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!
Good thoughts. I kept waiting for you to say that there is one love we can trust and that is the Trinities love for us. You did bring it up at the very end. I was struck by the Face 2 Face this morning in John 5:26 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs.” The miraculous signs point to the Savior. I so often look at the gift rather than the giver. So it is true, my love for the Lord cannot be trusted because I am so easily misled.
Amen, Ron! Excellent article. It is amazing how many dismiss love because of its instability, and then pursue a sort of stoic faith (not realizing that love in its dangerous forms still lurks ready to seize their hearts and drag them away, but stoically resisting the idea of really loving the One they can trust – ironic, but sad).
Yes, there’s lots of irony in the widespread stoic disavowals of love as our primary and proper motive in faith! The real difference isn’t in a “stability” that disaffected Christians presume they have, versus the “instability” of those who are captured by God’s love as offered in Christ and poured out in our hearts by the Spirit.
The actual difference is that the stoic Christian locates his/her faith in their autonomy (i.e. as having a self-legislating will that makes unemotional/disaffected choices to believe proper doctrines).
The affective Christian, by contrast, recognizes that we are made to be “responders” so that we are always responding to one affective calling or another: either to the enemy’s invitation to personal autonomy, or to God’s call to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. So, when we strip away the labels, we’re either lovers of self or lovers of God. There are no other alternatives.
Make the object of your affection right for all things will align themselves to it.
Paul sums up your assertions in Col.3:2
“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.”
This is the passage that arrested my thoughts as I read through through this article.
I observe, Ron, that men and women who are mightily used of God, deliberately and consistently make their chief object and affection, Christ.
The reason that you write well is because you love well, Ron.
Keep your object right.
It is sad when we are attracted to loves that displace God.
I pray that we all will gaze at Him.
Ron, amy thoughts about an essay titled “Love, response or result?”
Its a teaser that might allow you to sharpen another aspect from SG.
As my world-view professor taught me to ask, “So what?” My answer: love Christ well to love others well. This discussion has new meaning in the midst of raising three teenage daughters!
Ron, very much appreciate what you have written, more especially because you have penned with clarity thoughts that have been mulling around in my mind for several months as a result of certain experiences. Thank you for sharing this so well and it is God’s timing as far as I am concerned. The Lord bless and encourage you as you continue to encourage others to know His Word and to love Him wholeheartedly.
I have sometimes said that faith cannot be faith in a vacuum. People often speak of faith without seeming to connect it to anything or anyone. It matters in whom or what our faith rests, and it matters in the same way to whom or what our love is given. It is an interesting characteristic of the love of humans, unlike the pure love of God, that it is colored by the object upon which it is placed. If we get the order turned around in the command to love God and then others, love gets tainted by our self and the person or thing upon which it is placed. If, on the other hand we give and receive love first, in a true relationship with our triune God, our love for others will exhibit the qualities spoken of in
I Corinthians 13, because it will reflect the purity of His love for us. I am still learning to get the order right, but that is why we need each other to be spurring us on to love and good works. Keep up the good work and the loving Him with all that you are. Ann