Editor's note:

Love is at the heart of life with Jesus. It is the defin­ing word in our talk about God. It is the most cen­tral word used to express our way of being with oth­er peo­ple. It is the high­est and most noble char­ac­ter­is­tic to have as a stu­dent of the Lumi­nous Nazarene.” Yet that one word is curi­ous­ly miss­ing in the mis­sion state­ments of most Chris­t­ian orga­ni­za­tions. How come a word so cen­tral to the nature of God is so sel­dom men­tioned in the orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures of God’s people? 

—Ville Kavilo

Let us say … that love is an over­all con­di­tion of the embod­ied, social self, poised to pro­mote the goods of human life that are with­in its range of influ­ence. It is, then, a dis­po­si­tion or char­ac­ter (a sec­ond-lev­el poten­tial­i­ty or poten­cy, in Aris­totelian ter­mi­nol­o­gy): a readi­ness to act in a cer­tain way under cer­tain con­di­tions. It is not an action, nor a feel­ing or emo­tion, nor, indeed, an inten­tion, as inten­tion” is ordi­nar­i­ly under­stood — though it gives rise to inten­tions and to actions of a cer­tain type, and is asso­ci­at­ed with some feel­ings” and resis­tant to oth­ers. It is this under­stand­ing of agape love as an over­all dis­po­si­tion of the human self that, alone, does jus­tice to the teach­ings of Jesus and Paul and the New Tes­ta­ment about love and gives us a coher­ent idea of love that can be aimed at in prac­tice and implemented.

Such love is holis­tic, not some­thing one turns on or off for this or that per­son or thing. Its ori­en­ta­tion is toward life as a whole. It dwells on good wher­ev­er it may be found, and sup­ports it in action. Love is nour­ished upon the good and the right and the beau­ti­ful. That is why Paul the jail-bird writes to his Philip­pi­an friends: Final­ly, brethren, what­ev­er is true, what­ev­er is hon­or­able, what­ev­er is right, what­ev­er is pure, what­ev­er is lov­able and gra­cious, what­ev­er is attrac­tive, if there is any excel­lence and if any­thing wor­thy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things” (4:8). That, no doubt, was how Paul passed his time in prison. That is how he learned to be con­tent in what­ev­er cir­cum­stances I am” and could do all things in Him who strength­ens me” (vss. 11 & 13). 

Paul under­stood the fal­la­cy of those who say I just can’t love so and so,” and there they stop and give up on love. He knew that they were work­ing at the wrong lev­el. They should not try to love that per­son but try to become the kind of per­son who would love them. Only so can the ide­al of love pass into a real pos­si­bil­i­ty and prac­tice. Our aim under love is not to be lov­ing to this or that per­son, or in this or that kind of sit­u­a­tion, but to be a per­son pos­sessed by love as an over­all char­ac­ter of life, what­ev­er is or is not going on. The occa­sions” are met with from that over­all char­ac­ter. I do not come to my ene­my and then try to love them, I come to them as a lov­ing person. 

Love is not a faucet to be turned on or off at will. God him­self doesn’t just love me or you, he is love. He is cre­ative will for all that is good. That is his iden­ti­ty, and explains why he loves indi­vid­u­als, even when he is not pleased with them. We are direct­ed by Paul to be imi­ta­tors of God, as beloved chil­dren; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave him­self up for us.” (Eph. 5:1 – 2) We are called and enabled to love as God loves. 

With this under­stand­ing of love, as over­all dis­po­si­tion to good, in mind, we go back to Paul’s statements: 

· I Tim. 1:5 — Love aris­es out of a pure heart,” of a per­son not wal­low­ing in fan­tasies of sen­su­al grat­i­fi­ca­tion or mal­ice; a good con­science,” not bur­dened with guilt and fail­ure to do the good and the right.; and a sin­cere faith,” or gen­uine con­fi­dence in God’s good­ness and care for us, of his effec­tu­al love, from which noth­ing can sep­a­rate us. (Rom. 8:37 – 39, I John 1:5) We do not achieve the dis­po­si­tion of agape love by direct effort, but by attend­ing to and putting into place the con­di­tions out of which it arises. 

· Rom. 13:10 — The law is direct­ed toward actions con­form­ing to what is good and right. Love too is direct­ed toward the secur­ing of what is good and right, but from the depths of the self from which actions come. If we take care of the sources of action, action will take care of itself. (See the cas­es of mur­der and adul­tery treat­ed by Jesus in Matt. 5:21 – 30.) We will then not be con­stant­ly hin­dered or defeat­ed in actions by the con­flict­ed self which winds up doing what it intends” not to do or not doing what it intends” to do. (Peter’s three denials of Christ, or Paul’s con­flict­ed self of Romans 7.) 

· I Cor. 13:4 – 8 — Patience, kind­ness, humil­i­ty, etc. arise from the over­all dis­po­si­tion of love because it is direct­ed to what is good and right before God and not to the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of desires and emo­tions, except inso­far as they are under the gov­er­nance of the over­all dis­po­si­tion of love. Thus it is impor­tant to under­stand that in this pas­sage Paul is not say­ing that we are to be patient, kind, hum­ble and so forth, but that love itself is patient, kind, hum­ble, etc. That, after all, is what the pas­sage actu­al­ly says. So we pur­sue love” and the rest takes care of itself. 

It can­not be said too often that agape love is not desire, and not delight. Desire and feel­ings gen­er­al­ly have a dif­fer­ent nature than love, and if we don’t under­stand this clear­ly we will remain help­less to enter into love and to receive it into our­selves. Desire and feel­ings fall into the domain of impulse, not that of choice. They aim at their sat­is­fac­tion, not at what is bet­ter and pos­si­bly best. Choice con­sid­ers alter­na­tives and weighs what is best. If its vision is broad enough, it will find what is good and right. If it is sur­ren­dered to God, unit­ed with his will, it will be able to do what is best. That of course is the nature of love. It seeks what is best. That is why it enables a per­son to refrain from hat­ing their ene­my, which they might very well want to do, and to seek what is good for them along with all oth­ers involved. This cer­tain­ly does not mean you just give in and do what the ene­my (or friend) wants or let them have their way. That might be the worst thing you could do to them. 

Love, then, is a con­di­tion of the will embed­ded in all fun­da­men­tal dimen­sions of the human per­son­al­i­ty. It is not some­thing you choose to do, but what you choose to be. The will is your capac­i­ty to orig­i­nate things and process­es. It is the exec­u­tive cen­ter of the self: the heart or the human spir­it. It is meant to direct all dimen­sions of the self, not by direct and explic­it super­vi­sion, for the most part, but by indi­rect means with God. These fun­da­men­tal dimen­sions are: the will, of course, the mind (with its thoughts and its feel­ings, desires and emo­tions), the body, the social inter­re­la­tion­ships, and the soul. That is how Jesus lays out the dimen­sions of the self and of love in Mark 12:29 – 31

Excerpt­ed from the Kin­dle edi­tion of Get­ting Love Right, linked to on Dal­las Willard’s web­site to whom we extend our grat­i­tude for their gen­er­ous shar­ing of his work.

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