Thursday, September 20, 2018

TTT #25 Love is More an Attitude and Action than a Feeling

This article is almost entirely from just one part of the 25th chapter of my as yet unpublished book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT). After you finish reading this article, I encourage you to click here and read the other three parts of that chapter.
King’s Explanation
In the 22nd chapter of TTT, I referred to Martin Luther King Jr.’s book of sermons, Strength to Love. In the chapter titled “Loving Your Enemies,” King explains that “love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring.” What’s more, this love is “something much deeper than emotional bosh.”
After writing about the difference between the Greek term agape and two other Greek words translated love, King then seeks to make a clear distinction between the meaning of the English word like from the meaning of love as a translation of agape.
King notes that Jesus did not say, “Like your enemies”—which is a good thing, King emphasizes, since it is “almost impossible to like some people.” No, in commanding his followers to love, Jesus was speaking about agape, which is “creative, redemptive goodwill” for all people. Thus, it is entirely possible to love people we do not like.
A Woman’s Disagreement
Many years ago when I was explaining this in a sermon to a small congregation in Japan, one woman started shaking her head in disagreement. In discussing the matter with her later, she was adamant that loving is a feeling and basically the same thing as liking others.
But she was wrong—and it is very important to realize that agape is not a feeling or an emotion. It is an attitude and is expressed in action. Thus, that kind of love is something that can be commanded.
Although my parents reported that I was a rather “picky” eater as a child, for most of my adult life my dislikes have been few. But there is one food above all others that I have never liked: raw cucumbers.
My mother could have forced me to eat cucumbers; parents regularly devise ways to get children to eat more or a variety of food.
But what if she had demanded that I like cucumbers? That would have been an impossible demand. Somehow she might have been able to get me to eat cucumbers, but there is presumably nothing she could have done to make me like them.
Agape love, however, is something that can be commanded.
Jesus’ Command
If loving is an emotion, such as liking is an emotion, then Jesus’ command that his followers love others, even enemies, would have been impossible to carry out—and therefore meaningless.
One cannot command someone else to have certain emotions, feelings, or likes. But attitudes are different. We can change our attitudes by our willpower, and we can act on the basis of attitudes in ways that run contrary to our feelings.
If love is an attitude—if its nature is to value a person in such ways as actively to seek his or her deepest welfare and fulfillment—then, if we choose, we can will to love others, even our enemies.
Certainly, that is not easy to do; it is more natural to act upon our feelings—such as hatred, which is an emotion. 
The love Jesus commanded, though, is not a feeling. It is an attitude that can be chosen. But since it is easier to act upon our feelings than upon our attitudes, King wrote helpfully about the necessity of having the strength to love.
Just as physical strength increases by exercising, the strength to love increases by practicing it.


  1. In the email I sent this morning to my Thinking Friends with the link to this new blog article, I said that to some of them it would be "old stuff." The first response I received was from Dan O'Reagan, a Thinking Friend in Louisiana and for many years a missionary colleague in Japan. Here is his short comment;

    "Thanks, Leroy. The 'old stuff' is still of universal appeal. It changed my life and changed my ministry, many years ago."

  2. I also received these comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments on genuine love. You are absolutely correct.

    We have all encountered disagreeable or nasty individuals and it is difficult to like such persons. But we need to realize that often these persons are nasty because they are hurting inside, perhaps from because of scars from their childhoods or for other reasons. To show our concern and love ('agape' in this case), by trying to help such a person confront his or her pain, takes courage and strength. It would be much easier to just avoid them, but that would be a sort of cowardice. We can do better."

  3. I appreciate these comments from local Thinking Friend Marilyn Peot:

    Leroy, since my days (daze) in initial spiritual formation (64 years ago) we were definitely taught your lesson of today. I've come to realize that 'compassion' covers it all--no emotion, but definitely a decision.

    "I like to think we're actually talking about growing in Christic-Consciousness. The same Franciscan Friar who taught spiritual growth also said, 'Rules are made to keep the Law of Love. When they don't, they don't apply.'"

    1. Marilyn, thanks for suggesting the word "compassion" as an alternative to the over-used word "love." According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, compassion "refers to both an understanding of another’s pain and the desire to somehow mitigate that pain." This is a good expression of what I understand "agape" love to be.

  4. Here are brief comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "Well said, Leroy. I’m reading Merton again these days and teaching a class basically on his thought. He agreed with what you say in numerous essays. In 'No Man Is an Island' he devoted a whole chapter to 'Charity,' his word for agape love."

  5. Very well put. I do like the terms "Goodwill" and "Compassion" since they are active. "Charity" carries that as well, but like "love", also carries some baggage.

    1. The same dictionary cited above defines goodwill as "a kindly feeling of approval and support: benevolent interest or concern," so I don't think it is a good alternative for "agape" love, unless perhaps it is expanded to "active goodwill."

    2. I like the whole chapter better. This "agape" love seems to be the focus of Christ's four Love Commandments. Each is hard to live - but some more than others based on our own personal experience. Especially the last two.

    3. Also of note: The Cub Scout Oath - "...the Cub Scout gives goodwill."

    4. Thank you for your comments, 1sojourner -- and I wish there were more like you, for there seem to be very few people who read the whole chapter for each of the TTT articles.

  6. Thinking Friend Les Hill, who now lives in Kentucky, is a former missionary to the Philippines. Here are pertinent comments received from him yesterday:

    "A number of years ago in the Philippines we participated in a Bible study. A young woman attorney, asked, 'How can I love everybody in the world when I don't even like my neighbor?' I think I lacked a helpful answer at the time. But her question sent me toward finding the answer.

    "It is as you write, 'agape' holds the core meaning of concern for the other and provokes one to meet his/her need. I can do that even if I don't like the individual. And, strangely enough it can often result in liking the one so loved.

  7. In my blog article for Sept. 5, I introduced my good friend Otsuka Kumiko-san, who was (among other things) the one who translated my university class lectures into Japanese. Yesterday she wrote the following:


    Translating what she wrote into English, she said that she remembers the impression, even shock, she had when she was translating one of my lectures into Japanese. That was the day she learned that love is not an emotion but an action, and she is grateful for that.

  8. Is it too easy to contrast "like" and "attitude" as if they have no connection? When we strive to understand another person's needs, wants, fears and hopes, I suspect we will often come to like them more as we learn to know them. Loves leads us to justice and appreciation, lets us see a more universal way. Love also allows room for each person to explore their own pilgrimages.

    Think how many "wedge" issues are fought over in the political arena which are at heart efforts to force others to do what we decide they should do. Love is humble enough to allow a lot latitude, even as it stands firmly for what is most fundamental. Love is also humble enough to know that it often lacks the wisdom to tell those apart.

  9. Wisdom.

    Today our family deals with a major rift. One of the matriarchs just passed away. All sides must figure out have to love again (that may not be possible), or at least call a truce.