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

Broken heart drawing.

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.

Blogging update
What my feminism is, and why I’m not okay with “mansplaining”
We are not the enemies of our best selves
Daughter of the Patriarchy, epilogue: What does leaving fundamentalism look like?
  • http://campuskritik.blogspot.com Malte

    I was raised in British evangelicalism, which lacks the activism of its American equivalent: we were mostly politically passive, save occasional complaints about the country’s slide into irreligion.

    Yet we, too, were taught that love must be displayed in action – while simultaneously being quite feelings-based (‘loving your enemies’ meant cultivating warm feelings towards people you disliked). I think we failed by omission. We didn’t actively go out to curtail the rights of women and LGBTQ people; we just stood by while claiming to love them deeply. The fact that that contradiction has never entered my mind until now is quite telling.

    • Steve

      If American evangelicals were like that, the country would be a much better place…

  • http://calulu.blogspot.com Calulu

    How perfectly stated, Sierra!

  • http://www.pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com Latebloomer

    I also grew up hearing that love is an action and feelings are deceitful, and I love your insight into that :).

    Unfortunately, fundamentalists are able to believe that their harmful actions ARE loving because standing up for God’s truth is always the loving thing to do, to save others from God’s judgement. The more persistent and dedicated you are to the “truth”, the deeper your love of God and others.

    But I still don’t get how so many fundamentalists feel ok about delivering the “truth” in a wannabe epic smack down style though. It makes me think it’s not about helping anyone, but more about them getting high on feelings of participating in a “culture war”.

    • ScottInOH

      I remember feeling like the phrase “tough love” was invented to allow Christians to be jerks. It was touted as an alternative to the touchy-feely approach of never correcting anyone for anything, but that was a strawperson in the first place.

  • http://pslibrary.com MrPopularSentiment

    They talk about “love” like it’s a thing that has been defined and can be observed and measured. Only thing is, if you say the word “love” in a room with 100 people, you’re going to get 100 different definitions.

    So yeah, the kind of love that “held the thrill” is not the same as the love that gets you through the long term with someone. Just as the love that is suitable between spouses is not the same as the love that is suitable between parent and child, or the love between friends. And that’s not to say that any of these types of love are better or hold more moral worth than any of the others.

    That being said, I do kinda agree that love is also action, insomuch as we are little feedback loop machines. How we act is informed by how we feel, and how we feel is influenced by how we act. It’s a quirk of psychology – our brains actually look to our body’s behaviour for cues on how to interpret it’s own feelings. Try it sometime – if you’re feeling down, just put on a smile and act cheerful. After a while, you’ll generally start to actually feel cheerful. Same goes, unfortunately, for acting miserable. That’s how people can quickly spiral as their behaviour and their emotions keep bringing them further and further down.

    So yes, part of spousal love is going to be doing and saying nice things to/for each other. Making sure to communicate openly even when you don’t really feel like it helps to ensure that you can at least vicariously share day-to-day experiences, which keeps up that connection between you. Keeping the other in mind as you go about your day allows you to find opportunities to do nice things for each other and keep positive feelings going. All of this will help you avoid being miserable together.

    But once you are miserable together, there’s only so much behavioural cues can help. If you’re fighting all the time and one or both spouses is unwilling to put any effort into developing better conflict resolution habits, or if the relationship becomes physically abusive or exceedingly based on emotional manipulation, what is the point of staying together? Who is served by misery?

    Anyways, I also really liked the comparison between “love is what you do, not what you feel” and “love the sinner, hate the sin.” I’d never thought of it that way, but I have nothing to add to that part of the discussion, so…

  • Rosa

    This is beautiful, Sierra. I was groping after this comparison and completely failed to be able to make it clear. Thank you for being so clear and concise about it.

  • Michelle M

    I, too, remember hearing that love is a choice, not a feeling. In fact, it was pounded into my head by a woman at my church growing up. Her word was very influential in our church, so if she said it, it must be true.

    Come to find out later that she pretty much lived in a loveless marriage. This woman, who was counseling other women to put up with their husband’s shit because “love is an action”, did not want to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary because her marriage had been 40 years of misery. It had been very convenient for her to sell that “love is a choice” tripe because that was the misery she lived in for so long. If she was miserable, then everyone else should be too. She had to “choose to love” her husband every day, all the while despising him. What kind of life is that? Yet she thought it was for God’s glory that she stayed with him for so long and “chose” to love him.

    I am still angry when I think about it. I don’t understand how these people thought that a long marriage is more important than a good marriage. And all because they believed that feelings are deceitful and love is a choice.

    I don’t know how coherent this post is because it’s late and I’m tired, but thanks for letting me vent!

  • http://www.kmareka.com ninjanurse

    I would rather be honestly liked by any random person than impersonally loved by a Christian who doesn’t want to know me as an individual.

  • Rebecca Newman

    This is so beautiful – thanks SO much, Sierra! I, like Rosa, have been struggling to put these sentiments in words myself, having been frustrated about the convenient varieties of Christian “love,” and now here it is spelled out, oh, so clearly.

  • Robert

    None of this is directed to church or Christians for that matter. It is pointed towards people who slap on a title and claim a tag they are not living or dying for.
    Secondly the last paragraph is based on a very limited experience view point. I would even question whether this writer has children. Sometimes punishing or children or anyone for that matter is directly out of love for correction not just punishment solely. To let them continue their behavior would be unloving.

    • Anonymous

      Sometimes punishment is necessary when raising children, yes. But sometimes the parent is wrong, sometimes the parent needs to listen, sometimes punishments are unjust and apologies are needed. A loving parent respects their child enough not to simply assume that they are right and the child is wrong.

      Fundies do not do that. They don’t believe that people outside their worldview could have anything worthwhile to say, that people could make choices they don’t agree with and still have those choices be valid. They are right, everyone else is wrong. Of course, they’ll still *claim* love, but their definition of love apparently does not entail respect, because their lack of respect for others is always *painfully* obvious.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is that fundies are a lot more willing to mete out punishment than love. To continue your analogy of a parent and child, a parent who constantly punishes and refuses to listen, compromise, or accept would considered a bad parent. Similarly, fundies usually either shame and ostracize, or claim condescending “compassion” towards, people who don’t meet their standards. They refuse to believe that “those people” could have anything worthy to say, or could make valid choices. Love entails respecting someone enough to accept that you might disagree sometimes, and sometimes *you* will be the one who needs to change. Merely punishing anyone who falls outside of your worldview is not love.