53: Can Love be Commanded?

In this episode John begins by considering which is more important: “seeking” God’s kingdom or loving God?  In doing so John considers how Gregg speaks of loving God as a very intense involvement with God that seems to be oriented around feelings and emotion.  Yet what about the command to love?  Is God really “commanding” us to love God?

Gregg responds by noting that many Christians seem to need to emphasize that love is (or starts with) something one does rather than something that one experiences or feels.  Instead, Gregg pushes back against this by indicating the importance of both one’s feelings about / toward God and one’s actions for / in light of God.  In other words, love always begins as an emotional response that is awakened (and can be dimmed).

In terms of the command to love God there are three such passages in the synoptic gospels (Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 10) and each point back to Deuteronomy (noting especially Deut. chapters 6, 7, 10).  Gregg agrees that much of Deuteronomy’s content has the sense of a commandment, yet argues that this must be balanced with the biblical claim / trajectory toward relationality: from God to us, then from us to God.

Gregg argues that, both textually and experientially, the notion of commanding love’s inception makes no sense.  So in terms of the biblical text, we note that the commands to love found in Deuteronomy come after the Israelites’ quintessential experience of being delivered (that is, deeply cared for and loved): the Exodus.  So take in context, God is commanding love within the pre-existing context of a long and established history with a people who have good reason to understand clearly how—and how much—God indeed loves them! 

Experientially love begins as a preoccupation, but this preoccupation results in action.  However, this is not to suggest that love matures from emotion into action.  Instead, Gregg views love as an abiding orientation chiefly characterized by excess.  In being ‘excessive’ love always seeks expression, both as joyful exclamation and as catharsis.  And while this expression may take the form of thoughts and words (letters, poetry, songs) it also become concretized, through our choice-making, into action.

So while love is not a matter of the will, neither is it a matter of pure desire.  Instead love, like other emotions, has its roots in understanding.  So just as fear arises when certain phenomenon or states of affairs threaten my existence, so love begins when I perceive, at a profound level, that in the other I am being offered goods necessary to my existence.  And while love is often coupled with perceptions of the beloved’s qualities (beauty, character, etc.) love also distinguishes itself from admiration (or infatuation).

So while it involves the will, love is not derived from the will.  And while it expresses desire, love is not solely a matter of desire.  This distinction both clarifies that emotions are not subservient to the intellect (but exist in tandem with it, each having its own role) and focuses on the necessarily self-involving nature of love: love involves (and is predicated upon) a deep, ‘gut level’ understanding that the beloved offers goods necessary to my existence and / or flourishing.

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