Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 25, 2012


ID-10057735Here’s a brief exercise for you.  Before reading further, do an image search for the word “love” on your favorite search engine.  I used Google, but I’m sure your results will be similar to my own.  The vast majority of images returned for your search will undoubtedly suggest that love is a feeling.  Not only is that a disastrous misunderstanding, but it’s one that has far-reaching consequences for Christianity and for civil discourse as well.

If love is all about the feelings we have for one another, we may all be sunk!

This is especially important for Christians since Christ himself is shown in the gospels as commanding his followers to be people of love.  At the level of essentials, Christianity appears to have one ultimate law with two parts:  to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as our self (Mark 12: 30-31; Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 10:27).  As a Jew of the first century, Jesus would have derived this two-pronged commandment directly from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).

If we Christians take our religious commitments seriously, it seems that we had better determine what love is.  Otherwise we risk being a failure in response to the Master’s command.  But what does this entail, exactly?

William O’Malley, a Jesuit theologian, gives us a workable answer:  “Love is a conscious and active commitment to the well-being of others.”  Conscious because it begins in the brain as we recognize our responsibility to others.  Active because it requires that we do something.

I can’t speak for you, but most of the time I can’t control how I feel–about persons, or events, or even about myself.  But I am able to control my response to my feelings, and that’s where love enters the picture.  The gospel command to love isn’t a command to feel good.  Love isn’t an emotion; it isn’t a feeling.  Love may be accompanied by emotions, even strong ones, but it must transcend those.  Emotions come and go.  Love, as the Apostle Paul reminded us, “endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7), even our topsy-turvy emotional states.

If Fr. O’Malley is correct about this (and I sincerely believe from years of reflection and teaching that he is), then what are the consequences?  Well, for one, we are freed from the misguided notion that we must only say and do those things that make everyone feel good.  We are liberated from the slavery of thinking we’ve failed the gospel mandate simply because we inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings.  Jesus had strong things to say to people at times.  I’m willing to bet that there were folks who walked away from his comments with considerable emotional bruises.

Another good consequence of this insight is that we can abandon the silly notion that Christians aren’t called to make value judgments.  Again, if we look at the example of Christ found in the gospel accounts, we see that he made such judgments all the time:  about things he believed to be good or bad, sinful or not, and about things wholesome or unseemly.  What he cautioned his followers about was the tendency in humans to make judgments about the ultimate worth of other persons, their eternal value or status in the sight of God.

Jesus appears to have been a person of profound integrity and authenticity.  If we have a problem with someone’s actions or words, I think he would demand that we go to that person and express ourselves directly, even fervently if the situation calls for it.  He would insist upon honest dialogue, the two-way conversation where both parties genuinely express themselves and their concerns but where they also seek to hear the viewpoint of the other.

Sometimes this means sharing difficult issues with another person, perhaps even risking hurt feelings.  On the other hand, it can also mean that we might realize our own mistake in the matter with the necessity of apologizing and moving on from our misunderstanding.  In all of this, the main point can’t be to convince, conquer, or shame someone else–but to do what is truly in the other person’s best interest.

O’Malley’s definition isn’t perfect.  There are a million other things that can be rightly said about love.  But the definition at least gives us a clear perspective on what it is that we are called to do.  We don’t live in a fairy tale where everything always turns out well, and we don’t always have good feelings for everyone and every situation we encounter.  It’s not necessary that we cower and hide our strong feelings about religion, politics, or society.  Quite the contrary, if we are committed to the well-being of others, we will often find it necessary to speak boldly and with passion.

So what should we do with our feelings?  Relish them.  Take note of them.  Learn from them.  But don’t be controlled by them.  Whether you’re dealing with your friends, your spouse, or your co-workers, the truth is that the web of human relationships can be difficult to master.  When confused, calmly remind yourself that love is a commitment to another person’s well-being.  Your job is simply to ask how best you can advance that person’s best interest.

Or, as Augustine wrote, “Dilige et quod vis fac”–“Love and do what you will.”  What a great way to sponsor catholicity, the “working together for the good of all.”

Photo courtesy of zole4/


  1. I thought for sure you were going to conclude with “Love is a verb!” aidan

  2. Marriage Encounter says that, “Love is a decision.” This along with your definition is the best I have heard. To love someone is to decide to consciously and actively commit yourself to their well-being. Not said but implied over your own welfare.
    While teaching myself, I used to ask the students to think about their relationship with their significant other and to compare it with your. Do they believe that they are recipient from the other of a love that is “conscious and actively committed to their well-being?” Most times you have many sad faces as they thing about the question.

    • It’s a very powerful question that you posed to your students, Pat!

  3. John, you wrote that you differed in your definition from mine. I agree that the descriptions are different, but I suggest that they are not contradictory. Incidentally, what source do you have for the Augustine quotation? According to my recollection, it was Ama et fac quod vis! Perhaps someone could check the original and inform us. Len

    • Len, you’re right … we don’t really agree in essentials, but I think in application. In your wonderful article you implied that love can be used to refer to our relationship to ice cream and music. I’m a bit of a purist, I suppose, and using O’Malley’s definition I prefer to apply love only to persons (myself included), not things (though things are best understood in a sacramental sense as you reminded us). I will check on the Augustine quotation! Warmly yours, ~John

    • Here is some interesting analysis from theological librarian Steve Perisho, with links to others on the issue.

  4. […] to the gospels, Jesus placed a tremendous emphasis on love. But love is not a feeling. I’s a way of life that should transcend feelings. As Jesuit […]

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