What is Love? A Valentine’s Day Reflection on its Many Forms
Thomas Jay Oord reflects on the various meanings of love, from romance to agape. Love is wider and wilder than we can imagine.
I think about love every day. As a Christian, l think love is the center of who God is and what God requires of me and others. As I see it, Jesus reveals love most fully.
I also think love is pluriform, that is to say, it takes many different forms. It’s not just helping the helpless, as important as that is. It’s not just about being self-sacrificial, although that’s also an important form of love too.
Around Valentine’s Day, I ponder the various ways we use “love” in our language. The love language on this day isn’t so much about helping others or denying ourselves. So what exactly is the love language and what meanings are appropriate for Valentines?
Love wants good when romantic flames burn brightly, flicker faintly, or reduce to ashes.
Sex and Romance
I typically hear “love” used in two ways on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes the word refers simply to romance and sex. A red heart is the symbol for this love language.
If we reflect a bit, however, we’ll realize that sex and romance are sometimes healthy, but other times not. Sexual activity can be self-centered, exploitive, abusive, or creepy. Perverts lust, they don’t love. Even romantics can become so obsessed that they harm themselves, their object of obsession, and others.
If love has something to do with positivity and flourishing, sexual exploitation and romantic creepiness aren’t expressions of love.
Altruism and Agape
The second love language I hear on Valentine’s reacts against the first. “Love isn’t about sex and romance,” say some, “it’s about altruism and helping the needy.”
Love helps the poor, shows compassion to sufferers, or makes friends of enemies, says this approach. True love is agape, say some, to use a prominent Greek love word in the New Testament.
This use of “love” has its place. But it seems largely out of place on Valentine’s Day. It fails to describe love as attraction, mutuality, pleasure, or delight. Those who insist on love as only agape can be killjoys!
When my wife and I celebrate Valentine’s Day, we’re not expressing compassion for each other as those who suffer. My wife is neither a victim nor my enemy. And I don’t say to myself, “I guess I’m going to show self-sacrificial love again and delight in what I find attractive, winsome, and beautiful in my wife.”
Love is more than altruism and agape.
Love and Well-Being
I think the most helpful way to understand love says it aims to promote well-being…in a wide variety of ways.
Scholars use various synonyms for “well-being.” They speak of blessedness, flourishing, abundant life, wholeness, genuine happiness, shalom, or the good life.
So understood, love can involve promoting what’s good in our physical, mental, social, environmental, and even spiritual dimensions. But it can also involve good romance and sex. Love helps those who need help but also delights in affection, pleasure, and companionship.
Love is pluriform.
Where Does Love Come from?
Some of my friends distinguish between “natural” and “supernatural” loves. To them, God is the source of the supernatural; evolution is the source of the natural. This approach creates sharp distinctions between sacred and secular, creation and evolution. I don’t find it helpful.
I think God is the source of all love. “We love, because God first loves us,” as the Apostle John put it. And if all creaturely love comes from God and promotes well-being, the natural/supernatural distinction blurs. Evolutionary love can be part of God’s creating and creaturely response.
I’m not sure if amoeba love. Maybe they do, I don’t know. But having grown up on a farm and having spent much time hiking in nature, I’m convinced many organisms love.
I’m impressed, for instance, in how mother birds and mother bears nourish and protect their young. I’m inspired by the group altruism of bees and wolves, who sacrifice themselves for the good of the group in hopes that the hive or pack thrives. I’ve seen dogs befriend horses.
Of course, animals and insects aren’t always warm fuzzies and rainbow affection. Nature is sometimes “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. But we can acknowledge the pain while admitting that animals love too. In fact, it’s sometimes in response to pain that animal love operates at its best.
Love is wider and wilder than many humans imagine.
Love on Valentine’s Day
If love promotes well-being, romance and sex on Valentine’s Day can be actions of love… if we do them intending to do good in some way.
If we send cards, flowers, or gifts with only our own happiness in mind, we aren’t loving. If we act only for our own pleasure and intend to injure others, we should not call this action “loving.”
On Valentine’s Day, we typically focus on the well-being of two people in a relationship. That’s appropriate. To love well, the two must consider how their actions affect the wider society too. Love considers the common good, not just what’s good for a few.
Love considers the common good, not just what’s good for a few.
This Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to send cards, flowers, and gifts. Flash a heart sign, if you feel like. Splash “I Love You” across the sky. Be intimate with that special someone, and take pleasure in them.
But remember love wants what is healthy and positive. Love wants good when romantic flames burn brightly, flicker faintly, or reduce to ashes.
When well-being is the goal, Valentine’s love language is less confusing.
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Thomas Jay Oord
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