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What is Love? Five Lessons from St. Paul

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By Will Deatherage, Executive Director

Love is arguably one of the most misunderstood concepts in modern Western civilization, given the word’s diverse meanings in English. I can say that I love my girlfriend just as I can say I love my toaster, yet it would be inaccurate to say that my love for the former is similar to my love for the latter. This is why many languages, such as Greek, have different words for different kinds of love. In today’s readings, St. Paul’s treatise on love focuses on agape, which means love as a self-giving act that is directed towards the good of another person. Agape is a love that inspires people to suffer, sacrifice, and even die for others, and while I admire and appreciate my jalapeno-cheese bagel toasting machine, God calls us to reserve this kind of love for our neighbors and Himself. St. Paul’s description of love as agape is quite detailed, and today I would like to share just a few lessons it has taught me about love.

Love is patient, endures all things, and is not quick-tempered

They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.

Jer 1:19

Loving someone can be quite difficult. From listening to a friend lament about a breakup for what feels like the millionth time, to helping a family member who has relapsed into drug abuse, loving someone can take an immense amount of patience. God’s relationship with Israel gives us the perfect example of what this loving patience looks like, though, since despite all of the latter’s failures, God promises the prophet Jeremiah that through thick and thin He will love and save His people. Throughout the roughest of times, we, like the Israelites, are not only called to love the God who has been patient with us, but we must love each other in that same vain. Patience, however, does not mean stubbornness. I have many friends who found themselves in abusive relationships under the assumption that the other person will change eventually. Authentic patience requires the virtue of prudence, which advises us when it is appropriate to engage in difficult situations. Our patience has its limits, and sometimes loving someone in a means stepping aside and patiently waiting for them to be ready to receive our help.

Love is kind, not pompous, not rude, and is not inflated

I will sing of your salvation.

Ps 71:15ab

There is a difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. While the former is often associated with professed belief, the latter involves acting according to said beliefs. Likewise, saying that you love someone is very different than showing them that you love them. While words can, indeed, be powerful, a demonstration of self-gift and sacrifice often conveys love better than words can. Consider Pope Francis, who not only professes his love for the vulnerable, but demonstrates it in his humility. On a personal level, consider which is more powerful: saying “I love you” to your girlfriend on your anniversary or getting her flowers and grilling her a steak. Thus, professing kindness is very different than actually being kind. These acts of love, however, are nullified if they are done in a rude or boastful manner. Cooking someone a meal, for example, whilst complaining about it diminishes its lovingness. Likewise, giving someone a gift and constantly reminding them of it mutates self-gift into self-appraisal.

Love does not seek its own interests

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you

Jer 1:4

Existence is proof of agape’s self-disinterestedness. He not only created us without our merit, but even after we rejected Him, He still gave us the opportunity to pursue a relationship with Him. Our existence neither adds nor detracts from God’s perfection, so there is literally nothing He owes us. But because God is the epitome of self-gift, He loves us, nonetheless. We, too, are called to love our friends and enemies, not because they owe us, but so that we may emulate that same giftedness that comes from God. And just as God expressed His love to us in the most approachable way possible, becoming human, we are called to love people in ways they enjoy being loved. For example, I cannot stand Hallmark movies, yet few things will make me happier than watching one with my girlfriend, who adores them. This is because, for humans, loving others does actually add to our perfection. Part of self-gift involves immersing ourselves in the hopes, desires, and pleasures of those whom we love. In doing so, we unite ourselves to the broader interests of humanity. Disinterestedness should not be confused with apathy, though. It is not enough to passively go through the motions of activities with loved ones; one must be engaged with the loving experience to reap its rewards. After all, who would you rather watch a movie with: someone who laughs and cries throughout the film or someone who is on their phone the whole time? Thus, to love others, we must abandon self-interest in pursuit of authentic interest in the other person.

Love is not Jealous, Love does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.

Lk 28-30

In the above passage, the people of the synagogue were filled with ill-will for the One who loved them the most. Presumably, many of these people were likely priests and scribes who were jealous about the attention our Lord received. It is easy for us to also become jealous of others, especially those whom we love. For example, I admit that I cannot stand it when friends of mine are invited to events that I am not invited to. Similarly, a friend of mine helped a procrastinator write an essay for a class, and when the latter received a higher grade than the former, they were overwhelmed with jealousy and bitterness. However, while we must not rejoice in wrongdoing, this does not mean that we should prevent people from suffering consequences of their irresponsibility. For example, a parent who buys their child a brand-new car immediately after a drunk driving accident with no consequences hardly does their child a favor. So, while love is not jealous of fortune, it also allows for misfortune to befall a person if they can learn from its consequences.

Love bears all things, Love believes all things, Love hopes all things, Love does not brood over injury,

For you are my hope, O Lord; my trust, O God, from my youth.

Ps 71:3

“Love” is arguably one of the most misused words in modern media. Between its conflation with sexual love (eros) and its hijacking by existentialism, which equates love with sheer empowerment, love seems to now mean letting someone do whatever they want if it gives them pleasure. This is not what St. Paul means when he says that love believes all things and bears all things. Instead, love involves trust, not naivete. It believes in the other person’s love for you and it looks forward to the actualization of the other’s good. Loving someone means telling your child that they cannot have dessert before dinner. It means helping a chain smoker will overcome their addiction, rather than letting them continue their destructive behavior. And when couples go through rough patches, love will not focus on the negative but will recall the positive and hope for better in the future. Thus, love hoping and bearing all things is not a relativistic or hedonistic idea, rather it gives love an eschatological nature, as the self-gift helps us to look forward to reaping the rewards from those whom we love, especially God.

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One Response

  1. Agape love is also a fruit of the Spirit. This brings it to an even higher level than what we do for others. It is an inner quality of grace and the Spirit that reaches outward. Paul says that we can do outstanding things, but that they don’t do us any good without agape love.

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