[Disclaimer: this is a long entry & probably poses more questions than answers]

There’s a reason Seinfeld is the #1 comedy of all time: it makes fun of our deepest insecurities and failures and helps us laugh at the things that we want and do that are misguided by our selfish urges. The episode where George decides to tell his girlfriend, Sienna, that he loves her is an excellent example. Who knows whether or not George is really in love with this girl, he just wants to be able to say it to someone for once in his life and have them say it back to him in return. And, in true Seinfeld fashion, it goes horribly wrong for George. He tells her “I love you” twice and she never returns the words to him. He’s completely exposed and crushed and it makes for great situational comedy.

Being “in” Love

I’ve always thought that the words we use to describe our love relationship with another person as kind of . . . well . . . not helpful. For example, the phrase, “I’m in love.” I understand what it means, I’m just not sure that I like it. It makes love sound like some sort of location or state of being. Love seems to be this place that I or we can be in, but there’s no guarantee that either of us will be there 5 minutes from now. There is no connotation of permanence; it is a temporary state. It over-emphasizes the feelings of love (which easily come and go) rather than the act of love. And, finally, it doesn’t help describe or answer other important questions like, “why am I “in” love?”, “how did I get here?”, and “What now?”.

“Falling” in Love

Why do we use the word ‘fall’ to describe how we have come to love another person? Was it some accident that we are trying to explain? “Well, you see, I was on my way to work and I wasn’t paying attention to where I was stepping and, whoops!, I just fell in love!”

Certainly not.

Was it some mysterious “force” that made us do it? “Well, officer, I was at the bar like I said, and I was minding my own business. Honest! I thought we were just friends; I had no intentions of starting anything, but that night at the dance hall she just looked really pretty and stuff . . . and there was this bright light and my insides felt all funny, so I felt like I should tell her I was in love with her.”

Really? This is how we get from strangers to “until death do us part”?

What Love Is.

Ask any two people on the street what love is and you probably won’t get the same answer – especially when you ask them to describe romantic love. This is what makes relationships particularly messy. Each of us has a different definition / standard / expectation of what love is and what love should look like. So, which one should we use? Whose definition of love gets to be the standard for the relationship?

The correct answer is neither.

If only one person’s standard of love is adopted in the relationship, the other person’s expectations and standards will eventually be unmet or violated. The relationship will not survive. The couple will break up, go searching for love with another person, and do it all over again…never having experienced what they think love is.

The standard, expectation, and definition of love must be outside the individual.

Think about it: we have all somehow learned what love is over the course of our lifetimes. Who did we learn from? Another person. Who did they learn from? Another person before them. And so on and so on. Love is not some idea that was invented centuries ago by a brilliant poet. Love is not something that any one human being gets credit for coming up with. Thus, love is also not something that’s up for revision, improvement, or update. It is what it is apart from our opinions, expectations, and desires.

Since love is no human invention, but rather a truth that is learned, then there must be some sort of  knowledge outside of us that either tells us what love is or embodies it.

Or both.

Regardless of your beliefs about the person of Jesus Christ, we should really consider Him as a potential primary source of knowledge for this question of ours. Consider this:

  • Even those who don’t believe in Him regard Him as a great teacher
  • His greatest teaching to His followers was to love God and one another
  • His life was never hypocritical of His teaching. He loved prostitutes as well as Pharisees.

Jesus taught those who listened to Him that they would be recognized as His followers by the way they loved one another. Having spent time with Him, the disciples were not only taught how to love, they got to watch it modeled before their eyes.

And, yet, even those disciples were unsure that Jesus was who he claimed to be. It wasn’t until the end of Jesus’ life that they came to fully believe and understand all that Jesus has been teaching them about God’s love for them and, in turn, their love for God. When Jesus was crucified they realized some important things:

  • He had done no wrong & did not deserve to die
  • Yet He allowed Himself to be crucified for the wrongs of others
  • He died the death that they deserved to die so that they could have the eternal life He promised He would bring

Jesus’ resurrection, then, became the watershed moment where it all came into focus for His followers. From that moment on, they lived their lives with little to no regard for their own personal well-being, but rather the well being of others. They were firm believers in Jesus’ message:

  • We are all wrong-doers deserving the punishment of doing wrong.
  • God has made a way for us to be reconciled to Him even though we have done Him wrong. His Son died the death we deserved so that we could live the life He lived.
  • Those who come to believe this to be true, just as the disciples did, will experience a new kind of life both now and in the life to come.

All of this was done by God towards those who had done Him wrong. Instead of destroying us all, He demonstrated His love by offering up His Son so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish as they deserve, but instead have eternal life. This is how we know what love is.

Thus, love is not what we make of it. Love is not a matter of preference. Love is not only an emotion. Love isn’t an idea, a higher truth, or an altered state of being. Love is no currency. Love is not something we get to define for ourselves.

Love has been demonstrated to us in both word & deed without hypocrisy. So, the question for me is no longer, “What is love?”, but rather, “Does my love for others match the kind of love I have received from God?” Have I learned from the only authority on the subject or am I presumptuously believing that I can be my own authority?

Learning to Love

Although I have said in previous posts that dating is a necessary evil because it builds the emotion of love on conditions of performance; I will say, on the other hand, that it is also a great opportunity to learn how to love someone. Jesus exemplified this very essential element of His love for humanity: he did not treat us as we ‘deserved’ to be treated.

I stink at this.

And I stink at this not so much with strangers, but mostly with the people whom I say I truly love!

As I described in chapter 4.1, dating only elevates this tendency in most of us. We all want the perfect mate. We all want that person who meets all of our needs perfectly 100% of the time. In fact, we find ourselves not just wanting it, but expecting it. We break up with people when they stop meeting our needs or when we realize that our expectations were ‘too high.’

What did we expect from a fellow wrong-doer?

The problem is that most people assume that they are great at loving others. Few people, if any, walk into a relationship looking to learn how to love someone.

George Costanza is the perfect example. Here is a man, if you know his character well, who is so completely self-absorbed he’s neurotic. It’s likely that he has never performed a selfless act in his whole life. He is consistently worried about what other people think of him and he becomes unnecessarily irate when treated unjustly. It is this man that walks out the door on a mission to tell a girl that he loves her. Why? Because he’s never gotten a woman to hang around long enough before.

George doesn’t know the first thing about love and yet he wants it desperately and declares it openly. He stinks at loving her.

Just like each one of us.

And that’s why dating is a great (but not the only) opportunity to learn how to love another human being. Here’s why:

  • We are all wrong-doers (we want to love an be loved for our own sake)
  • Our natural tendency is to point out the wrongs in others before we see the wrong in ourselves.
  • If we want to learn how to love, then we must not simply overlook the wrongs of the other person, but willfully choose to love the person when he/she is the most unattractive. Love is a choice that results in emotions – not an emotion that leads us to a choice.
If we say that we love another person and do anything less, we are either lying or using the wrong word for what we feel (see chapter 4.2).
Finally, Something Practical
  1. Is it possible to love someone before marriage or engagement?
    • Yes, it’s possible. But I don’t think it should be declared to the other person until the security of the relationship is intact (i.e. engagement or marriage).
    • This is more of a safe-guard against second-guessing and changes of heart. It is absolutely devastating (especially for the woman) to hear the words “I love you” and then to later hear the words, “I want to break up” come from the same mouth.
  2. When is it appropriate to say, “I love you” during a dating relationship?
    • When you have made the choice to love another person – not on your own terms, but the way it was shown to us by Jesus.
    • When you are confident that even if the other person wronged you severely, you would still want to be in relationship with them.
    • I think the best time for this to happen is when the couple becomes engaged. It’s the ultimate DTR.
    • Love is not a word to be thrown around casually. Because it is a declaration, it must be used accurately not just emotionally.
  3. Mean what you say and be prepared to prove it.
    • We often have feelings of love and say them, but then don’t always back them up with the actions of love. How is that possible?
    • If the standard of love is Jesus’ sacrificial and selfless death in the place of those who deserved it, how does that translate into a dating relationship (or any other love relationship for that matter)?

Love is a choice – a daily choice.  From the choice to love flows all the emotions and actions necessary to demonstrate that the choice was genuine and not hypocritical. The feelings of love will always come and go, but if we have found someone we are willing to choose to love daily – even when they wrong us – our love will not be wishy washy or only for fair weather. It will be trustworthy, faithful, and sure. We can declare it loudly in word and deed.

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If you are married or engaged, would you mind lending your thoughts on this subject? Would you agree or disagree with how it’s been presented here? 

If you are single or dating, does this help you think more accurately about your current relationship? What other questions/topics are missing?

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Here is a great follow-up article that is kind of related to this one. The author talks about the difference between being in love & behaving in love. It’s good. Find it here.