Thursday, January 12, 2017

What is Love (Baby, Don't Hurt Me)

We've talked a lot about the need to love on this blog. We've talked about how love is at the heart of all of scripture and is at the root of what it means to follow God, and conversely how the absence of love is sin. But we haven't worked on a careful definition of love itself.

Assumptions about Love

We use the word love all the time. We love clothes and food and cars and pets and children and friends and family and partners. But how can something as varied as that be the same thing? Ancient and modern people alike have attempted to solve this by using different words. The Greek words for love denote brotherly love (philos), sexual attraction (eros), and pure or idealized love (agape). The bible, of course, is most often referring to the idealized love, to agape. The problem with that is that we don't have an external definition for agape.

Most often agape is defined as unconditional love or pure love and if any example is given, it is the love that God has for humanity as shown through Jesus. This borders on tautological. God is love and love looks like God. This leaves us with our personal definitions of God to define what love looks like. If our view of God is one of tough love, punishment that refines, and uncompromising standards, we might want to express love towards other in similar ways. If our view of God is one of warmth and acceptance, grace that welcomes, and easy forgiveness, we might want to express love towards others in a similar way. When we try to follow God's commands to love we have an incredibly difficult time knowing if we are being successful because our definition of love is so rooted in our own estimation of God. In effect we are saying that the way to be more like God is to be more like what we imagine God to be like, which will change and shift based on the person doing the imagining. This isn't a particularly helpful definition of love.

So a definition of love that is helpful in determining how much we love ourselves, people, and God must be divorced from our personal views of God, but if this definition is to help us learn to obey the greatest commands, it has to also encompass all of the behavior of God and Jesus who are the biblical models for love. So love cannot be merely grace and mercy, because God is wrathful in the bible. Nor can love be entirely harsh and uncompromising because God forgives freely in the bible. 

Grace and Truth

There is one place in the bible where God describes himself. God is often described, and in the oracles of the prophets, spoke about himself to his people, but in all of scripture we only have one place where Yahweh-God, in his own voice, speaks about himself: 

Exodus 34:5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the Lord by name. The Lord passed by before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”
We see both of these aspects of God play out throughout scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. God is gracious and compassionate, but also just. God is forgiving, but also stern. God killed thousands and ordered the deaths of thousands more. God sent his people into exile as a punishment and a lesson, but he also redeemed them out of captivity. Jesus confronted and condemned the Pharisees and drove people out of the temple with a whip, but he also made time for the outcasts and marginalized and sinners.

Any definition of love, that encompasses the totality of God's actions in the bible, must encompass these dual aspects. There are echoes of Exodus 34 in John 1 where Jesus is described as God in the flesh who "came from the Father full of grace and truth" (vs.14). Grace and truth or justice and mercy are these dual aspects and, I believe, the core of what love really is.

Appreciation and Needs

There are two main ways that we tend to show love. We appreciate things about each other and we act in ways that show that our needs matter to each other. So I can show love by offering a compliment or holding open the door for someone with full hands. I can also do the unloving things of offering an insult or taking from someone what they need. A perfect expression of love would say that everything about someone is appreciated (celebrated, adored), and every need of theirs is valued. The perfect opposite of love would be when everything about someone is despised and none of their needs are valued. 

Appreciating is whenever you like an aspect of someone or something. In this sense you can appreciate anything. You can like the taste of food or the appearance of a car. You can like the appearance of a person or their sense of humor. You can like some things but not everything. You can like the way a car looks, but not its performance. You can like the appearance of a person, but not their sense of humor. Increasing appreciation can happen through both depth and breadth. You can work to appreciate more things about someone, we often call this 'getting to know' someone. The more options there are available, the more chance we'll have to appreciate some of them. We can also increase the depth of appreciation by learning more about one aspect that we appreciate, like going to a concert with someone. We tend to like someone or something when more than half of what we know about them we appreciate. Feelings of love appear when we appreciate almost everything we know. In this way we can love things (I really appreciate red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, like in every possible way), but hold that love for people is greater than love for things while still being on the same continuum. There are far more things to know about a person than about a cupcake so while I can appreciate nearly everything about a cupcake, I will never be able to appreciate as much in total as I can with a person. It also helps to explain how I can love a cupcake more than some people whom I know nothing about. 

Valuing needs is when you weigh the needs of the object or person against your own. Devaluing is taking from the needs of the object or person. I value my cupcake by carrying it in a box and carefully protecting that box from being crushed. I would devalue my cupcake if I tossed the box into the bottom of my bag and threw books on top of it (the horror!). Cupcakes don't have many needs though, so there's not a lot of range for expressing love to them. People have many more needs and needs that can compete with my own. My need for an income can compete with your need for an income if we are both applying for the same job. My need for privacy can compete with your need for connection if you want to spend time with me while I want to be alone. Cupcakes are nowhere near as complicated! So for people it's important to specify that we weigh the needs of the person against our own. Perfect application would be to say that the needs of the other person are equal in weight to my own. The closer I get to that goal, the closer I come to the ideal of valuing their needs completely. The reality is that I usually place my needs above everyone else's, but for the people I like I consider their needs more carefully. Think about getting a pizza with other people. With strangers you'll just order what you want and they can deal with it because you're the one who ordered the pizza (only their need for food is considered). With co-workers you might get a cheese, pepperoni, and a combination because you value their needs enough to not want to hear about it when they don't get the pizza they want. With friends you might go halfsies on a pizza with plans to share some of each other's half. With family or a partner you might swap off having the kind of pizza you most prefer (I use a lot of food analogies; I like food). 

Weighing of needs becomes far more complicated when we have to decide which city our family will move to based on competing job opportunities or when we want to meet the needs both of a recovering child abuser for housing and the needs of children for safety. Boundaries then become the limits on how we weigh our needs against someone else's when there is competition. The boundary puts a limit on how far down our needs can be pushed when in competition with someone else's needs. For someone I don't know at all they don't get to threaten my needs in any way. If my balance were to go negative at any point, if they were to take from any of my needs physically or emotionally, they would be violating my boundaries. For someone with whom I have fewer boundaries my needs can go unmet for a time to help meet their needs for a time, with my consent, and with the goal of ultimately returning to balance between needs. So if my friend doesn't have money for coffee, I'll pick it up this time. If he gets coffee next time or I buy twice then he buys three times in a row then I buy, it all evens out. Or, on a much larger scale: I'll put off continuing my education so that my partner can pursue her career. While that would be a much longer term sacrifice of needs, it should always be with consent and with the goal of finding balance in the future. The more trust we have with someone and the longer we've committed to be around them, the greater the need imbalance can be and for a longer time, as we wait for things to return to balance. Parents are willing to sacrifice their needs for decades to raise their children. But if needs are never returned to balance or there is no expectation of that balance in the future, then the relationship starts to become toxic as the perpetual imbalance communicates a devaluing of the needs of one person over the needs of another.  

As You Love Yourself

When Jesus was asked the greatest commands his response included that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matt. 22:39). I think a key reason for this is that we cannot appreciate in others what we refuse to appreciate in ourselves and we cannot meet the needs in others that we are unwilling to meet for ourselves. Our capacity for loving others is limited by our capacity for loving ourselves. The more we learn to appreciate ourselves, the more we can appreciate in others and the better we are at recognizing and meeting our own needs, the better we will be at doing so for others. 

So the beginning of love is learning to say to ourselves, "Everything about me is worthy of appreciation and every one of my needs is worthy of being met." If you're like me that's something you'll need to repeat to yourself often as you work to erode the fear and shame that says there is nothing in us worthy of appreciation and none of our needs are worthy of being met. I'm working on it. I'm learning to appreciate more about myself and to fear less that I won't be appreciated. I'm learning to name and express my needs and to take practical steps to meet them. But there's still quite a ways to go before I feel like I can appreciate everything about myself or that all of my needs are valuable. 

The better I get at appreciating the more I can appreciate (wasn't someone just complaining about tautologies earlier?). What I mean is that appreciating is a skill. They talk about acquired tastes, and it's true. You acquire the skill of appreciating something, whether it's fine wine or senses of humor or jazz. Sometimes the best way to start learning to appreciate something is to watch someone else appreciate it. When you see the joy that a joke brings to a friend that makes the joke funnier, when you see the enthusiasm of your partner for a new band you're more likely to listen to appreciate (and if it's your arch-nemesis that introduces you to a band you're more likely to think it's garbage because you dislike the person). But all of the practice starts with appreciating ourselves. We learn to appreciate by doing the hard work of liking the way we look, the way we work, the way we play, the jokes we tell, the things we create. By doing that we open ourselves up to appreciating the same in others. 

The Elasticity of Worth

Most of the world considers worth or worthiness to be an elastic concept that is related to the worth of the individual. Worth is equated with honor, success, or goodness and the better a person is, the more worthy they are of being appreciated and having their needs valued. The worse a person is, the less worthy they are of being appreciated and having their needs valued. And the centerpoint* of good and bad on this continuum is our own personal sense of worth. If we think we're good and that goodness earns us worthiness to be appreciated and our needs valued, then someone who is better than us is more worthy and someone who is worse than us is less worthy. The worse a person gets (i.e. the further from our own sense of goodness), the less about them that should be appreciated or the fewer of their needs valued. Based on this idea a murder deserves to rot in jail and be abused by the other prisoners. A celebrity (or athlete or author or whomever is at the top of the scale on which you compare yourself) deserves their success and all of the good things that happen to them.

In this way our own sense of worth limits our ability and capacity to love. If some people deserve to be appreciated more and some people deserve to have their needs valued more, then others deserve it less. If our worth is tied to our performance or to the accident of our genetics (i.e. physical beauty, athletic or artistic talent, ethnicity, etc.) then we won't ever be able to give or receive complete appreciation and complete valuing of our needs. We will always hold back some part of ourselves from being appreciated or some need of ours from being valued. We will love ourselves less which reduces our capacity to love and be loved. But if we say that there are no goalposts, we proclaim that everyone is worthy of love (i.e. to be appreciated and valued) without having to earn it by performance. 

Loving God

One of the problems I have had with the tautological definition of love (God is love, love like God) is that it doesn't give me a way to know if I'm loving God. But if we see love as appreciation and value, we can evaluate how much we love God (or anyone or anything). The more I work to appreciate God, his creation, his word, the more I am engaging in loving him. The more I work to value God's needs, that is doing what he has asked me to do, the more I am engaging in loving him. I can grow in my capacity and ability to love God. 

God, who loves us perfectly, appreciates everything about us, our appearance our thoughts our creations, they all delight God who calls us chosen, masterpieces, saints, children. God also values our needs completely wanting every person to have a full, eternal life (2 Pet. 3:9).

Now it's important to differentiate between valuing needs and meeting needs. When we love someone we value their needs, but we don't always meet those needs. Valuing a need means wanting that need to be met in the best way possible. Someone can love me and value my need for sex, but not everyone should meet that need! My friends can ask about my sex life, offer advice (if requested), and genuinely care about my needs, without meeting those needs themselves. God can value our needs completely without necessarily meeting them himself. 

The issues become more complicated when the needs of God are placed on balance with the needs of not just one person, but every person. Add to that mix the fact that not everyone is trying to do right. There are many people who are seeking to improve their own sense of worth and worthiness by devaluing the needs of others and despising their attributes. They are being unloving, sinning, by taking from others to meet their own perceived need to be richer, by despising others to meet their own perceived need to be appreciated. They are seeking a sense of appreciation and value, but doing so at the cost of others. So, if God loves us, why doesn't he stop this? To do so, God would have to take away someone else's need for personal autonomy, for self-determination, and that is the absolute last resort when someone is taking from the needs of another person. It is, essentially, the question of how much suffering by one person is worth taking the life of another person? That question is awful on either side. No one should be made to suffer. Neither should anyone be killed. But when those needs are in competition there must be a choice. Because of this I believe that the need of God that we can directly address is to make space for others to love and be loved. 

Here's the logical train that I used to get there: first Jesus sums up all of the law and prophets in the commands to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. God's commands, the laws, the revelation of what he wants his people to do is all summed up in love. Those we see God punish or kill in the bible are promoting idolatry (the appreciation and value of not God), are preventing people from loving God (e.g. The Flood, the Ten Plagues), or are harming people for their own gain (e.g. Sodom and Gomorrah). God uses the ultimate boundary setting, killing people, only to preserve the ability of people to love and be loved. The laws in the bible and God's use of wrath are both in support of boundaries that protect the ability of people to love God, to love themselves, and to love each other. 

What's Next?

This definition for love is my best hypothesis based on what I'm observing. I still have a few loose pieces to fit into my model (e.g. Nadab and Abihu), but overall I'm happy with the way that it defines love as something that is measurable and understandable, it incorporates both God's mercy but also his justice, it makes space for needs and boundaries without seeing them as limits to love, and it locates all of us on a continuum of loving and being loved. It also gives precise meanings to phrases like 'worthy of love and belonging' which I can further define as having the inherent value to be appreciated in all your attributes, to be valued in all your needs, and to be in a community willing and able to fulfill that appreciation and valuing. It also allows us to define shame and vulnerability in terms of appreciation and value. Shame is feeling like we should not be appreciated and valued, while vulnerability is feeling like we are able to be appreciated and valued. The more I close off sharing my attributes and needs out of a sense that they are not worth being appreciated and valued, the less I have the opportunity to be valued and appreciated. The more I am willing to risk sharing my attributes and needs, the greater the chance of having them appreciated and valued.

How does this definition strike you? Does it seem helpful? What have I not fit into this model?

*Our estimation of our own worth and value actually tends toward the upper end of the continuum of our personal views. We tend to view ourselves as better than average with some space below us on the continuum for people who are good, but not as good as us, but the point still holds that when we equate worth for being loved with our performance, that external judgement of worth for others is inextricably tied to our internal feeling of self-worth.