One of the most problematic axioms in the popular evangelical culture that raised me is to say that love is a choice, not a feeling. Evangelicals say this to contrast “Christian” love (agape), which is all about arduous self-sacrifice, with “worldly” love (eros), which is fickle and self-centered. But if you asked an orthodox Christian from any other era whether it’s proper to call agape our choice, they would say rightly that our ability to channel agape is not something we can do on our own, but always a gift from God. An improper understanding of agape love reduces it to a flippant, shallow ideological term. I would like to share a passage from 20th century mystic Simone Weil that captures the movement of agape love quite well.
The soul does not love like a creature with created love. The love within it is divine, uncreated; for it is the love of God for God that is passing through it. God alone is capable of loving God. We can only consent to give up our own feelings so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love. That is the meaning of denying oneself. We are created for this consent, and for this alone. [Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 134]
I would quibble with some of Weil’s terminology, but the basic gist of her illustration is powerfully true. Weil is talking here specifically about the way that we love God, the strange truth that in fact God is loving God through us when that happens. As it says in 1 John 4:10, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he first loved us.” We’re so used to using the phrase “God is love” as some kind of ideological proof-text in a culture war debate that we seldom step back to reflect on the strange, wonderful meaning of that statement.
If God is love, then when we love, God is moving through us. Any time love happens, God is the one who started it. This does not mean that every fluttery feeling of need we have towards another person is actually love and receives God’s endorsement. But all genuine love belongs entirely to God and is his gift to us. Now there are many people in the world who love without knowing God, but their lack of naming God does not mean that God has shunned them; it simply means they are accidental vessels of God’s love. We do not choose to love. We can choose to embrace our role as God’s vessels with intentionality and ask God to fill us with love and use us to fill the world with his love. It is incredibly more blessed to be an intentional vessel of God’s love than an accidental one.
This is very important because love has become a very cheap term in popular Christian discourse, particularly in our tedious culture war debates. It is true that we can choose to practice kindness toward our enemies or people whose behavior we consider to be sinful. But you cannot choose to love your enemies; only God can gift you with that ability. You cannot say you love your enemies until your heart has been broken by their humanity to the point that your ideological caricatures of them have melted away. To love our enemies requires pleading with God to let us see the beauty that he sees in them.
Love is way more than a rational choice. In a sense, it’s the opposite of a rational choice because it’s a surrender of my sovereignty to God. I’m not sure it’s terribly useful to draw hard distinctions between the four Greek words for love (agape, eros, storge, and philia) as though they are completely different phenomena. They bleed into each other all the time. As C.S. Lewis recognized in his Four Loves, there’s a little bit of agape in every kind of love. The more that we are intentionally surrendered to God so that his love can flow through us, the better we will love as friends, parents, and spouses.
This is why the cliche “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is such a farcical, empty statement. If you actually love someone, then you cannot reduce that person’s humanity to a list of sins. That’s why Paul says, “Love keeps no record of wrongs” in 1 Corinthians 13, which offers an exhaustive definition of agape love. Love doesn’t see a list; love sees a person. Sure, you’re going to want people you love to stop doing things that hurt themselves and others, but it’s not because you’re making a stance on an issue. It’s because you know them deeply enough that you’re actually hurt by what hurts them in a way that keeps you awake at night.
Love means trusting God enough that I’m willing to risk the complete shipwrecking of my presumptions and stereotypes for the sake of an authentic relationship with another person. The degree to which my categories for the rest of humanity are confidently intact is the degree to which I have not let God shatter my self-assurance with his love. Love is the opposite of a stance; it’s being swept into chaotic whirlwind of God’s grace. Let us all be taken up into that storm.