontaneously decides to move halfway across the world, and it isn’t until months later that the one back home realizes, “Whoa, *so-and-so* completes me.” (I hate that line with a passion.) Thus the pursuit begins: they head to the nearest airport, bust out $5,000 for the nearest and soonest one-way ticket, and sit restlessly on a plane for a few hours before landing in the terminal, at which point they catch the nearest cab so they can track down their love. This time we are treated not to a single line but at least a middle-length dialogue of explanation from the apologetic party, and then all is forgiven, just like that. This is what I call lustful-infatuation. It undermines the value of sex while emphasizing the virtue of “following your heart,” even though following your heart often involves giving your body and soul over to someone you barely know because, when caught up in the moment, it seems like the right thing to do. Also no bueno.
(III) PORNOGRAPHIC LUST. This is the one, of the three, that I can claim to neither like nor approve of. (In fact, I would encourage you to learn to detest and vehemently disapprove of all pornographic materials, because I strongly support the notion that #PornKillsLove.) You see, there is a reason that pornography comes from the Greek word pornea, often rendered “sexual immorality” in the Bible: it objectifies men and women alike, turns sex into something sinful and degrading, and spits in God’s face by trying to take a piece of garbage and sell it off as love. There is no care or thought or emotion behind it, but simply animal-like desires being acted out on screen. Pornography is literally the study of sexual immorality. This is lust, no question about it. There is no heart behind it, nor any desire other than self-gratification, even at the expense of others. Especially at the expense of others. Frankly, I find it slightly appalling that some people amongst our culture would even attempt to call this “romance.”
There is so much wrong with these three doctrines (yes, I will call them doctrines) that I don’t even know where to begin. (In fact, there might be so much to be said about the topic that I will very well leave much to be said in a future post. Or perhaps even an entire book is in order, I don’t know.) But, to stay true to the goal of this page, now is the time for us to be honest with each other, so I will try my best to be succinct and keep this as short as possible:
Recently I was reading a book – a book that claimed to be Christian, no less – that defined “lust” as sexual expression outside of a monogamous, committed relationship, but this, I would argue, still does not fully hit the point. You see, even after marriage, it’s definitely possible for a man to lust after his wife or for a wife to lust after her husband. Lusting doesn’t simply end whenever monogamy is introduced. In fact, I would argue that commitment and monogamy have nothing to do with the biblical idea of lust; sure, they are qualities necessary in order to properly love, but they in no way serve as the differentiating factor between what is love and what is lust. The differentiating factor, I would say, drives much deeper: It is a matter of selfishness (lust) versus selflessness (love).
Don’t take my word for it, though. Look at the Bible’s description of love:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor 13:4-8a)
Those are all selfless qualities, things extremely absent in romance as it is depicted today. Our relationships have largely become a matter of what I want, what I desire, what I think, what suits me most…and that isn’t biblical! The differentiation between love and lust has nothing to do with commitment, for you could very well be committed to lifelong service to yourself through objectifying those you are in relationships with. The difference between love and lust is if you are loving for their benefit or for your own.
According to studies, 43% of divorces today are a result of what people call “basic incompatibilities.” “Till death do you part” is belittled to “Until you get on my nerves” in this sense, and I think this perfectly illustrates how me-focused we have become. Marriages have become contracts rather than covenants, and when conflicts last longer than the one-paragraph monologues that solve everything in the movies, we immediately deduce that we haven’t found “the One” and perhaps someone else – someone who could make us happier – lies beyond the relationship we are currently in. This is what culture has told us, and we fall prey to its lies.
Do you see what I’m getting at here? Even in our infatuation, it is not our partners we are infatuated with, but ourselves.
We live in a world that tells us this: love is a fairy tale or else it is not love at all. In real life, people don’t experience the fairy tale immediately and so they try to throw sex into the mix, and when even that fails to satisfy, they conclude that the person they were with is not “the One” for them. But this is not the Christian love.
Perhaps the best example of the Christian love comes from the Biblical Song of Solomon, and in this text the word we read as “love” is the Hebrew ahabah (ahava). This word occurs 40 times in the Old Testament, and surprisingly enough it is translated as “love” every single time. (Given the different context of words in their usage, this is fairly unique in biblical translations.) Eleven of these occurrences are within the Song, and for this reason I found it necessary to look into it, to find out what it means:
Matt Chandler describes ahava as “’love of the will.’ It’s the ‘I’m not going anywhere’ kind of love. It’s the love that says, ‘I’ve seen the crazy, and I’m going to stick around.’” It’s the kind of love that endures the storms and comes out all the better for it. It isn’t lustful and it isn’t rooted in infatuation, but is instead wholly dedicated to the other person, taking pleasure in seeing the other person succeed even if that comes at the cost of your own self-sacrifice. In the romantic form of it, ahava will definitely grow to include sexual desire, but it will not act upon that desire until the allotted time (marriage) because it recognizes sex as a gift given by God that has the power to both give life and suck it away. Even within the confines of marriage, ahava love will be respectful and selfless, willfully pushing past selfish motivations so as to keep that holy intention of marriage from dissolving into lustful desire.
That is ahava love. That is how Christians are meant to love. It isn’t a feeling you get or endless butterflies deep inside, but a choice you make. In the words of Warren Barfield, “Love is not a place to come and go as you please; it’s a house you enter in and then commit to never leave.” Ahava doesn’t run away when the goings get tough: it endures the valley to enjoy the sunlight at the top. Sometimes that means sitting down for hours to discuss things heavy on your heart, little foxes that could ruin the vineyard. Sometimes that means fighting back desires out of respect and selflessness, using self-control to place your loved one’s needs above your own desires at all costs. Sometimes it means being uncomfortable in a situation where comfort seems the easy way out. Sometimes it’s taking the long, treacherous road even though the shortcut looks so scenic.
NOW LET'S BE HONEST...this is romance, my friends.
Today, I want to encourage you to redefine your understanding of love. Place a greater weight on the word, let it take on a new emphasis on your soul. Don’t use the word lightly, and if you can’t seem to bring yourself to give it new weight, then I beg you to find different words to use in its stead. The days of love being lust and lust being nothing but lost infatuation truly needs to come to an end, and as Christians it is our role to kick off this movement! The greatest way we can shine the light of Christ is through our love for others, and it should be a love so perplexing that people are left in awe when they see it in action.
So let that be my challenge to you today: Go out and love, my friends. Love as you never have before, in a way you never dreamed possible. Forsake your won desires and love others as if they were you, whether that be platonically or, even more so, romantically. Let the lost be found in the light of the love we shed on our community. Let our relationships grow and let grace abound, that God may be glorified and the name of Jesus Christ be lived high. Take some ahava and sprinkle it – no, pour it – out to the world that needs it so, so much.