This thought just hit me like a pile of bricks, and I need to sound off on it really fast.
In evangelical culture, it is often repeated that love is not an emotion. Love is an action. If you google search for those words, a slew of Christian articles pop up. Christian courtship books, books about relationships, evangelical talking heads have reinforced this message. My family said it over and over. Until maybe yesterday I had just accepted this paradigm without question. It made sense. Love isn’t an emotion, it’s so much more than that. Love isn’t a feelings towards someone, it’s doing something to them.
This was rooted deeply in a rejection of emotion and desires in general. After all, feelings are fickle, cheap, short-lived. Feelings are deceitful, like the heart. Feelings are sinful, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life. Wants, needs, feelings, desires… all of these are to be crucified. But love is to remain, so love is not a feeling. Love is action.
And this is why whenever my mom would say “I know this doesn’t feel loving to you, but it is love” I believed her. This is why, whenever I was mistreated, belittled, rejected, and disrespected, I excused it as “just their way of loving me.” Their way of loving, despite the fact that it did not feel loving, had validity because feelings could not be trusted but actions were love. Their way of loving allowed them to consistently wield the power to define what love looked like, regardless of whether I liked it or not.
Accepting that paradigm meant that I could not accept their love while simultaneously rejecting their actions. Each time I tried to insist that I needed them to treat me differently, the answer would be “but we love you. We love you.” And love is action, not a feeling. Whether or not I felt unloved was irrelevant. Whether or not I was hurting, I was scared, I wanted to die, it didn’t matter because those were feelings and feelings can’t be trusted. Love can.
And over and over, I accepted this paradigm. Even as I tried to argue that abuse could be committed with loving intentions, even as I argued that I wanted respect, even as I tried to make them understand that what they were doing was hurting me, I still internally accepted the idea that love is an action as valid and, as such, I had no real ground to stand on. The best I could do would be to quibble over which actions are love, which is a very difficult argument to win since it is so subjective and situation-specific. From me, love looked like trying to still have a relationship with my family after all of the hurt they had caused. From them, love looked like emotional manipulation. Who was I to decide if that was or was not love?
But that’s exactly why the idea that love is an action is so wrong. It gives all of the power to define love to the one loving, not the one on the receiving end. It allows one person to decide that any action done with a feeling of love, is love. In fact, actions can be done with a feeling of hate, and it can still be called love.
I do believe that my family loves me. I think they love me very deeply. But love is an emotion. They can have very deep feelings for me and still act hatefully. They can want the very best for me and still be unbelievably cruel. They are right to say that actions mean more than emotions. But they are wrong to say that love is an action.
It is completely possible to feel love for someone while your actions destroy them.
Because love is only a feeling, it is meaningless to me unless it is demonstrated through actions that make me feel loved. And that’s the difference. If we accept that love is only a feeling, then we must by necessity give the recipient of our love some amount of control over how that love is demonstrated. The recipient gets to define what actions make them feel your love.
And this might seem like a minor distinction, but to me it is so important. Love is not something you can do to me. Love is only something you can feel about me. The actions that you choose to take based on that feeling are separate. They are not love. I can acknowledge and desire your love while simultaneously utterly rejecting the actions you take to demonstrate it.