On Love and Being in Love

Today, Jason Helopoulos posted a blog about Christian love in marriage.  It is an exhortation for husbands to love their wives.  This is, of course, a very good idea.  Husbands should love their wives.  As Mr. Helopoulos points out, it is a Biblical exhortation as well*.

The main problem with the article is that he makes a strange connection between “loving one’s wife” and “being in love with her.”  He insists that husbands simply don’t have the option to “fall out of love” with their wives.  This is a very dangerous statement, mostly because it is simply impossible to follow.

We need to make a distinction here between the two things being talked about.  The first is “being in love” and the second is “loving as Christ loved the Church,”  (Eph 5:25).

The experience of being in love is almost certainly a biochemical one, rooted in the interplay of highly complicated elements of our physiology.  To be in love with someone is to be, in many ways, a slave to her or him; or at the very least to the idea of the person.  Being in love is perhaps one of the most ecstatic experiences in the human condition, it is so enthralling that human beings are willing to risk nearly every other happiness in order to find it.  They even risk perhaps the most terrible of consequences: losing it.

Really, fully, being in love, is not a voluntary action.  One may take steps to avoid it, or to find it, but it is something of a beast, something of a god.  It flings us about, it seems to command with the words of the most high authority.  It is no wonder the ancient peoples personified it.

Now, this is of course deeply different than Christian love.  One does not think of Christ flung about by His uncontrollable love for humanity.  It is true that Christ will risk all things, pursue all things, suffer all things for humanity.  It is true that there are few loves on earth that can compare even slightly to the love that relentlessly dogs the steps of the human nature, and which bears the name of God.  It is also true that the erotic love that I described above is one of those few loves.

But…and this is important…it is not the same love.

Christian love is a choice, it is an act of the will.  For God, who is One, will, being, and love are also One.  What God does, what God wills, is who God is.  There is no physiological element in God making God a slave to God’s passions.  God freely enters The Passion, and is its Master, not its slave.  God takes on the form of a slave to raise slaves to the form of God, not to be subject to our wild passions.

For Mr. Helopoulos to suggest that husbands do not have the option to “fall out of love” with their wives is confusing the two kinds of love.  Spouses will fall out of love with each other, and they will fall back in love with them.  This is unavoidable, for erotic love is a fickle and unpredictable thing.  It is a thing we experience, not a thing we do.

But love in the Christian sense, is love that we do.  And we have a choice there.  We have a choice to lay ourselves down for one another even when we do not feel the burning passion that we once did.  We have the choice to be faithful even when we may feel that passion for someone else**.  What is fascinating is that if we sustain our proper Christian love for our spouses, we will find that other passion popping up more often, and in new ways.

And we find a rule about the universe here.  Erotic love, like all human things, rages as a false god if left on its own.  But when subjected to Christian love, it finds its proper place as a messenger of divine goodness.  Eros commands humanity when we are subject only to it.  But the One who is Love, commands Eros with as much ease as He commands the winds and the rain.***

It should be clear now why identifying or confusing the two kinds of love, even for a moment, is dangerous.  If a man feels that he must “be in love” with his wife at all times, then he will be trying to command a power that is not his to command.  He will either try to manufacture passion that is not there, or he will feel guilty and sinful for not feeling what is not there.  He will say things like “I try to love my wife, but I just can’t.”  He may never say this out loud, but he will feel frustrated and powerless.

On the other hand, if he is told that he has no control over “being in love” but instead has every control over kindness, support, forgiveness, and consideration, he knows what he can do.   Christian love is something doable, it is something we freely participate in in Christ.  To be a slave to Eros, is to court a delectable madness.  Yet it is not in our power to manufacture it.  It flees when we wold have it stay.

But we chose to cooperate with the Holy Spirit who leads us in the proper steps of the dance of Christian love.  It is a kind of slavery, for we devote ourselves wholly to it, and to go out from it is to enter darkness and death.  But by this slavery we are made gods in the light of the True God.  We choose it, it chooses us.  The two become blurred, and all such distinctions are lost in the great and mystical body of the Church and Her Lord.

Two more points and I am done.  First, do not let this short piece suggest that I am some exemplary husband.  I am not.  I will learn my whole life what it means to lay myself down for my wife the way that Christ has for the Church.  I am no example to follow, I am only speaking here of what I believe to be true.

Second, Mr. Helopoulos states at the beginning of his post that “falling out of love” is not an excuse for divorce.  I wholeheartedly agree.  If he had stayed on this track, I think he would have been fine.  However, his divergence into these other elements has prompted this response.

 

*His understanding of Biblical authorship is not in keeping with modern understanding of the deutero-Pauline books.  Yet, as he points out very correctly, the command is there.  Husbands, love your wives.

 

**This of course is a continuation of the great Dominical command to love one another.  Spouses have particular ways that they love each other that go beyond non-spousal relationships.  However, they do not supplant or exclude these universal ways, which involve Christian love of all kinds.

 

***It becomes true then that if human beings want to be less subject to the whims of their emotions, they put their emotions into the service of Christ, who will, over time, reclaim them as their proper Lord. 

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One thought on “On Love and Being in Love

  1. I think the crux of my issue with your take on how you characterize love can be summarized best by Paul:

    “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them…” Romans 2:15.

    Human beings have a natural grasp of what a relationship entails. We feel the “oughtness” that comes with being in a relationship and we are able to perceive what constitutes love precisely because the law is written on our hearts . Believer and non-believer alike recognize love-like sentimentality, but what is love without the Gospel at the center? Put another way, what is love without Christ? Can you really call it love at all? I think you are correct in saying that love is a beast: When not subdued by Christ, love, at best, is selfish and at worst becomes a worship of the thing itself, both of which are idolatrous.

    When I reflect on the relationships I had with people, platonic or otherwise, before I was called into faith I can say that I didn’t truly love anyone I claimed to. But in Christ, I can confidently look at my wife and know that I love her. Why? Because Christ is the image I am conformed to, so when Paul writes to the Ephesian church and said “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (4:25), that’s wasn’t a metaphor or abstraction. I’d take it a step further and say that Paul meant it as an imperative.

    If that is the case, I think it is legitimate to ask how did Christ love His church? One of my favorite apologist, Greg Koukl, said, in reference to Jesus’ life and death, that “There is no profound love without humility, service and sacrifice.“ I think that is the ethic we are to follow in our daily lives with regards to our wives. I’m not saying it’s easy or possible to do consistently, however, through our sanctification (2 Timothy 2:21, Colossians 3:10), we do grow in our ability to love our wives the way God designed (Matthew 19:4, Ephesians 5, etc). Even in my inconsistency, I recognize my shortcomings and I am ashamed of myself.

    Perhaps, it’s because my wife and I are a fairly young couple, maybe it’s the fact that I am stubbornly idealistic, or maybe it’s because I’m in Afghanistan separated from my wife, but if I’m not loving to my wife in the ways I’ve described above I’m not in love with my wife. That is to say, if I am loving my wife in a biblical way – focusing on and remembering the humility, service and sacrifice that Jesus loved us with – and continues to love us with – I won’t fall out of love with my wife. I think that was the point Mr. Helopoulos was making.

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