This last Valentine’s Day, my wife and I decided to try something brave. Yes, it was finally time to show our young boys a legit romantic movie—not despite their discomfort, but precisely because of the facial contortions at any sign of public affection or a kiss.
As those who appreciate this genre of literature and cinema know well, one of the oldest patterns in romance stories is the ravishing, smooth-talking gentleman who sweeps lovers off their feet but ends up being a domineering brute. The surprising counterpoint, of course, is the plain-spoken and unassuming man who fudges the awkward entrance but proves a surprisingly sweet source of true and lasting love.
Superficial appearances sometimes deceive.
Over-simplifying the conversation about love. I couldn’t help but reflect on this after seeing the ever-wise Twitter commentariat reacting to further clarifications from matter-of-fact President Dallin Oaks as to why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported the U.S. “Respect for Marriage” Act. This was admittedly a question about which much confusion has existed in recent weeks, with helpful commentaries by Tad Walch at Deseret News, University of Texas professor Brent Yergensen, and our own Public Square Staff. Many of us, then, were grateful to see additional context offered by senior leaders of the Church as well.
In his statement, President Oaks emphasized the value of a bill that codified additional protections for religious freedom in conjunction with LGBT+ rights. Laying aside his clearly stated explanations, however, a surprising number of commentators didn’t seem able to resist darker suspicions—among them, allegations that behind the professed interest in religious freedom was a barely concealed intolerance, bigotry, and desire to discriminate. One person asserted that the Church’s actions were not “a reflection of the ‘endless love’ that you claim Christ has for every person.”
All this begs that same literary question: How should we really judge whether someone is loving us truly and well? Once upon a time, this was acknowledged to be a rich and complex question, answerable only through deep and ponderous thought, with the help of poets, musicians, and theologians (who, themselves, inevitably disagreed on the answers).
But in our modern world, which prefers standardized and predictable commodities in service of the larger good, we’ve likewise flattened our public discourse about “love,” seemingly for the sake of moving us all in the right direction. Rather than exploring competing views of what love is—and how we ought to best discern that—it’s become far more common in recent decades for our public conversation to center around far simpler questions, such as, “are you a loving person … or not?”
Implicit in such a query is the notion that being “loving” is quite simple, indeed. You might ask yourself: Do you accept and validate someone in who they believe themselves to be? Do you celebrate the desires and thoughts this person embraces most fervently? Do you ensure that all such individuals leave your presence feeling affirmed and encouraged in the current direction of their life?
If this trifecta elicits your full-throated approbation, then by our modern definitions, you know what it means to love truly. If not—and if your words in some way leave others uncertain, doubtful, or uncomfortable about any of this—then shame on you. Because you haven’t been able to demonstrate even the most basic fundamentals of love.
From our secular society’s vantage point, it’s really not all that complicated.
Appreciating honest disagreements about love. Except that it is. Quite a bit.
Just ask Jesus (and His faithful witnesses over the ages). However important kindness and compassion are to any serious definition of love, I was struck recently by what comes up most frequently in the Apostle Paul’s own classic sermon on true love, which “suffereth long … is not easily provoked … beareth all things … endureth all things.”
Heaven knows that kind of Godly patience is something we all need to work on, including me. Paul also goes on to speak of other counter-cultural elements of true love, including humility (“vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up”) and selflessness (“envieth not … seeketh not her own”). There may be no criteria of love, however, less popular than what Paul says about hearts cultivated to love what is good (“rejoiceth in the truth”) and resist what is not (“thinketh no evil … rejoiceth not in iniquity.”)
Anyone in possession of what the ancient prophet Mormon calls “pure love,” then, would be able to demonstrate all these things—while encouraging others to embrace the same.
Ideological influences on our competing views of love. This is all a striking counterpoint to prevailing views of love. And it clearly goes well beyond simply providing support or affirmation—to examining what’s most deeply in all of our hearts.
Why does it seem so very hard to acknowledge that competing views of love exist—and to appreciate that thoughtful and good-hearted people might simply see this differently? I believe a deeper appreciation of other influences could help. A friend once told me, “The reason the pro-life movement does what they do comes from the inherent belief that life truly begins and has full value at the moment of conception and is an equal human being. If you have that intrinsic belief, of course, any attempt to stop a pregnancy looks like murder.”
When you spell it out that way, pro-life initiatives could make sense even to those who embrace the dominant cultural views on the matter. In a similar way, when someone starts from a very different conviction about life and conception, it might make more sense why they could view abortion differently.
Could a similar analysis help promote understanding and empathy in our conversation about sexuality? In addition to reflecting different perspectives on what God asks of us, I believe these competing views of love follow logically from honest disagreements about identity and happiness too.
Namely, if you are someone who believes (a) that experiencing same-sex attraction is fundamentally who someone is—e.g., largely immutable and central to one’s core identity … then it shouldn’t be hard to understand why you also (naturally, predictably) come to believe (b) that same person’s happiness in life centers to a great degree on being able to live out that orientation and attraction (so essential and core to that person’s identity) in an unfettered, complete way.
It would similarly also make sense why “the loving thing to do” would be to advocate and even fight for the realization of that possibility. And when anyone questions these premises—or pushes back on the resulting activism—it becomes easier to comprehend why this might be experienced as very-much unloving.
The opposite is also true. If you are someone who believes (a) that same-sex attraction is an experience more than a fundamental identity—which can be only known in other ways—then it makes sense that you’d have questions about a life path centering upon and dictated by that very attraction. (b) You might also have natural wonderings as to whether yielding oneself wholly to a life guided by current preferences will really bring true happiness.
From this vantage point, true happiness comes from allegiance to something higher than our own thoughts and feelings. Jesus consistently encouraged our love to be anchored in a love of God “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and a willingness to live out that higher loyalty in our actions.
Contrary to many modern depictions of the divine, then, the living God does more than affirm and validate. Not only did Jesus share things that made people very uncomfortable, He asked people to “lose [their] life for my sake” as a way to “find” a life of true joy. (Gregory Smith’s Anything But the Cross is a great deeper dive on all of this).
It is this exalted, abundant, eternal life that both Jesus and his modern-day servants point people towards—with everything they’ve got.
So, who loves you the most? Given all this, it’s worth asking again: Are President Oaks and like-minded faith leaders today acting and speaking in a loving way—especially compared with other prominent voices in the public conversation about sexuality and gender? It’s really worth thinking about a little more:
- How loving is it to persuade someone to embrace an identity based largely on their current configurations of inclinations and feelings inside?
- How loving is it to affirm someone’s pursuit of these feelings and inclinations as a central guide in their life, even if that trajectory inevitably distances them from exalting covenants?
- How loving is it to persuade people—young and old—that no true happiness is to be found among the body of committed disciples of the Savior?
My dear friend Jeff Bennion, who helped found the support group North Star for Latter-day Saints who experience same-sex attraction, once lamented that so many seem to be persuading people that the plan of salvation does not apply to them—in a way that limits their eternal options drastically compared with what other people can imagine.
Again, is that a loving thing to do? From a secular vantage point—one which sees fundamental identity as delimited by sexual orientation—perhaps it is. Surely, the fruits of much of this can feel exciting in the present moment—especially when it brings a warm body close and removes any constraints on immediate pleasure. But then again, as Jesus adds, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
When considering the many voices in our American conversation about sexuality, ask yourself: are they helping people gain their soul or lose it? The disagreements couldn’t be starker. As demonstrated above, our convictions about love arise directly from other convictions about happiness and identity itself. And depending on what we believe about identity and happiness, the loving thing to do really does look very, very different.
A countercultural answer. Despite public perceptions and fierce accusations otherwise, I believe the message, guidance, and teaching of living prophets and other faithful teachers embody the greatest, most loving message to the world today, yes, including to those who identify as LGBT+.
Consider again: You are a son or daughter of God. You are of infinite, eternal worth. You are loved, supported, and sustained by a Father and Mother (and Brother)—Beings of infinite love and wisdom. And you have a future of endless joy ahead of you if you can learn to yield your own desires, hopes, and dreams into Their hands.
It’s not easy. But my own experience is that reaching for these exalted aspirations brings great joy, even when I sometimes fall flat on my face. That’s why I continue to respectfully disagree with the activists while encouraging people to consider the message of living prophets.
However “foolish” the Christian teachings about love (and everything else) may seem to others, that may not be a bad sign. After all, the fact that something is popular in broader society has never been a good sign for believers.
So, the next time you hear someone passionately claim Christian teachers are not “loving”—and the activists are—think twice. Because they might be making the same mistake as the heroine in that romance movie—going for the dreamy, easy catch … and missing completely where true and lasting love is actually found.