What is love?
According to emotions researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, love is a very human feeling. An emotion.
It is unique in that of all the positive emotions, love is manifested between people. So unlike joy, pleasure, or excitement — love is a shared feeling, existing in the invisible emotional tendrils that connect one person to another. It is a feeling that is simultaneously pleasurable, fulfilling, and meaningful.
The recipe for love requires three ingredients: presence, time, and mutual responsiveness. And we need all three for love to exist, no substitutions allowed.
Love requires togetherness. Without presence, we don’t have love. In the absence of the object of our affection, our feelings return inward. Though our thoughts are towards our loved one, what we feel is desire, longing, loneliness, or grief. This is one of many reasons why there is no such thing as “tough love,” which describes not a feeling, but willful boundaries and chosen distance in the hopes that forced isolation will make a person change. The usefulness of such a strategy is debatable, but it is certainly not love. The recipient of “tough love” will tell you that it never feels good. Even the giver of “tough love” finds themselves alone.
Love takes time, and grows over time. Without time, we don’t have love. Infatuation perhaps. Also attraction, connectedness, obsession, and probably a good deal of idealization and projection. But to really, truly love someone requires an intimate knowing and acceptance of the other. To know someone well enough to love, that takes time. An investment of time in a relationship also paradoxically allows people to manifest love more quickly when together.
Love requires empathy to know the needs of others, and love requires the willingness to receive as much as one is willing to give. Without mutual responsiveness, we don’t have love. There’s two parts to this:
Responsiveness means that the actions of one person are motivated by an understanding of what the other person needs. It starts with empathy. So love isn’t just good intentions or acts of kindness. It needs to have a specificity that creates fulfillment in the other.
Mutuality means that each person is not only a provider, but is also a recipient. This means that love is an inherently egalitarian experience, where people meet each other at the same level. It is in this reciprocity that the energy to continue to give is sustained. While pouring out, we are simultaneously being filled. This explains why being a caregiver, one who is responsible for the needs of another, can be an exhausting experience for those that give more than they receive.
Now in light of this, let’s consider the insights of John, the disciple who Jesus loved:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God.
Whoever loves. By our definition of love, whoever is engaged, invested, and responsive towards another and open to receiving the same in return is intimately connected with God. That’s a pretty provocative assertion in its inclusivity, isn’t it. Equally provocative regarding those that do “not know God.”
A married gay couple, through the scandalous act of loving one another, can claim a birthright as children of God, more so than a “born-again” Evangelical who fights against their union.
A new mother, who happens to be an atheist, staring into the depths of her smiling baby’s eyes, has an intimate knowledge of who God is, more than a “Bible believing” but ready-to-condemn-others-to-hell kind of Christian.
Because God is love.
Apply some emotional / theological algebra, we get the idea that God is that shared positive feeling, existing in the invisible emotional tendrils that connect one person to another. God shows up, in tangible ways that whoever loves can feel in our hearts when we are connected, investing the time, taking care of one another.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
So God took shape in such a way that we could understand and experience – as a person in Jesus, and as an emotion within us.
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Propitiation is appeasement, and one reading implies that God needs something from us. An angry, judgmental god may demand blood and even death, but now that we are here and have been talking about what is and isn’t love, doesn’t that dark and morbid characterization seems rather forced into this context? It’s as if one were trying to force a theology of atonement that isn’t really there, know what I mean?
And how does a loving God feel about shortcomings, mistakes, and failures? Instead of Calvin, let’s look to Jesus to see what God’s love manifested looks like.
Jesus comes over to our place, even though his place is much nicer. He doesn’t make us feel embarrassed about how messy our place is. Even though other people have told you that his family is pretty judgey, actually he’s nothing like that. He just wants to hang out, share some good food, tell some stories. You’re a bit surprised at how salty he can be, especially when you talk politics and religion. He likes your stories too, even the inappropriate ones.
You’ve also heard that he can be standoffish and that you need to earn his respect, but that also couldn’t be farther from the truth. He’s humble, generous, gracious, and accepting. He just wants to help people. Getting to know him and seeing how he lives his life, you now find the hearsay to be absurd. Spending time together reminds us of our better selves. It makes us want to be better people, especially towards others.
But what about appeasement? What could God possibly want from us? Well John, the disciple who Jesus loved, has some advice.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Whoever loves is present with God.
Whoever loves is spending time with God.
Whoever loves is receiving from God and giving to God.
Because God is love.
Joseph Lee is a psychiatrist in the Los Angeles area. His private practice is psychotherapy based with a health-oriented focus on personal growth and wellbeing. As a reconstructing Evangelical, the only proselytizing he does is for the sake of the gospel of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Joseph was converted to this belief when they became parents. He is a lifelong learner and enjoy being able to find the intersections between all the facets of his identity and interests. Joseph also have an embarrassing large collection of Transformers.