My short-answer to the question in our title is a blunt and firm, “no!” Love cannot be trusted!
Why the question? It was stirred by a recent conversation with a man I respect both for his devotion to Christ and for his rich theological heritage. He was gently but firmly warning me against the unstable subjectivism that goes with an emphasis on love—an emphasis he knows I promote.
Not long after that encounter came another conversation that reinforced the importance of the question. The second friend asked me about one of my former Bible read-through partners. The friend asked if I had talked to the partner in recent days. This partner, after we finished our reading trek together, was avid: hungry to grow spiritually. But a few months ago I meet him again and although we had a pleasant time together there was no longer any sign of appetite: no questions, no excitement about Christ, no talk of his growing faith. I was startled by his profound change of tone.
So when I answered my questioner by saying, yes, we had talked, the friend asked, “Did he tell you about his girlfriend?” I answered, no.
“I’m not too surprised!” came the response.
In a brief elaboration—nothing gossipy but enough to alert me—I learned that my former reading companion is now asking skeptical questions about the reliability of the Bible and is complaining about the narrow views held by most Christians. And, it so happens, he’s now dating a lovely woman who is not a believer. A new love has come along and it seems to be changing him.
This brings us back to why I don’t trust love. Love is, indeed, subjective. Love shapes all our thinking; love defines our values; love prioritizes what we do; and love forms who we are! Love, as an existential emotional force, has enormous and irresistible power. Nothing on earth can free a person who has been captured by love—a captivity that all of us experience. Why not? Because a lover has no interest in being set free from what he or she loves. That’s the nature of love.
So I don’t trust love as an end in itself, nor should we ever promote love for the sake of the profound experiences—including joy, pleasure, ecstasy—that it offers us. Love has enormous destructive power in all those who treat it as a stimulant that justifies its own ambitions.
Yet, having recognized its destructive power, love can never be discarded. Why not? Because we were made to be lovers, created in the image of the eternally and mutually devoted Triune God who “is love.”
Which brings us to the crux of our response: of why love is needed in a healthy, living faith. The ultimate question of love centers on its object and not on the power of love to shape us. That is, the issue at stake is not whether love in itself can be trusted—as if an affective drive is inherently good or bad—but about who or what we love.
Love is as pure or as perverse as the object of our devotion. If I love myself, my pleasures, my status, my personal security, my illicit friendships, or any other object that is not part of my greater love for Christ, then my love will close down any growth in and towards Christ. His Spirit will be grieved, the impact of the Word in our lives will be quenched, and we will descend into the darkness that accompanies independence from God, the God who loves us. So the problem is not in the bonds of love, but in the object of love that binds us. God, alone, is our proper object of ultimate love—and his loveliness can conquer every competing love once our devoted gaze looks to him. This gaze constitutes faith.
Let’s conclude by recalling the central feature of faith: it works through love. This love is birthed in us by the Spirit. God so loved the world that he gave us the Son to die for our sins. But humans have despised that love because, in Adam, we love darkness rather than light because our deeds are evil. John 3 answers the question.
The solution to a false love, then, is not found in the naïve notion offered by my would-be helper that love must be dismissed or suppressed, but by our responding to a proper love. Only God’s love is able to draw us away from illicit self-love in all its myriad forms. So, as the great 1st century Elder put it: Beloved, let us love God because he first loved us!