Some while ago, in the atheist/theist Facebook discussion group I’m in, someone asked how we defined love. Interestingly, the atheists who answered said love was a feeling. Christians who answered said love was an action.
I don’t want to make too much of the difference because only a small sampling of each answered the question. But it has started me thinking a little more about what we mean by love. After all love seems to be a pretty popular subject with, well, just about everyone except maybe eight-year-old little boys.
From time to time I mention the commandments Jesus identified as most important, and both mention love: first we are to love God, then we are to love our neighbors. Here’s how Matthew records it:
One of [the Pharisees], a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:35-40)
From the context and from the story that Jesus told, recorded in Luke, explaining who a neighbor is—a story we call the Good Samaritan in which a man takes care of a mugging victim—it seems clear that on this level, love is not a feeling.
It is possible to have a loving feeling for the neighbor who gives you flowers or invites you to dinner or who washes your car for you unexpectedly. It’s possible to become best friends with a neighbor, and in that case, there are likely emotions attached—the brotherly love we experience when we care about someone.
But love your neighbor as your self? That seems to go beyond the average, warm, caring response to a person in your community.
And the story Jesus told put the neighbor tag on the man who acted on behalf of a stranger—in all likelihood, a stranger who despised him. Although Jesus didn’t specifically say the mugging victim was a Jew, he was on a road in Jewish territory. I’m guessing the Samaritan wasn’t thinking, I bet that’s one of my countrymen. I need to help him. Rather, he saw a person in need. Not a countryman. Not a man with religious views like his—or different from his. And certainly not a man who deserved what he got because he foolishly walked into a trap.
The Samaritan took care of the wounded man, put him on his own animal (which meant he was now walking), took him to an inn, and paid for his extended care. He even promised to give more money if needed.
Remember, this was the story Jesus told as an illustration of neighborly love.
This kind of love seems to be all action, not emotion. In fact the action takes place without relationship. There’s no clear idea that the mugging victim was conscious during the entire time. He might have been. But whether he was or wasn’t, whether he was grateful or wasn’t, whether he promised to repay the Good Samaritan or didn’t, never factored into the way the neighbor acted.
He wasn’t doing a good deed in hopes he’d receive a good deed. He wasn’t repaying a good deed that someone had done for him. He wasn’t even paying one forward. He acted, regardless of the consequences to him personally, because someone needed help.
Of course, the tendency is to think, well, OK, I can commit to helping strangers out in dire trouble. If I’d been at the train crash site in Philadelphia, I’d help. Or if I saw someone fall onto the subway tracks, I’d help. If I came across a man trapped in his car by the cement truck that overturned, I’d be part of the rescue team.
Most of us won’t ever encounter those kinds of extreme circumstances, so are we off the hook? We don’t have to love the way Jesus was talking about because we aren’t coming across mugging victims.
We are coming across people who are different from us, though—maybe different in age or gender or culture or language. Or religion. The challenge that Jesus’s story gives us is to love the people around us who we wouldn’t “naturally” love, who don’t engender the emotion we normally associate with brotherly love.
Because we don’t have a lot of dealings with people who are different than we are, perhaps the first act we can take is to pray. We may spot a homeless person or see someone of a different ethnicity, we may watch a gang of high schoolers strolling down the sidewalk, and we can pray. It’s possible God will show us what we are to do next. But even if He doesn’t give us something more to do at that moment, we’ll soon discover a shift in our hearts. It’s hard to pray for someone and not care about them. Praying changes us, changes our attitudes.
We might even find that suspicion and anger and fear and mistrust melt away in the presence of God’s love which He infuses into our hearts. Who knows but our action might turn into emotion. Love has a way of becoming more than what we expect.