Title: What is Love?

Author: Ben Hughes

Ben is an MDiv student at Covenant Theological Seminary, he and his wife have been worshipping with us (and helping lead worship) this year.

I recently read a Christian mystic who made the claim that the highest form of love thinks nothing of itself.  Love, he said, begins in its lower forms as something that is self-seeking, but the ultimate goal is to get beyond personal interests and to be completely immersed in the object of affection for its own sake.  The best lovers do not care if they are loved in return.

I have had the good fortune of loving a thing or two in this life, and I have been fascinated by the mysterious pull of love.  I have invested (some might say wasted) a good deal of time and thought trying to understand love in the abstract, but my efforts were something like trying to nail a glob of Jello to a wall or explain gravity.  Those who understand love most realize that they know little about it.  I am wary of the man who speaks of it as if he knows exactly what he is talking about.  I do know this though, that I am not, and perhaps never will be, capable of the kind of love that my mystic author-friend speaks of.  I am beginning to wonder if I ever should be.

If the best form of love is, in fact, completely selfless, then it must follow that unselfishness is the highest good, and love is just a means to achieving it.  In such a view, a man might become married for selfish reasons, but the ultimate purpose of the marriage would be self-denial.  In the extreme, that man might actually deny himself time with his wife for the mere reason that it is something he takes pleasure in.  The purpose then of the love would ultimately be a negation, and the self-denial would be dangerously self-centered.

In June 1941 C.S. Lewis preached a message, titled The Weight of Glory, which has come to be known as one of the greatest sermons of the 20th century.  It was mainly an exploration of the Biblical idea of “glory” and what it might look like to be glorified, but it begins with a discussion of Christian love and desire.  Lewis writes:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is not part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.[1]

Lewis wishes to contend with the false characterization of Christians as ascetics who disdain passion and pleasure.  Christians are encouraged to follow God for what seems to be a very selfish reason: namely, that eternal fellowship with Christ is the most ravenous pleasure in the entire universe.  Christ does not play on our stoic nobility by asking us to take up our crosses just because it is our duty.  He bribes us with himself.

Self-denial is a means to love, not the other way around.  Those who love with no view of their own self-interest betray a very weak view of love itself.  They think that it is not powerful to fulfill the needs and desires of both parties involved.  It would be blasphemy to stand before the throne of God and deny his offer of eternal bliss because you were trying to follow Jesus’ example of self-denial.  That would be to miss the point of the command and reject something eternal (love) in the interest of something temporary (selflessness).

A lot of this confusion comes from a relatively recent (the past few centuries) shift in our societal focus from the group to the individual.  Love, by nature, requires two objects: both the lover and the thing loved.[2]  The best kind of love is that which satisfies them both.  The loved one receives the affections of the lover, and the lover thoroughly enjoys the one they love.  Key here is the idea that the lover seeks his/her own good in the benefit of the other.  Neither side is seen as being especially noble, but both sides profit.  The glory goes to Love itself.

With an individualistic approach, however, only one party is in view: the one who loves.  The focus here is not on enjoying love, but being a good lover.  Virtues like selflessness are held at a premium, and no one really gives thought to whether or not the loved one actually receives anything. Ironically, love that aims to be perfectly selfless ends up being the most selfish kind of all.

John, the apostle who walked and talked with Jesus, writes, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn. 5:15b).  Focusing on self-denial at the cost of love actually robs God of glory.  He created love and he wants his children to enjoy it just as he wants them to enjoy himself.  Our affections should not resemble stoic indifference, but passionate, desire-driven love – a force stronger than death.



[1] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in Transposition and other Addresses (London, Geoffrey Bless, 1949), 21.

[2] Note that even self-love, in its proper form, is really channeled through God.  She who loves herself rightly actually loves God’s image in her person.  Any kind of self-love outside of this is actually a kind of hatred.