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What Love Isn’t

The love we’re being encouraged to share in our world today is largely affirmative of whatever someone else wants, believes, and does—even if that trajectory leads someone to long-term heartache. Is it time to be honest that this really isn’t love after all?

All we need is love. Simple and hippy as it may sound, it is true.  But what is love?  The word is thrown around a lot without a clear definition. This lack of clarity has consequences—and can lead to real societal and personal problems. That’s why we need to revisit “love” and understand how changing definitions can confuse our good intentions.

Competing Definitions

The English language comes up short-handed on love.  We have one word where other languages have many. But the “love” we desire, give, and appeal to must be defined using our limited language.  We turn to great minds to help us: Thomas Aquinas defined love as a verb, “To will the good of the other.” As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Love is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” These definitions are in line with the “love” described by generations of philosophers, theologians, butchers, and bakers.  Love, so defined, is more than just a feeling; it requires some concern, or care, for the long-term welfare of the beloved.   

But this is a different love than the one we hear declared today. “I love you; I just want you to be happy [right now]!” This declaration requires no will, no action, or investment. You get to be kind but aren’t tied to any responsibility. 

Is real love possible when it is untethered to truth?

These two “loves”—purposeful love and affirmation love—are in great conflict with each other. One says, “I want you on a good path.” The other says, “Choose whatever path you want—as long as it seems to make you happy right now.” In the friction between these loves, we see the origin of many of our modern battles.

The Battle of -isms

One of the original wars is Subjectivism vs Objectivism.  Subjectivism, common to so much of modern philosophy, rejects the existence of a supreme truth we should all seek.  Rather, all truth is relative, virtue is socially-constructed, and even logic and reason are suspect.  This outlook would lead us to love through approval (affirmation) of whatever choice the beloved makes. When “good choices” are in the eyes of the beholder and consequences are largely random, desires and feelings are what matter most.

Objective truth, by contrast, holds that goodness, truth, and beauty are real and the pursuit of these may lead us down different paths, but they all ascend to ultimate truth. Objectivism has real substance and is inherently tethered to truth. The love that grows from this outlook seeks goodness, even at the expense of the beloved’s own desires or “feelings.”

In a world that questions the very idea of truth, those who hold firm to objective truth are often accused of being “unloving.”  But is real love possible when it is untethered to truth? When we analyze statements about love or our own “love” for others, let’s ask:

Is this “love” purposeful encouragement, or blanket affirmation? This introspection can lead us to recognize the underlying philosophy that informs this view of love.

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9).

Purposeful Love and Affirmation

For example, I care about my daughter.  I care about her health.  I want to start her out with healthy eating habits because these will help her down the road. I try to ensure she has nutritious food and understands proper portion size.  I do this because I care about her future; I love her and I know the pitfalls of unhealthy eating. 

On the other hand, if I use the affirming definition of love—“I want her to be happy”—then I would let her eat whatever she wants. She has made it perfectly clear that candy, not vegetables, makes her happy.

Now, most parents would say that, of course, purposeful love is the love that drives their parenting. They want to ensure their children are on the road to a stable and fulfilling future. But this isn’t an easy love, as any mother attempting to get her toddler into a car seat knows—it requires discipline and action and is often in opposition to what the child wants right now.  Nonetheless, they are our children, and it is our role to care for them and seek their long-term good.

Of course, there is also a place for saying ‘I want you to be happy.” For example, if I had my daughter’s friend over for dinner and she didn’t want to eat her vegetables but wanted to eat candy instead, I certainly wouldn’t force the issue.  Her immediate happiness being with my daughter is more important to me in this case than her long-term happiness (and hey, I don’t have to be around for the sugar-crash). Simply put, I don’t want to “mother” her; it is not my job.  I want to be kind, and for her to have a fun time.  But I shouldn’t deceive myself into thinking that I am “loving” her in any deeply virtuous sense by allowing her to eat candy.

Stay in our Lane

Today our culture is free and loose with the “be happy” kind of love and not so much with the “willing your good” kind. If we ever stop short of total acceptance of any behavior, no matter how self-defeating it may be in the long-term, it’s most likely in our culture today we’ll be seen as lacking love and compassion. But is it always our place to stick our loving nose in other people’s business?

Ironically, while many shout the evils of intolerance, we see a heightened judgmentalism in daily interactions.

“Societies are far gone in depravity when toleration is seen as a good in itself, without regard to the thing being tolerated.” ~GK Chesterton

The desire to see others live “the life they want” is often made in broad terms, towards groups of people, with less concern for the real-life consequences which may descend upon individuals in the group. This show of general concern for a group, yet apathy towards the details of how it impacts the one, show affirmation at its worst. 

“The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.” ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Ironically, while many shout the evils of intolerance, we see a heightened judgmentalism in daily interactions. We see, as Dostoyevsky points out, an increasing enmity for the individual as our concern for “world peace” increases. We share our concern for the unfortunate masses or victimized groups on social media. Then when we see an individual acting inappropriately or contrary to our political beliefs, we quickly condemn them. 

Much of this conflict could be alleviated by going back to the good old days of “minding our own business,” and unplugging from the twisted reality online. Genuine love can not be given or received in a fake world.  

Often it is best to keep our concern geared towards those we have a responsibility and purposeful love for. It is none of my business if the guy in front of me at the gas station buys cigarettes, but I am not going to condone my children doing so. I have no right to judge him. I don’t know anything about him. Let’s live and let live. If we find ourselves overly bothered by strangers’ actions, we are likely paying insufficient attention to our own. It’s tough enough acting virtuously ourselves. Who has the energy to get random people to do it? When dealing with people outside our “charge,” kindness should kick in, including polite thoughtfulness and our best attempts at withholding judgment. Let our kids’ friends eat their candy before dinner, and hope their mothers are more purposeful in their love.

But “minding our own business” is not just about restraining judgment, it is also about restraining our affirmation. If we don’t know what someone should be doing, let’s not jump in and support what they are doing.  Silence is better than ignorant affirmation.

Putting Disagreement Back in Tolerance

“If I am forced into a position where I have to validate your identity … What if your identity is wrong? What if it’s pathological? What if it doesn’t serve you well? … and if I start validating you, do you think I am your friend?  I am not your friend at all, I am a mirror for your narcissism.” ~Jordan Peterson

We seem to live in constant fear of being labeled with today’s scarlet letter: “I” for Intolerant. To be sure, tolerance is necessary if we are to live peacefully in a secular world. But like love, the definition of tolerance has changed. Tolerance is the ability to live respectfully with people you disagree with. Without disagreement, there would be no need for tolerance. But now, tolerance has come to mean simply: accept what I believe or do as good and valid.  Yet validation is not true tolerance. Let’s keep the disagreement in the definition of tolerance. If we still hold to Christianity, or any form of objective truth, there must be disagreements, for we make the bold claim that our way is The Way.

It’s tough enough acting virtuously ourselves. Who has the energy to get random people to do it?

Disagreeing-tolerance is a necessary part of love. We may have family members that live a life we don’t approve of. “Willing their good” may now mean “live and let live.”  We need to have the humility to realize that our view, and our influence, have limits. We cannot control someone into choosing virtue. Yet, when it becomes apparent that our striving is not helpful or desired, we need not retreat to the affirmation of behaviors we know to be unwise or unvirtuous. We can disagree with someone’s choices and still love them. We hand the situation over to God. He will never stop striving with His child.

The Love Dilemma

In Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis skillfully unravels this conflict between affirmation and purposeful love. He uses the analogy of the “progressive” Grandfather-God and a traditional Father-God. His statement is worth pondering:

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. But by Love, most of us mean kindness [affirmation]—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, “What does it matter so long as they are contented?” We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, “a good time was had by all.”

Lewis goes on to argue that “Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering.” He adds that “It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms.”  By comparison, “with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.”

A society that has adopted a warped sense of love, based on affirmation, will produce children with stifled potential. This form of love is quite dangerous, for it encourages behaviors not based on their virtue or merit, but on the emotions they produce, like happiness. But the Father-God isn’t as invested in “happiness” as we are. He wants His children to learn the tough lessons, not shield them. Happiness-seeking is the religion of our affluent and shallow modern times, certainly not one taught by Christ or his original disciples. Their gospel does not seek “a good time had by all”; indeed, having a “good time” in the enemy-occupied territory that is Earth, is unlikely to bring us closer to God.

This doesn’t mean we should not desire happiness, only pointing out how often we are confused by how it is obtained. In examining our actions, we see that frequently we really don’t have any idea what will make us happy.  We often go from pleasure to pleasure— seeking one that will stick. This is why purposeful love—the love that consults “what is good” —is much more likely to land us in happiness than love which affirms transitory feelings.

“Remember our words, then, and whatever is your aim let virtue be the condition of the attainment of your aim, and know that without this all possessions and pursuits are dishonorable and evil.” ~Plato

We Have No Clue About Happiness

In Leo Tolstoy’s tragic novel, Anna Karenina, Anna left her husband and went after passion—a passion which faded and left her in a state of misery and torment—ending in her suicide.  Would Anna Karenina’s friends have been right if they had affirmed her desire to “seek happiness” and leave her husband and follow her passion?  No, she didn’t know the first thing about her own happiness.  But she did know, down to her soul, the difference between deceit and honesty.  She knew selfishness was evil and loyalty righteous—and these truths and consequences came back to haunt her long after her “happiness” faded.

When we seek happiness without concern for virtue, we are always left disappointed.  Vronsky, Anna’s lover, discovered this quickly:

He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.

Maternal Love Before God’s Truth

We may honestly desire to ease the burden of the drug-addicted young man or the unfaithful woman. Yet too often, we go about it in the wrong way—the world’s way. Our modern solution, one based strictly on compassion, does not encourage a change in behavior but rather attempts to change society’s perception of that behavior. In this way, we are essentially affirming their path. If we could only take the shame away from all actions, then all would be free to be happy. But Anna and her lover’s happiness faded when their passion did, society’s endorsement of adultery would not have prevented it. Emotions are fleeting; right and wrong endure.

We know the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I fear this is especially true for us women. Men seem more content to leave people to their consequences.  But we have a nurturing nature. From a biological standpoint, our maternal nature is to protect our children from outside threats.  Mama Bears protect their cubs, Mama Hens shield their chicks. Our nature drives us to alleviate suffering. The instinct to soothe our child can also drive us to help a wounded kitten or keep a shy child from being bullied. But can this nature go wrong? Yes. In a world of subjectivism, the truth can sound harsh. The truth says—“No, that isn’t good.” That is a painful phrase to hear—it can cause suffering and guilt. So the Mama Bear may want to jump in to help the wounded cub. She may affirm behaviors that are not “good” to ease the pain. But wouldn’t that Mama Bear be working counter to the true good? Shielding others from truth is not compassion. We have to love from a deeper place than mere instinct.

As Christians, we follow Christ.  He is often portrayed as the ultimate personification of “kindness and affirmation” itself.  But this portrayal is made by those unfamiliar with the actual Jesus. Affirmation is absent in the Gospels.  Instead, we are fed a steady diet of “Deny yourself” and “Sin no more.” If we believe in Christ, we believe His words were words of love.  If we seek to emulate the love He gave, we need to rethink affirmation and go for the deeper and more purposeful version of love.

If we still hold to Christianity… there must be disagreements, for we make the bold claim that our way is The way.

“Nothing is often a good thing to say, and always a clever thing to say.” ~Will Durant

Silence is difficult for women.  As women, it feels mean to not express support, so we often just throw in, “I am so happy that you are happy.” I remember a friend posting his decision to leave Christianity, coupled with harsh words of criticism for the backward thinking found in the Bible. This announcement was met with dozens of “I’m glad you are happy” or “You have to do what you feel is right.” These statements were made mostly by church-going women. They were happy he chose to leave Christianity? Really? Probably not, but they said so nonetheless—not for truth’s sake, but for compassion’s sake—perhaps to somehow ease the pain of departure.  But should we really be so eager to ease pain like this? 

Maybe not.  We should want him to return to God’s fold—and lingering pain is sometimes part of that invitational message. This doesn’t mean we should be out there with pitchforks to stop him, but when did we decide that rolling out the red carpet was a better idea? Our instinctual mother nature wants to protect. But protecting others from one of God’s greatest tools—suffering—is something we need to rethink.

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. [Pain] gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment.” ~C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

As women we should realize that our polite affirmation may be doing a lot more damage than good—not only to those we affirm but our own foundation. The “loved” are validated to depart the strait-and-narrow.  We say, in effect, I love you, so I will ensure you are supported in any sin you want to partake in, with no shame or stigma attached. This is subjective thinking. If we believe there is such a thing as sin, we must not support it. Truth should not be sacrificed on the altar of compassion. A kind-hearted woman, who hates to see suffering, may decide, Maybe this will make him happier.  Slowly her worldview shifts, self-fulfillment grows in importance and obedience becomes a barrier to its realization. Her foundation of truth begins to crack.  Five years later she will leave the faith she now views as harsh and dogmatic. She has justified sin for the sake of peace and is left with neither.  Both have been lost in the chaotic sea of subjectivism. 

Most likely we do not know what the young man on Facebook should do or why he is leaving.  The answer to blind affirmation is not blind judgment—it is seeking the will of God, or if we are too busy for that, keeping quiet.

How To Love Like a Christian

This piece focuses largely on love’s counterfeits, or what love is not. However, there is a whole world of legitimate, beautiful love open to us, and it has the power to change the world. God wants us to love, and the methods we may utilize are varied and often unexpected. Agape, or unconquerable benevolence, is the love we seek. This love has no limits—it is for the person next to us in the checkout line, for our friend, and even for our enemy.

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” ~C.S. Lewis

To embody Agape, we must turn back from our modern love of affirmation.  We must progress back to the love described by Aquinas, by making the good, or truth, our loving foundation. So as we go out and love, let’s remember what love isn’t.


Note:  The book The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis breaks down the four types of love in Greek: Storge (empathic), Philia (brotherly), Eros (romantic), and Agape (Christ-like). An earlier version of this article appeared in the Philosophy of Motherhood.

About the author

Allyson Flake Matsoso

Allyson Flake Matsoso has a degree in Environmental/African Studies and has published research in Social Work. She runs the celebrated "Philosophy of Motherhood" blog.
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