This article is almost entirely from just one part of the 25th chapter of my as yet unpublished book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT).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.
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.
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.