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Fulcrums (3) – Love is a Virtue

Is love a feeling or is love a choice? Many of us have heard this question before and presented with this dichotomy almost all of us say that love is a choice. This is true to a large degree, but it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter. The fact is that love is more than a choice, it is a virtue. Before getting into the nature of love, let’s quickly consider the two incomplete definitions of love.

While feelings are often present in love, love cannot be reduced to a feeling. Feelings come and go. Feelings are outside of our control. Feelings come to us based on what is happening around us. For example, I feel angry when someone cuts me off in traffic, I feel scared when I’m startled, I feel tired when I work too long or too hard. If love is a feeling, then it is something completely outside of our control and commands like “love your neighbor as yourself” don’t make sense. If love is a feeling, if it is something we can “fall into” then it is something we can also fall out of and there is no basis for any type of permanency in marriage, friendship, or familial relationships.

In response to this faulty definition many have asserted that love is a choice. This gets closer to the truth. If love is commanded by Christ, as it is, then it must be something that we can obey, for God never commands something that we are incapable of doing. It seems to follow from this that love is chosen. Indeed, we have all had to choose to love at many times in our lives. As young people we had to choose to love our parents when they frustrated us, we have to choose to love our children when they disappoint us or let us down, we have to choose to love our spouses and remain with them even when our marriages don’t work out the way we had hoped. This is true, but love is more than this. Let me try to illustrate this by means of an example.

Imagine that I wake up one morning before my children and begin to make breakfast for them. As they scamper down the stairs into the kitchen the first thing I tell them is, “you know kids, I really love you. That is why I’m making breakfast for you.” So far so good. But imagine I go on, “you know kids, I’m really doing this sacrificially. I’m dying to myself because I’d much rather be sleeping in right now than making you breakfast.” That may be a bit odd to say, but it also may be true. I then proceed to say, “you know kids I understand what Jesus meant about taking up our cross each day. Being a parent helps me to understand this more and more. Parenting is full of sacrifice and struggle, but I do it all out of love.” This is all true, but if this is the complete extent of my love for them my love would be defective. A reluctant, self-sacrificial love grounded completely in duty is not the type of love that God calls us to and it is not the type of love that God has for us. While love is a choice it must be more than a dutiful choice.

It is true that a virtue is something that is chosen, but it is something so ingrained in habit that it reflects a mark of character rather than a deliberate, conscious choice. This means that a virtuous person is a predictable person—there is no question whether a virtuous man will tell the truth or be grateful; if he is truly virtuous then virtuous actions will flow out of him like water from a spring. But there is more to virtue than integrity and steadfastness. Ultimately, virtuous people delight in virtue.

For example, imagine that Blackbeard the Pirate and Saint Francis Assisi are walking together when they see a lame beggar on the side of the road. Blackbeard has been a greedy and thieving man all of his life, but for some reason, unknown even to himself, he decides to put a coin in the hand of the beggar. He does this reluctantly, consciously, and out of some sense of duty that he has heretofore never recognized. Saint Francis of Assisi also puts a coin into the hand of the beggar. But for him it is a joy to do so and this is something he has done many, many times before. Both of these men did something moral, but Saint Francis was the only one to act virtuously. This act may be the first step toward virtue for Blackbeard, and it may turn out to be a great step, but this act in itself is not virtuous.

Ultimately God calls us not to do certain types of things but to be certain types of people. We are called not to choose this or that act of love, but to be loving people. Sometimes we don’t enjoy love, sometimes we do have to act reluctantly and out of duty, but this should be a stepping stone that leads us to a love in which we delight to do what is good. This seems impossible; and apart from Christ, it is. But in Christ God gives us His Spirit and Love is one of the fruits that the Spirit produces in our hearts.  

It’s important that we recognize this because the world’s definition of love, that it is a feeling, as shallow as it is it seems like it will help us to avoid pain and maximize our pleasure. Why tie yourself down to anything or anyone that doesn’t make you feel good? When we say that love is a choice and we contrast this type of love that seems dutiful and full of drudgery with the passionate and emotive love of the world, it is a hard sell to our children. It is easy to think, “why would I want to live in an unfeeling marriage, full of self-denial and duty when the other option is to follow my heart?” We can best serve our children when we show them that this isn’t the real choice. The choice isn’t between an impermanent love that ebbs and flows based on emotion and a more permanent love grounded in duty but devoid of emotion. The choice is between those two incomplete definitions of love and a love that is both permanent and has feeling. We can become people that not only do what is good, but delight in it.