Love is powerful.
It’s that kind of power that both starts and ends wars; that narrates our stories and dreams; that consumes our bodies and fills them with bravery and butterflies. Love is a beautiful thing – we see it in it in a newlywed couple, a mother looking into her baby’s eyes for the first time, and in the sacrifice of our heroes off to fight to protect those they love.
And while love is powerful and beautiful, that power and beauty can be… let’s say, misplaced.
How many of those wars, for example, started out of misplaced love?
How many men have tried to do “acts of heroism” to win over a girl? (for further research, please hang out with any 17-year-old boy or watch YouTube.)
How many of our stories and movies are filled with the girl falling for the wrong guy? Ignoring all the advice from her friends? Purposefully failing math to hang out with him? Totally changing who she is? Pushing away her friends? Wrap that up with an ending only the silver screen can provide, and you’ve got Mean Girls. The story we all know too well.
We’ve seen this misplacement in others, and hopefully been aware enough to see it in ourselves. We’ve seen a bit of the power of love – and what it means for love to be set on the wrong thing. To love, for example, the wrong guy more than your friends, to listen to the advice of the Plastics more than those who care for you.
That’s a misplaced love.
And misplaced loves have consequences; misplaced loves have a cost.
In a sense, everything we do has consequences – but the stakes are higher when we talk about love, for, as I’m sure you remember, love is both powerful and beautiful. When you play with the proverbial “big boys”, you best be ready.
C.S. Lewis helps us draw this out – and gives us a bit of clarity for assessing Mean Girls (as well as a decent launch pad to talk about love in general).
“To love you as I should, I must worship God as Creator. When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”C.S. Lewis
On First Things First
To make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m going to take a bit of time to draw out two major thoughts – ones we can’t miss if we intend to understand love (and it’s power and beauty).
- Love is always set on something as primary.
- Love is always growing.
Firstly, love is set upon something – and it always is, for each of us. Lewis hints at this primary object being something we worship. We can take that hint, continue a few steps with it, and say something to the effect of: we will always worship primarily what we love primarily. In this above situation, that primary love is either God or some other thing (say, an “earthly dearest”) at the expense of God.
Secondly, love is always growing. It is either growing brighter and better or it is growing darker and more depraved. The interesting thing to note is how Lewis combines these two thoughts, the idea of our primary loves and our growing love. He says that if we love God first we can love other things best. And then he offers a warning: if we love other things first we run a risk – a risk of eventually not loving those other things at all. The growing, brighter or darker, is rooted in our primary love.
What is love? (Baby, Don’t Hurt Me)
If love is this power, this beauty, the kind that can elevate the self to love best, or the kind that can reduce the self to forfeit love completely, then we better know what it is we’re talking about.
So, without further ado, What is love?
The best definition I’ve come across, that has helped me in so many ways, is attributed to Aquinas:
“Consistently willing and choosing the good of the other. To love your neighbor as yourself means seeing their sharing in the Good as constitutive of your own sharing in the Good. To love God, whose Good we cannot will, strictly speaking (as He is purely actualized Good itself), is to love what God loves, which of course, is the neighbor’s Good.”Aquinas
Love then, primarily, is loving that which God loves. And if part of loving what God loves involves loving the Good, then we best love God deepest – for He is “purely actualized Good”. If you’re tracking with me, you going to notice that we’ve heard this kind of reasoning before.
Some of it, yes, from C.S. Lewis above – loving first things first so as to love other things best.
But it’s older than both Lewis and Aquinas.
Where have we heard this before?
The Good Book And Love
Can we drop that classic Sunday School answer here and just move on?
And while that’s definitely the right answer – we should take a bit of time to talk about what it is and why it’s right.
The Bible opens, setting the stage for humanity’s relationship with God within the bounds of Image. Genesis speaks of God making us in His image. Image, succinctly, refers to having a right relationship with God – as a Father with His children, and letting that relationship impact how we live in the world around us. It’s about loving God first and living in the world as He would live. About truly loving our neighbor, as God does, because we love Him first.
I’m sure that rings a bell by now.
Jesus carries this idea even further.
Some Pharisees had gotten together, so Matthew writes, trying to confound Jesus with another question – asking Him the deep stuff, trying to get Him to trip up.
An expert in the Law asks, “Teacher, what’s the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Enter in another Jesus mic-drop moment.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” (Matthew 22:37)
And then, to confound the experts, he drops this:
“The second is like it – love your neighbor as yourself. All of the Law and Prophets hang on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:39-40)
And the crowd goes wild.
So what’s Jesus saying?
He’s drawing us back to Image.
The Image of having this Father and Son relationship, of living in the world the way the Father intends. This is why Jesus is the True Image of God. Succeeding where Adam did not, and restoring us back to our created intention.
Jesus is saying that the greatest way of living in this world is wrapped up, primarily, in loving God with our entire self – our heart and soul and mind and strength. He goes further to say that if we are to love our neighbors well, we need to love Him first. Note that loving them, as God loves them, is essential to what it means to be human (image).
Love is powerful and beautiful.
There is a way to love that elevates us, restores us, to God’s intention – image. In doing so, we become who we were made to be. Lovers. Lovers of God and lovers of others, firmly rooted in who God is (we call this Truth). And the opposite is true, the risk that Lewis mentions. That if we don’t love first things first, we live as unintended and become less than human. We turn inwards, setting self as a primary love, and living in the powerful consequences of that choice. Namely, suppression and depravity.
Loving well then, or loving rightly, is about loving God and living in the world as He would live. It’s about setting our love, primarily, on the Good so that it grows ever brighter and better. We call this imaging – we call this embodied love.
The ethic becomes pretty clear – from both Paul and Augustine :
“I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God.”Paul in Philippians 1:9-11
“But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.”Augustine
My encouragement is to love deeply; not to shrug off the emotion because of its power and beauty. Accept the consequences and love right things rightly. Our greatest work is to love God first and love God rightly – and then to love freely and wildly, firmly rooted in who He is.