Publication Forthcoming in Greater Phoenix Christian Chronicle
I think I’m on safe ground saying that our culture is confused about love. In fact, people’s most common mistake when it comes to love is calling things love that are actually just examples of selfishness based on attachment to a person. Though it is natural, normal, and good to be attached to people, we must never assume that this is love. And the easiest way to see this is by comparing it with our attachment to our possessions.
I am attached to my car, which is why I would suffer if it were stolen, damaged, or destroyed. But I don’t love my car because I don’t care about my car’s needs. My car is an object, not a person, and I only care about what my car means to me by virtue of what it can do for me. This is the proper relationship of humans to objects.
The problem is that what most people call love is in fact merely this sort of attachment, just directed at a person rather than an object. It’s probably not over-simplifying to say that most people would define love as attachment to other people. Of course, love often involves attachment, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being attached to people. But whereas objects have value exclusively because of their attachment to us, people have value all on their own independently from us. That is why the destruction of a person is always a tragedy (even in cases where it is necessary), regardless of whether this destruction hurts anyone else’s feelings. Humans have value regardless of their attachments. They have value in themselves.
And that’s where the possibility of love comes in. Love means serving people’s real needs, regardless of whether doing so runs contrary to our own emotional pleasure. This is why it is so inverted that people use the word love to describe so many acts which are merely emotional self-indulgence.
For instance, when you feel like you must be around another person all the time and your heart aches in their absence, this is not love. This is just being emotionally addicted to someone. Love would ask whether you are a the ideal blessing for this other person.
When you see your child suffering pain because of his own poor decisions and your agony is so great that you intervene to spare him, this is not love. This is worshipping your own empathy. Love would recognize his need to learn discipline and consequences, regardless of how much pain watching this caused you.
And when you weep because someone close to you moves away for marriage, this is not love. This is the contemplation of companionship lost to you. Love would celebrate their joy at a union which will give the gift of new life.
It’s not that feelings are bad, but all of these examples involve placing more emphasis on our emotions than on the needs of the other. And the easiest way to tell whether we are being loving or being selfish is to ask a simple question, “Am I acting to serve my own pleasure and pain, or am I acting to do what is good for them?” When we put our feelings ahead of other’s real needs, we have discovered ourselves objectifying other people and treating them as merely means to our own emotional gratification. Thus, the most common examples of what our culture calls love wind up being incredibly selfish acts instead.
Obedience is only shown when we don’t want to follow the rules but still do so. Submission is only shown when we disagree with the leaders but follow them anyway. And love is only shown when serving another person’s real needs will cause us pain and we choose to do what is best for them rather than what feels good to us…as the Cross should remind us.