What would Jesus feel?
One of the problems with society today is that people do not have a workable or helpful definition for the word “love.” There is a great deal of confusion surrounding this most basic element of our daily lives.
When helping to prepare couples for marriage, I often ask them to tell me what they think love really is. The answers frequently focus on some kind of feelings which they have for each other.
While we cannot control our feelings, we have a great deal of control over our will.
Love and feelings are not the same. In fact, they are distant cousins at best. Building a life-long relationship on feelings can be risky business. The problem, of course, is that we have little or no control over our feelings. They are volatile. One day I may feel very much in love; the next day, nothing at all. Sadly, people tend to use their feelings as a gauge or barometer to measure the worth of a relationship.
While we cannot control our feelings, there is an aspect of our being over which we have a great deal of control. That is our will.
The essence of love
You and I have free will that makes us authentically human. We are not puppets, droids, or robots. We have a free will that allows us to make long-term commitments and to keep them no matter what our feelings may be. I can will myself to love another person even when they are very unlovable. I can will myself to remain faithful to my wedding vows. I can will myself to care for another person. I can will myself to make sacrifices on behalf of another person. This is the kind of love that gives substance, strength, and continuity to the relationships of our lives.
It is also a very biblical understanding of our lives. St. Paul’s great love chapter (I Corinthians 13) tells us that love is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not insist upon its own way. It does not rejoice in the wrong but only in the right. And the word “feeling” never once appears in the entire chapter. Paul’s understanding of love is really very Christ-like — one that is based on servanthood and sacrifice. Such love can endure for a lifetime.
The Marriage Encounter movement simply defines love as “a commitment of the will.” I have always liked another definition: Love is what results when I become at least as concerned about the welfare of another person as I am about my own.
On a number of occasions, Jesus told his followers to love one another as he first loved them: sacrificially, freely, and even recklessly. The word “feeling” does not seem to appear anywhere in his vocabulary. It should not be part of ours either.
It is wonderful to feel like you are deeply in love with someone. But when the feelings fade, as they sometimes do, the love can surely remain because of a marvelous gift called free will.
Paul Harrington is pastor emeritus of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church (ELCA), Apple Valley, Minnesota. He recently completed an interim assignment as campus pastor at Luther Seminary.