We’re talking about love, so let’s start with an easy question. What is love? Here are some right answers (I’m stealing these because I found that I couldn’t answer this “easy” question):
- “Love is sharing your popcorn.” – Charles Schultz (How very true!)
- “Love is being stupid together.” – Paul Valery (Even more true!)
- “The best thing to hold onto in life is each other.” – Audrey Hepburn (That’s nice.)
- “Love is an ocean of emotions entirely surrounded by expenses.” – Thomas Dewar (That’s not so nice, but unfortunately true.)
- “Love is a lot like a backache, it doesn’t show up on X-rays, but you know it’s there.” – George Burns (That explains a lot.)
- “Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” – Robert Frost (That explains everything!)
So, that’s fine, but why do we love that special person? (there’s a website called, “Our Kind of Crazy,” that had a list of 366 reasons why people love each other. They said I could steal their list. I love that!). When asked why we love that special person, we could say:
- You are my best friend.
- I love your personality.
- You make me laugh like no one else can.
- You are always there for me.
- You are a good listener.
- You always encourage me.
- You have a great laugh, and I love that I’m the one who makes you laugh like that.
- I love being around you because you make me a better person.
(They finally end their list with these three reasons: “I love that you love me,” and “I love that I love you” and last, “What’s not to love about you?” – Do me a favor; if you love me, please shoot me if I ever make a list of 366 romantic things).
Why all this falderal? We are looking at the last chapter of Mark Tietjen’s book, “Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians” (IVP Academic, 2016) which is entitled, “The Life of Christian Love.” And in this chapter, he raises the question why we love the people we do. For most of us, he suggests the answer is found in a captivating preference. In other words, in between me and my special person, there is emotional magnet that draws us together. This inclination, this attracting middleman, pulls us together. We can even make it into a formula:
I – preference* – the other person**
*This preference is what I am calling “the middleman”
**The other person is what Kierkegaard calls the “other I”
Now, when talking about love, this makes good sense (even though Benjamin Disraeli said, “It is well-known what a middleman is: he is a man who bamboozles one party and plunders the other.”). My cousin and his lovely wife were just here. I have other cousins that I like, but this cousin and wife I love. Why? According to this formula, there are preferences that draw us together, things like shared experiences, similar perspectives on a number of fronts, great sense of humor, uncanny ability to tell the right story at just the right time, a love of books, an incredibly engaging personality and a wild sense of adventure (in formula form: me – these things – my cousin). Now, that is just me, but trust me, you would love him, too. But what happens if things change? What happens if his take on our shared experiences changed and he saw them as negative? What if he became bitter and angry? What if he lost his sense of adventure and just wanted to stay at home? See, things change; and if our preferences are what hold us together, then our relationship would also change. Underline that: If our preferences hold us together and these preferences change, then I could prefer not to invest in that relationship anymore or find a new relationship that I would prefer more. Tietjen writes:
“Kierkegaard’s point is something we already know: that preferential loves are fickle, always subject to change and erosion. Preferential loves are only as sure as each party’s enduring commitment to the preferences one has for the other. While many, if not most, of these middle terms or preferences are goods and treasures to be enjoyed, they are nevertheless fading goods ‘where moth and rust consume.’”
But if this is how love works, what are we to do? And if this is how love works, what are we as Christ followers to do when Jesus commands us to love our neighbor (and that neighbor and I have no real preferences that draw us together)? And what are we to do when Jesus commands us to love our enemy, and there is not only a lack of preferences, but a definite aversion to the other person? How can we love that person (and not be a hypocrite?)?
Kierkegaard’s solution is incredibly insightful. Christian love does not eliminate the middleman, but exchanges it for God. Kierkegaard writes:
“Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between a person, God and another person.”
The “love” formula has now changed. It is:
I – God – the other person
We no longer love the other person based solely on our preferences. Instead, God is our mediator so that when we look at our neighbor, we see them through God and as God’s image-bearer. Tietjen says it this way:
“If we relate to others through God–that is, if our love for others is dependent on God’s love for them–then clearly this sort of love is on surer footing than preferential forms of love. Kierkegaard thus describes Christian love as eternally secured in that no matter how the neighbor changes, even if the neighbor comes to hate you, you can nevertheless hold steady in obedience to God’s command to love since the commitment to do so finds its source not in one’s inner strength or positive feelings for the other but in the strength and power of God.”
Let me just say, I LOVE this. Not because it’s based on you loving me or on me loving the fact that I love you or on positive answers to the question, “what’s not to love about you,” but because, now, love is no longer a feeling, but is a rugged commitment; and it is not simply a rugged commitment to another person, but it is a rugged commitment to God and to see people through God’s eyes. Also, it is not given because of the perks I will receive by going forth in love, but it is given out of gratitude for all that God has given me. It also helps us understand why we can still love someone and move toward them in loving ways, but still hate what they do.
Love, then, always begins with this formula:
I – God – the other person
But it can soon adopt a secondary position:
I – preferences – the other person
As a result, when those preferences change over time, my fallback position is not to love less or to seek a new love that offers me more of the preferences I like, but instead:
To continue to love the other person as Christ loved me
And that also explains why love is not a special talent given to a few special people. Loving others is everyone’s job one. And just because someone is unlovable (and we all know people like that), it is no excuse not to love them because God empowers us to love and because my love for them is always, first and foremost, through God (and not my preferences). And this gift is for all people. In other words, even the most unlovable person can love others (and by potentially loving others that could potentially include loving me). And if I am convinced that God could also work in them so that they would love me (and what’s not to love about loving me?), then I will be more open and willing to love them.
But what about loving ourselves? We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. But what if we find it difficult to love ourselves well? Kierkegaard is adamant that we do not downplay what Jesus says. We are to love ourselves. But now we can better see what self-love ought to look like. It’s not a narcissistic love or a selfish love or a self-absorbed love. Again, quoting Tietjen seems to be the best course of action:
“If one loves the neighbor as oneself but one loves oneself the wrong way, then one fails to love either the neighbor or the self. For example, if I tend toward self-indulgence, then loving the neighbor as myself is not really love.”
But if the fundamental purpose of loving someone is understood as helping them to love God, then my love for my neighbor and for myself is always through God. Hence, the formula is now:
I – God – myself
And the question now becomes:
“How does God see me?” (or perhaps, “How does God love me?”)
And here is the gospel: When I look at myself, I not only see how I am lovable and, at the same time, why I am unlovable; and I not only see my possibilities, but also my failures and wasted efforts, but I see all of this through God’s love and forgiveness so that my brokenness and my success is all swallowed up in God’s grace so that my true identity is not in my greatness or in my sin, but in God’s declaring me his child. Tietjen writes:
“To love myself through God is to recognize myself as a fallen child. Fallen connotes the effects of sin on every part of me, but child connotes my inheritance in Christ, the one relationship through which I can become the beautiful self God created me to become.”
Now, that’s a great and beautiful and hope-filled definition of love.
En Garde with Kierkegaard
At the end of every post in this series, I want to drive home a few points by asking a few questions and giving you at least one great Kierkegaard quote to ponder.
- How would you define love?
- Consider your best friend; why do you love them?
- How have you seen “preferential love” go bad?
- What would it mean to see the people in your life through God’s eyes? Would it change anything? If so, what?
- If unlovable people can love others and if loving others might include me (meaning, it is possible for them to love me), how should that change my perspective of them?
- What is the relationship between love and forgiveness?
- Do you feel that because we live in such a narcissistic and self-absorbed culture that we should downplay “loving ourselves”?
- What does it mean to you to love yourself? How does seeing God as the middle term between you and yourself change how you love yourself?
- How can you become more loving towards the people God puts in your path this week?
And two quotes to ponder:
“Love is the expression of the one who loves, not of the one who is loved. Those who think they can love only the people they prefer do not love at all. Love discovers truths about individuals that others cannot see.”
“Don’t forget to love yourself.”
Thanks for reading! Now, go out there and spread the love, but don’t eliminate the middleman!