The “semantics of love”

by ninameetscafe

“Semantics of love” is not my term. D and I were at our usual downtown coffee shop when she said it. I didn’t understand at first, but she kept talking and it made sense. People say “love” to convey different things and in reference to different histories. For her, in Spanish, in Puebla, Mexico where she’s from, it’s not something she would ever utter to most friends, acquaintances or strangers. She thoughtfully counted on her fingers the number of people to whom she has said it. She explained the physical ache it denotes.

But “to love” is a rather casual concept in many young, urban Christian circles. The idea is that we can and should love everyone, consistent with God’s command to love our neighbors (see Mark 12:30-31) and not only our neighbors–it’s easy to chill with pals that like you–but also our enemies (see Matthew 5:42-46). (Though, as it turns out, figuring out who our “enemies” are here on this isolated, prosperous and war zone-free piece of land called the U.S.A. is itself difficult, but that’s a question for another day.) We tend to bandy the word “love” about and it doesn’t raise eyebrows within these circles. We say: “Show love to this person,” “trying to love that person who’s being annoying,” “love the person on the street,” etc. It’s become an important pillar of my and my peers’ Christian vernacular: Love everyone, no worries. It also seems to grant us entry into other trendy movements that spread the word like an easy salve.

D was becoming aware of this widely distributed use of the term thanks to a Christian friend of hers who uses it that way. They had recently debated whether it’s actually possible to love, or will yourself to love, everyone. One said no and the other said yes. After a while, the two ladies concluded that they actually understood the word “love” differently, this was a semantics issue and they weren’t even operating with the same terms. What D’s friend considered loving someone is what D seemed to consider respecting or, really, just being nice.

Two days later, I’m wondering if the word in my Christian generation has been watered down such that we’ve lowered the bar for loving someone. Nothing in the Bible has changed. It tells us to love our neighbors as much as we intuitively love ourselves (for even at times of supposed low self-esteem, we’re still directing our attention at ourselves¹); and it tells us to do the hard thing of loving those with whom we disagree. If I understand those verses on love to mean smile, bake treats and basically be nice for the duration of our interaction, then Yeah! It really is possible to love every single person I meet.

On the flip side, if I reinstate D’s understanding of love, the seriousness of those commands–the intensely difficult challenge Christ both exhibited and dispatched to the rest of us–returns in full force. It becomes clearer why people thought Jesus was an impossible, maybe off-his-rocker guy. It becomes clearer why people would think we’re a little bit unrealistic when we say we try and love everyone. I mean, yeah, it’s insane. Because love is intense and purposeful, and takes concerted energy to pass it around to more than a handful of people. 

And so D reminded me, but, thinking back, I realize now that it’s often been my closest, non-Christian friends who have tried to tell me that they can’t just love everyone, inadvertently reminding me what real love actually is. What is it? It’s not the same as “like,” and it’s not just being nice. I guess any hormone-fueled adolescent with a crush on someone could also tell me that anything remotely like love will ache in inexpressible ways. Lyrics to “What Sarah Said” by Death Cab also expresses the ache: “Love is watching someone die.” Traditionally, loving someone has meant a lot of effort. Reinstating those semantics into the Bible really puts the kicker, the sacrifice, the discomfort and the depth back into that age-old directive.

¹ See Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, a challenging and thought-provoking little book.