A Fundamentalist Christian Paradox? “Love is an Action, Not a Feeling” vs. “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”

by Sierra

A comment on Libby Anne’s blog recently got me thinking about love, and what it means to fundamentalist Christians. The comment went like this:

You’re forgetting that love has nothing to do with our actions, it’s a feeling that can be arbitrarily asserted to make anything okay.

The problem is, that’s the opposite of what I was taught. Don Francisco’s “Love is Not a Feeling” was an incredibly popular song in my evangelical-fundamentalist circle. It encapsulated the doctrine that you don’t just “fall in love” with someone or love them because they make you happy, you only really love them if you love them by making a choice. Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics:

Your emotions have vanished that once held the thrill
You wonder if love could be alive in you still
But that ring on your finger, was put there to say
You’ll never forget the words you promised that day

Jesus didn’t die for you because it was fun
He hung there for love because it had to be done
And despite of the anguish, his word was fulfilled
Love is not a feeling; it’s an act of your will
Love is not a feeling; it’s an act of your will

The message of the song is, obviously, that dissatisfaction is not a reason for divorce. That marriage requires sacrifice. That sacrificing your personal happiness to save a marriage is equivalent to Jesus dying on the cross. But those last lines of the refrain were not applied only to marriage. We were taught that emotions were ephemeral and that human bonds expire. We were taught that “worldly” people entered and left relationships on whims, when they felt a sexual spark or got sick of each other. What set us apart was supposed to be the way we made commitments: we “chose” to love people despite how we felt about them.

What the heck does that even mean?

How do you love someone without feeling for them? I’d imagine by acting in their best interests, doing your best to care for their needs and doing nice things for them. After all, evangelical Christian women who feel alienated from their husbands are instructed to go out of their way to cook them nicer dinners, wear clothes they like, initiate sex, give massages and pep talks and small, thoughtful gifts. It’s “fake it ’til you make it” as a marriage counseling technique.

That makes sense, right? That love is an admonition to be kind to people even if you aren’t crazy about them? It even seems in line with the following Bible verses, which are about cultivating love as a way of social life:

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8.

Except for another problematic facet of evangelical love: “hate the sin, love the sinner.” How can you claim to love the sinner when your love is killing them?

  • Love is not patient when it hurries you to the altar to conform “before it’s too late.”
  • Love is not kind when it denies homeless children loving families because their adoptive parents would be gay.
  • Love envies when it yells about “taking back America” from non-evangelical neighbors.
  • Love boasts when it believes that all the things it doesn’t do (wear jeans, listen to rock, visit the beach) makes it special.
  • Love is proud when it claims superiority based on deeper piety or knowledge of the “Truth”.
  • Love dishonors others when it tells them poverty is their fault.
  • Love is self-seeking when more members mean more tithes.
  • Love is easily angered when seeing a public figure’s political party is enough to raise blood pressure, before they even say anything.
  • Love keeps a record of wrongs when it punishes girls for having sex.
  • Love delights in evil when it “laughs” in response to child abuse allegations.
  • Love does not rejoice with the truth when it covers up child abuse to protect a great man’s reputation.
  • Love does not protect when it bans others from the securities of marriage.
  • Love does not trust when it prejudges a woman’s salvation because she works and sends her kids to school.
  • Love does not hope when it declares that society is going to hell in a handbasket because women vote.
  • Love does not persevere when it kicks nonconforming children out on the street to “protect” younger ones.

Love fails when it does violence to the beloved. 

Evangelical Christians claim that “love” motivates the spanking of children “for their own good”.

Evangelical Christians claim that “love is corrective” or that “tough love” is what God requires.

These things make me wonder whether evangelical Christians have any working definition of love at all. When a loving mother beats her newborn child for crying to be picked up, what kind of love is that? When a man chastises his wife for not cheerfully obeying his orders, what kind of love is that? What kind of love calls you an abomination? What kind of love tells you that Satan designed your body, that you can send someone to hell just by walking by?

If love is a feeling, I suppose you can love someone while acting against their best interests. You can love somebody and still be a selfish idiot, after all.

If love is an action, though, how can you punish someone and love them at the same time? How can you claim to love someone in an active sense when your actions directly harm them? How can you claim to love them when you don’t honor, trust, protect or forgive them? How can you claim to be loving toward them when you are impatient and furious with them? How can you love them when you believe they are inferior?

What kind of love demands that you change everything about yourself?

With love like that, I think I’d rather be hated.

Comments open below

Read everything by Sierra!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Sierra blogs at The Phoenix and the Olive Branch

Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog  the phoenix and the olive branch

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

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  • BB/VA

    Absolutely awesomely stated, Sierra!

  • Karen

    Some good observations. However, I’d object to your using the word ‘Evangelical’ for this. Evangelical is so broad that it’s a bit unfair for you to make blanket statements. I consider myself Evangelical, and this can hardly reflect what I believe.

    In the end, I think they have it both right and wrong. Love is an action – ‘to love’ is an active verb, and we regularly make the decision to behave in a loving way towards someone. However, many of the Christians who embrace this don’t really realize that love also requires empathy, or it isn’t love. That’s where they go way off course – there is no empathy involved, and often not even sympathy. A true act of love often – but not always, as in the case of, say, interventions – seeing something through the other person’s eyes and then approaching them in a way that will not offend them. In fact, that passage in the Bible (I can’t remember where it is) about not needlessly offending someone might be what they’re missing here….

  • beth

    Sierra, this is a fantastic post. Your list of “love is not patient when….love is not kind when…” is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in ages. It should be put on a poster along with the original Bible quote. I would love to hang that in my home.