The “semantics of love”

“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.


3 thoughts on “The “semantics of love”

  1. This is interesting. It reminds me of an OKCupid question: Is it possible to love someone you don’t like? I answered yes haha.

    Maybe love doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as what you have done for another or the energy you have exerted in that person’s favor–the “symptoms”. Perhaps love doesn’t require something so concrete, but is the potential, capacity, and eagerness to make those sacrifices, even without making them.

    In that sense, I think love pays more attention to the future possibility than the past facts. If we required love to materialize in actions, the economics of resources means it is impossible to love everyone. But I think love can be an attitude. It is recognizing that someone has flaws, but at the same time knowing that person still retains the light. It’s the capacity to genuinely empathize with the person’s suffering and show compassion when needed. But none of these statements require tangible proof in the “symptoms”. I think we require it because we feel less comfortable with abstraction.

    As an example, Mother Teresa sacrificed her health, time, comfort and energy on the poor, who were complete strangers to her. I wouldn’t be so bold as to she didn’t love them (from a completely external vantage point). She didn’t have a relationship with them before caring for them, and yet I think her love is more genuine than many of our relationships with close friends because our affection with a friend is often predicated on reciprocation (the economics of love). But had that person in need been 500 miles away, somewhere Mother Teresa could not tangibly show her love, I don’t think her view of that person would change (or the “potential” to show love that person). And in that sense, I think it is possible to love someone you have never met.

    But at the same time, I do think this is very hard, for potential may be finite as well. I agree with you that exhibiting actions of friendliness do not constitute love, and I do think it is conflated in many circles. And it’s totally possible that no one has ever truly loved everyone, in that sense. But I don’t think it’s impossible and it’s something we should strive for. Dismissing it as impossible encourages complacency. But then again, I think I’m more of an idealist and optimist 🙂

    1. Kev (are people calling you that now??), first I’m going to get my dislike for this “economics of love” framework out of the way. Must commerce enter ALL sectors of life?! K, done. Call me if you wanna talk about that. 😛

      What my post was getting at is this observation that many Christians paste the word “love” onto situations like it’s some acne spot-cream that they can deliver to discrete situations and people. D is not the only friend of mine who has questioned this and helped me question, too, what part of that touch-and-go approach is actually love.

      I appreciate your response so much because you’ve explained that love is not proven by its symptoms (actions, behaviors, etc.), but an attitude. Karina is with me right now and also adds that true love does and will ultimately manifest itself visibly given any opportunity, so I think that’s true, too. But the point is that the attitude comes first, right? And I have experienced this logic before in how often I receive something tangible from someone that means little to me because I’m still suspicious of the authenticity of their feelings behind it.

      However, I want to go back to what you said here — “Maybe love doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as what you have done for another or the energy you have exerted in that person’s favor–the “symptoms”. Perhaps love doesn’t require something so concrete, but is the potential, capacity, and eagerness to make those sacrifices, even without making them.” — because that’s what I meant through my whole post. The potential, capacity and eagerness to make sacrificies is a huge, huge, huge exertion of energy. It’s harder to will myself toward that attitude in my heart; easier to pretend all of the external symptoms. I maintain that the internal stuff will always be the hardest to deal with.

      It makes total sense to me that you would make that OkCupid response; and that Mother Theresa arguably got close to loving all of humanity with her attitude; and that it’s possible to have that orientation of loving even people you’ve never met. In no part of my post above did I intend to say that loving truly was impossible. However, I did intend to say that, while possible, there’s a lot of pain, ache and suffering that goes into working our hearts into it.

      Thanks, Kev.

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