What is Love?


Timothy D Padgett

There was an ever-so brief period of time in my life when I went “clubbing.” In the mid-1990s, long before I had either sense or responsibilities, I would occasionally visit techno-dance joints where the music was heavy on the bass and light on the substance.

This fact would likely baffle anyone who knew me then, let alone now, as rhythm is hardly my middle name. What can I say? There were girls there.

One of the more popular of the songs played at such places was the 1993 Euro tour de force, “What is Love?” by Haddaway. This tune became infamous following the SNL skits and movie starring Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan. While neither the song nor the film is worth recalling, except perhaps as fodder for trivia night, the lyrics contain as clean a synopsis of our culture’s view of love as could be imagined.

For those of the right age to remember, what is the only thing we know about its words? “What is love? . . . Baby don’t hurt me . . . no more.” As strange as it truly is, this has become our ethic of love:

“Don’t hurt me.”

[W]e have defined-down love to the point where it is little more than simple affirmation, where accepting someone “as they are” and refusing to impose our values on them have become the hallmark of love for our age.

It would be something if this “hurt” had some objective content, if “Do no harm” meant something more than “Don’t make me feel harmed.” But, sadly, we have defined-down love to the point where it is little more than simple affirmation, where accepting someone “as they are” and refusing to impose our values on them have become the hallmark of love for our age.

Love is, apparently, bound not by whether or not we do another harm but by whether or not they feel they have been harmed. But, this is no true love. A love that is defined by the pain it creates is a sick love, but a love that shies away from pain at all costs is a shallow one, unworthy of the name. Love has become easy.

I thought of this recently after we received an email from a young woman seeking guidance:

Recently, there has arisen the issue on whether or not it is right to call someone who is trans, non-binary, gender fluid, etc. by their preferred name or pronoun? I was wondering on whether or not you would be able to give me any advice on this issue. Is this a matter of personal conviction? Is a name fine, but not a pronoun? Are there any cases in scripture that may shed some light on what to do?

That’s a great question, showing insight into the breadth of the problem and concern for others in need. She was interested in one area where our inner lives can become disordered, but her query touches on a host of issues where our intentions and others’ receptions may not align well. How do we balance love for others with loyalty to God? It’s also a tricky question, and one for which there is no simple answer.

For a lot of us, however, there is an easy answer: “Love people; don’t condemn them.” The idea being that if we love people as they are, then this is all that is required of us. Compassion is reduced to affirmation.

There’s a Mr. Rogers quote going around that says something a lot like this, that true love is accepting people exactly as they are. As much as I hate to disagree with such a genuinely kind man, this lets us off all too easily.

Just as what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” allows us to live as we’d like, overconfident in the graciousness of God’s forgiveness, a “cheap love” allows us to let others slide deeper into sin, self-confident that we’ve loved them by never pushing-back for their good.

Just as what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace" allows us to live as we'd like, overconfident in the graciousness of God's forgiveness, a "cheap love" allows us to let others slide deeper into sin, self-confident that we've loved them by never pushing-back for their good.

We have to face the fact that no matter how hard we try to do what is right and to speak with grace, our love may not be seen as any such thing. Anytime we love someone well, we risk causing them pain. This isn’t easy to accept, much less to do.

How do we help people whose entire identity is wrapped up in a false self-image? How do we aid someone whose only sense of hope comes from behavior that leads to darkness? How do we offer guidance to those who will quite likely treat anything but a full-throated endorsement as a personal attack?

Inevitably in life, we’ll encounter those who live in a way that is harmful to themselves, and perhaps to others. Think of substance abusers, “cutters,” or those with eating disorders. Who they are, as they are, is not who they ought to be. Accepting them in this place is hardly the loving thing to do.

We don’t love our children by letting them eat cake for dinner each night, and we don’t love our friends by letting them disappear into a bottle or bulimia. We love them by working to draw them out from who they are and leading them to who they ought to be. In such cases, the most loving thing we can do for another is to say, “You’re wrong.”

Truly, we cannot have a love that lacks affirmation, that lacks the sense of the good that a person can be, the sense of value for and of this person, whatever their present condition. But, there can be no true love that is limited by the feelings of well-being elicited in them or ourselves.

There can be a tactical wisdom in not confronting everyone we meet with each and every one of their sins at every opportunity. Not only is this unlikely to induce an abiding repentance in them, it’s quite likely to create an enduring self-righteousness in us.

However, when our love for another is in bounded by a sense of well-being, by the feeling in the other that they are being loved, who is it that we are loving? If we limit our love to others by the positive reactions they have to our words then we must consider the possibility that it is ourselves that we love and not our supposed beloved.


Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973


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