What is Love?


Edward Feser wrote an excellent article about what love is. In it he quoted Thomas Aquinas:

As the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 4), “to love is to wish good to someone.”  Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone (to himself or to another) and towards that to which he wishes some good.  Accordingly, man has love of concupiscence towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship towards him to whom he wishes good.

Love, in the sense which Christian doctrine typically means, is exactly what Aquinas quoted from Aristotle, “to wish good to someone.” For Aquinas and Aristotle, “wish” is better understood as “intend.” Love is a movement of the will, not a passion nor a feeling. In the case of loving other people as a Christian this makes sense. To love your neighbor is to intend to give him the goods he needs to flourish (to have success and happiness now and in eternity): companionship, knowledge, assistance, mercy, protection, prayer, etc.

But what does it mean to love God in this sense? Some people, like John Piper, would say that to love God means to have certain feelings about God. But on the analogy of love for human beings, we can love our enemies even if our feelings toward them are quite hateful. Acts of love would be much harder, as positive emotions are a great aid to positive action, but they would nevertheless be possible. And the Bible has several psalms, clearly written as actions of love toward God, but which express intensely negative emotions toward God.

So how do we “wish good to someone” with regard to God? Here is my most basic answer: to love God is to act to further God’s purposes in creation. While God is goodness itself and therefore cannot increase/decrease in goodness, God’s purposes in creation are meant to have progressive fulfillment. For instance, God commanded humanity to tend the garden. God made the garden, but there was further work to be done.

There is Biblical evidence in favor of what I’ve inferred from Aristotle’s definition of love: Jesus said, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.(Joh 14:21)” For Jesus the categories of “those who love me” and “those who have and keep my commandments” are convertable. And elsewhere in John’s gospel Jesus says that he glorified God by doing the deeds he was sent to do (17:4) and that he sends his disciples as the Father sent him (20:21). So, to love God is to act in line with his purposes or to obey his commands. This, of course, will include positive feelings. A significant consideration is this: Is it superior to obey a command of Jesus in the face of severe temptation and emotional resistance or in a state of deep and motivating affection for Jesus?*

Here is where things become interesting. Can our love for God be unrequited? We all know that our love for other people can. But in the case of God, the answer is no. Why? Because Jesus tells his disciples that “You are my friends if you do what I tell you. (John 15:14)” While our love for peers, children, parents, enemies, and so-on can be unrequited. There is no such thing as unrequited love for friends, for if the love is unreturned there is no friendship. In our relationship with God, our acts to further his purposes, include simultaneous action by the Holy Spirit on our behalf.

Finally, it is important to note that for the Christian, God’s purposes are primarily contained in the teaching of Jesus. To love God is to put the teachings of Jesus, rightly understood, into practice.

A corollary is that one might say that the highest form of self-love is to obey Jesus, as this would obtain the highest benefit for ourselfs if the gospel message is true.

To simplify the explanation above:

  1. To love is to wish to benefit another.
  2. To benefit God is to wish to further his purposes.
  3. To further God’s purposes is to obey Jesus’ teachings.
  4. To obey Jesus’ teachings is to live in friendship with God.

A final thought

I think that correctly understanding love as a matter of the will can help people who struggle with depression to realize that they do, in fact, love God. Also, as Feser mentions in his post, “…if love is thought to be essentially about having certain pleasant feelings, then the quest for love naturally comes to be understood as essentially a matter of finding someone who will generate in oneself pleasant feelings of the sort in question, and showing love to others comes to be understood as essentially a matter of generating in them pleasant feelings of the sort in question. [author’s italics]” Thus, in the case of loving God two errors can occur: to love God is to give myself good feelings about God or upon realizing how impossible this is to do consistently, to give up on the idea of positive emotions in relation to doing God’s will. Also, understanding love as intending the good of others assumes that there is such a thing a objective good that reliably benefits other people. The modern obsession with feelings (which are obviously good, important, and natural) leads of a sort of nihilism with regard to love. If it’s always loving to generate positive feelings in ourselves and in others, then because our quite plastic grey matter can learn to find positive emotions from all sorts of disordered events, can lead us to consider the most dastardly things loving.

*I think that it’s a trick question. If one has love as a virtue (good habit), then it will ‘come easy’ but individual deeds do not lose their value for being done in a state of temptation, depression, melancholy, or even momentary resentment.

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