“Love God” and “Love your neighbor.” The two cornerstones of the Christian ethic, on which all other things we are to do and seek are to hang upon. But this term is not a well-defined term. As a result, great theological divisions run within Christian churches, some thinking love is more nuturing and open to people’s own individual expressions; others think love is more directive and disciplining to get people to go down the right path. Then, as anyone with a familiar with Greek can tell you, there are multiple terms used to describe love in the New Testament, but αγαπη is the primary term for the Bible. So, the temptation runs that if we can define what the terms mean, we can get it all straight. But the reality is, we all experience “love” in very different ways
But while there is some value to getting the right definitions, it is perhaps more important to know what “love” expects, thinks, seeks, and does rather than to give it a specific definition. Definitions are helpful for discernment, but they are not necessarily as helpful in instructing people who have their idea of what “love” is. Rather, an exploration of how we experience love and then how love is used, not defined, is perhaps more helpful.
If you are to read the psychological literature on love and attachments, there are a variety of love styles. I am not going to repeat them here, but I will provide a helpful summary of the three aspects that can be part of our experience of love and being loved. Love as energizing; love as approval; love as commitment.
1) Love as energizing – I was tempted to speak of passionate love, but that is to be overly narrow. Passionate, sexual romance can very energizing, but there are other forms of energetic love. For instance, that person who is always exciting and fun that everyone just wants to be around. We feel optimistic and cheerful when we are around them. They light our hearts on fire, causing us to run headlong, sometimes without thinking, into some event or project. Energizing love makes us feel alive in that we want to go and do. In many ways, this sort of love is an adrenaline rush. When brought into the Christian contexts, this looks more like ecstasy, emotional exuberance, a charismatic emphasis on our experience and emotional state, etc. This can also take the form of encourging communities, that seek to get people to realize some gift within themselves and use it with passion. But in other contexts where people do not wish to be overstimulated, love may be experienced in a calm, reflective environment, where people can experience a sense of peace and quiet so that they can be appropriately energized for who they are.
2) Love as approval – This is the type of love we offer to people when there is something we appreciate about them and/or when they avoid doing things that bother us. This can be mild as in a general appreciation of a person’s personality and style or extreme as focusing on judging every single action a person makes. Relationships form around this principle are often times rule-bound, where there are certain things one must do. But there are two distinct versions of this: there is the love of deservingness and then there is the compensatory style where we confer automatic approval on people to avoid the feeling of deserving approval. But at the heart of this notion, whether it is the default or compensatory mode is that we experience love when we approve and are approved. So, in Christian contexts this can show itself up in highly moralistic churches where those who appear as saints are loved or in gatherings where people showering appreciation on people simply for being people.
3) Love as commitment – This is more a teamwork approach, where people work together in life towards each other’s goals and needs over the long haul. Here, a common understanding and sharing of responsibilities is essential. The Biblical concept of the covenant is a very apt description of this type of love, where God and people, or husband and wife, bind themselves together for each other’s benefit. Another term for this commitment is faith and faithfulness. In Christian contexts, this shows itself in communication, listening, and care for God and His will and for His people.
Now, our experiences and expectations of love are going to be a mixture of these three. For instance, a marriage should ideally have a deep sense of commitment, with some occasional energizing passion and the communication of appreciation and approval. Some friends who go out to have fun times will be very energizing, whereas there won’t necessarily be a lot of expression of approval, except for fun times, and commitment to each other’s lives.
Anyone who is familiar with the psychology of love won’t be surprised by many of these observations. But there is something important to recognize our experiences and expectations of love when it comes to Christian contexts: as the default, our expectations about love do not change once we become a Christian. If love for us is an adrenaline rush before coming to Christ, we will probably continue to be an adrenaline junkie in our Christian convictions. Are you one who seeks after approval and appreciation before you gave yourself to the Lord? Then you will probably still be seeking approval and appreciation. You might change how you expect to receive that approval from performance to simply being a person, but you are still focused on approval. Are you a person who is deeply committed and wants a commitment from others; then commitment will define the relationships you wlll want to be involved in?
However, the closer our teaching about love conforms to the Biblical canon, the more the instructions will be geared towards faith and faithfulness, as this is the overriding way in which God’s love for people is defined and this is the way Paul defines the relationship people are to have with God. At the center of a Biblical love isn’t some ecstatic experience or a feeling of appreciation, but a trusting commitment that perseveres. God’s long-suffering love for Israel and the world and our hopeful expectations in the midst of life that doesn’t always show the power of God’s presence directly to us. This type of love can not be based upon energy and approval, because it would either fade with disappointment and exhaustion or dovetail into imaginary dreams where we can experience that energy and approval.
This isn’t to deny the energizing and appreciative aspects of love for the Church. Worship and communities that can marshall people’s energies, hopes, and (Realistic) optimism can serve to energize the way people live of their commitments to God and one another. Communities that provide appropriate levels of approval and appreciation can help people to continue in their commitments, while trusting others will be committed to them, But it is only to say if our understanding and expectations of God’s love and our love for reaching others is based upon energy and/or approval, there is still some learning, stretching, and growing to do. Why? Because occasionally, God performs dramatic, quick work, but for the most part, there are no shortcuts. We must be able to hear and see through the eyes and ears of faith in God’s love and power and respond in faithfulness to retain our involvement, engagement, expectations, and attunement to God’s will and work. The wells of energy and appreciation just don’t go deep enough into the human heart.