What is love?

The Beatles sang, “All you need is love” and this phrase has been repeated like a parrot, especially as we approach Valentine’s Day. Yet, before lapsing into popular theories derived from catchy songs, we need to clarify what love is. As spiritual masters would assert, Yes, all you need is love because God is love (1John 4:8,16) and all you need is God for ultimate fulfillment. However, because our society has casually thrown around the word love we inevitably live in a fog of confusion about what this word actually means. If you google how the culture defines love, you’ll see that people primarily describe love in terms of feelings, pleasure, or an attraction one experiences. At this point, a counterfeit version of love has emerged. Our modern view explains love as being consumed by what the self gets whereas St. Paul affirmed that love is not self-seeking (1 Cor. 13:5) but moves outward towards fixating on the other. Therefore, the spiritual truth of love is being hijacked into a jumble of disjointed terms that disavows itself from its true meaning. Catholicism, on the other hand, has long taught that love is not reducible to warm, fuzzy feelings for the self. Rather, as St. Thomas Aquinas put it in concrete terms, “Love is to will the good of the other” (Summa Theologica Vol. II 26, 4).

Because the word “love” has been liberally deployed by tepid Christians, people fail to see that love is centered on humbly using the self for the others’ spiritual and moral advancement much like a parent sacrificing his wants and career ambitions to justly raise his child. However, under our modern view, the concept of love has been flipped to a cheap transaction in which one uses the other for the immediate pleasure of the self. Our society, being in the midst of a moral nose dive, fails to recognize that it has inverted the concept of love from self-giving to now self-getting. That is, we’ve reduced love to being temporarily nice to someone else so that he, in turn, might like or treat you in a well-pleasing manner. Another version of this “love” is to treat a fellow human being justly so that he, in turn, will give you praise. However, this formula is a fake version of love, for such moves are tantamount to a strategic self-interest move – akin to a well orchestrated “I scratch your back you scratch my back” maneuver. As Bishop Barron puts it, “Truly to love is to move outside of the black hole of one’s egotism, to resist the centripetal force that compels one to assume the attitude of self-protection.” Here, the Church attaches love rightly as a “theological virtue,” for it represents a participation in the love that God is – a total gift of self-sacrifice.

While it remains humanly impossible to articulate the love that flows from God, we must, at least, restore a faint sense of God’s love away from the bland modern version of it.

Therefore, our picture today of love sees two concepts that stand in stark contrast. On one hand, God presents us with a love that requires sacrifice much like a soldier enduring suffering to save his fellow man from tyranny. On the other hand, the culture displays the love of one fixed inward to merely feed his desires for self-comfort. The former is hard love for a strong soul. Being strong it is unyielding, like a rock that does not bend to the emotional whims of a culture that has gone awry. Conversely, the latter form of love is soft and easily finds a home in a weak soul. Being soft, this love represents a limp noodle that becomes flexible to the urges of a decadent and pleasure-seeking society. This is why the modern view of love represents a warm, fuzzy sentimentality akin to a Hallmark slogan. In this version of love no discomfort shall surface – it exists to make your feelings be nice and cozy. This concept of love then continues to bellow out with the mantra of do whatever makes you feel happy. Sadly, this water-downed version of love has wormed its way into the mainstream. The negative effects of which we see as it produces frail egos that need to hide in a “safe space” the moment their comfy ideas are challenged with a concept that sounds too uncomfortable to hear. This soft love necessarily lacks the strength of sacrifice that God’s love requires.

Here is where we come to core of God’s love, which is designed to move a person from behooving to one’s fallen will to now conforming to God’s will. This journey, while adoring with delight, will necessarily be infused with difficulties much like the combined thrills and hardships of being a parent. Yet, in our current cultural landscape there exists a vigorous removal of any perceived suffering. This motif is revealed in the corrupt marketing ploy of abortion – to “terminate” the child because being a parent arouses too much hardship.

To be sure, the love God requires has a joyful endpoint and likely isn’t a continuous series of intense adversities that you can’t handle. Jesus said “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) to encourage us during our perceived dark moments walking His narrow path. Ultimately, God’s love requires a strong, proven soul that builds character much like an obese person forms toughness by enduring an unpleasant training program to achieve a happy ending embedded with a healthy physique. As Jesus declared, “Pick up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23). Here, God ups the ante of love to include a sacrifice of the self for the other’s journey towards perfection. Therefore, love and sacrifice are a packaged deal. This is plainly seen by viewing the cross. The cross is the greatest act of love (cf. John 15:13). But, here we’ll notice an obvious fact – the cross didn’t feel good for Jesus or His followers. So, love necessarily won’t invoke a cozy “happy place” at all stages. 

As Theologian Scott Hahn is fond of saying, “Love without suffering is vain, emotional platitudes.” What proves that love is genuine is one’s ability to suffer for the other. Therefore, embedded in the formula of love is that the self must endure pain to will the good of the other. In Mother Teresa’s noble peace speech, she said, “For love to be real it must hurt.” Jesus indicated that in love the self would suffer to some degree in willing the good of the other. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for the beloved” (John 15:13). Almost every time the word “love” surfaces in the Bible it is associated with self-sacrifice or suffering. Therefore, whenever you hear the word “sacrifice” or “give up” these terms practically go hand in hand with love.

For example, Jesus associates love with a sacrifice when He declared, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3: 16). Here, Jesus links “love” with suffering in that God “gave up” His Son in a sacrificial manner. In fact, the first time the word “love” appears in the Bible, it is associated with sacrifice and hardship. “Take your son, your only son, whom you love–Isaac–and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:2).

Therefore, where there is no sacrifice (i.e., suffering), there is no love. As the song by Nazareth declares rather pointedly, “Love Hurts.” It follows, that if love is to will the good of the other, at times, this process won’t feel enjoyable. Because in willing the good of the other you have to face difficult conversations with loved ones when they’ve gone astray similar to the direct, painful encounters invoked at an intervention. However, such arduous experiences paradoxically allow the faith to grow. Indeed, the Christian pedigree is one of hardship, suffering, and martyrdom. The nascent Church was built upon the broken, pierced bodies of heroic martyrs, and it was bonded with the mortar of their blood. As Tertullian declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” In other words, the love God puts forth is not going to be a comfortable rosy experience from end to end.

Rather than fall victim to the modern view of love, we can use Valentine’s day to capture the true essence of love – turning away from the bland sentimentality of roses and chocolate to the fervent sacrifice and commitment to the other that Saint Valentine of Rome displayed. St. Valentine revealed love in his dedication to endure hardships to bring others to their ultimate contentment in the faith. Under the Roman emperor Claudius Gothicus (Claudius II), the Christian faith was outlawed. To practice it, let alone preach it would get one scourged or burned at the stake. Yet, this didn’t deter Valentine to convert others to their fulfillment in the Christian faith. Because of this St. Valentine was arrested. We see that Valentine was not soft or timid. He was not mirroring today’s motto of love as a self-seeking pleasure junkie. Even in prison he continued to proclaim the faith and attempted to marry Christian couples and aided those Christians being persecuted by Claudius. These continued acts of St. Valentine enraged Claudius. Consequently, Claudius ordered St. Valentine to renounce his faith or be beaten with clubs and beheaded. Pressed into an ultimatum, St. Valentine’s love showed that it had teeth and self-sacrifice to it. He wasn’t soft, thus he wouldn’t cave like a cheap pole. He was subsequently beaten and beheaded to his death on February 14th, 269 AD.

Many decades later archaeologists unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to St. Valentine. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of his martyrdom. Today, St. Valentine shows us what that the real definition of love is. In mirroring Christ’s sacrifice, St. Valentine’s life illuminates that love sparkles when it is joined tightly to sacrificing the self for the good of the other. Let us glean nuggets of wisdom from St. Valentine on February 14th and make this holiday great again. If we do, we’ll begin to see a better picture of what love looks like.


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