Love is heralded in our time as the highest aspiration—the pinnacle of human existence. If only love would triumph, then all other human suffering and disagreement would finally fall, and we could move forward as a race and reach heights of progress and harmony that we never imagined possible.
I don’t buy it.
Don’t get me wrong—love is amazing. As an emotion, it motivates me to do kind and selfless things for my husband, my family, my friends. As a value, it reminds me that even when I don’t feel like being selfless, even when I am depressed or angry or hopeless, I can still choose to act with love.
It is a great thing to aspire to, but its this nature of love is the very thing that makes it a terrible thing to idolize. Why? Let’s unpack it.
Love Requires Relinquishing Control
True love means recognizing that the people in your life choose to be in relationship with you, and at any time, they can choose to walk away. I don’t know about you, but to me, that is terrifying. We all crave intimate relationships, but if we are ever to maintain them, we must first know that no one is obligated to give them to us.
When we idolize love, we ironically attempt to take control of loving from the ones we love. We say, “If you love me, you will do x, y, and z.” We manipulate and coerce them, and we begin to see their love as something we have earned instead of something they freely give.
Then, when they withdraw from loving us, we see it as a moral failure on their part, and our bastardized love slips seamlessly into resentment or even hate.
Relationships Are Meant for Building Up, Not Building On
The second pitfall of idolizing love is that we begin to idolize human relationships. When we make relationships the foundation of our life, and can’t live up to our loved ones’ expectations, unhealthy and destructive habits emerge. Co-dependency (“I can’t live without you”), pseudo-martyrdom (“I gave up everything for you”), and normal sadism1 (“You won’t give me what I want, so I’ll withhold something you want”) all can be severely detrimental to the health of our relationships.
When we idolize love, we search for love to cure us of our insecurities and magically make us better people than we are. When our relationships don’t do that, we think its just because we married “the wrong person” or we just “don’t get along” with our friends or family. In reality, we have made those relationships the bedrock of our life, only to discover our error when the house we built come crashing down around us.
Idolizing Love Strips it of its Power—and Us of Our Differences
Pushing love to the pedestal of our life means that we also must shove it into a box small enough to fit. We crush love into a pre-defined set of emotions or actions based on our definition. We recognize nothing as love unless it meets the criteria in our box, and we worship or deplore accordingly. We diminish the importance of other values like truth, justice, and wisdom by making them bow down to love. But without them, love becomes a pale shade of what it should be. We don’t allow love to cross social, cultural, and ideological boundaries, and we demand that all of humanity (except for the ones who we don’t like) climb into a half-empty box.
When I was young, I idolized friendship. Whenever I lost a friend, my entire world crumbled. I would mourn for weeks or months, have nightmares, and forget to eat. It took me years to wrestle my love into it’s proper place, and it’s still a daily battle for me to keep it there.
Being married and maintaining long-distance friendships and family relationships have taught me much about how to put love in perspective.
Anyone who has ever been close enough to someone to get on their nerves knows exactly what I mean. In my struggle to put love in it’s proper place, I had to:
1. Realize that I have no control over my loved ones’ choices or beliefs.
2. Remind myself that my life is built on my identity in Christ and faith in His grace, not on the pursuit of love.
3. Seek God first, because he is the source of all truth, love2, and wisdom.
I was reminded of the truth of these things when we vacationed this summer with several friends. Each and every member of our group sacrificed their time, energy, and money to be there. It is a pivotal time of change in most of our lives, and we live all across the country, but we care about our relationships and want to remain connected. So we traveled, and for one week we shared a cabin, meals, and adventures together.
It was incredible. It was also exhausting.
Turns out, living in close quarters with ten other people (even for a brief span) also means sharing conflict and the more mundane and irritating aspects of our humanity. Who knew, right?
There were ample opportunities during the week for me to practice putting love in its place by worshiping the author of love, and I am better now because of it.
Love only truly triumphs when we learn to draw on it’s source. God is far bigger than my mind can comprehend. He embodies truth and love and wisdom, and if I seek Him first3, I will be able to understand how to love more truly than I ever could on my own.
"Normal Marital Sadism" is a term coined by Dr. David Schnarch, marriage psychologist and author of Passionate Marriage (1997).
1 John 4:7 (the Apostle John speaking to fellow Christians) "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God."
Matthew 6:33 (from the famous passage on worry) "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."