Love is an emotion, not an action

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.

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3 responses

  1. Wow this hits me right in the gut! I know exactly what you mean.
    “This was rooted deeply in a rejection of emotion and desires in general.” That is so spot on. And another way of rejecting those emotions is to simply ignore them. I talk about this some in my post here:
    http://findingmyvoiceblog.com/2014/10/15/when-no-one-ever-asks-how-do-you-feel-or-what-do-you-think/

  2. I want to start off by saying that I am so sorry you suffered through abuse with your parents. I have seen it all too often when parents abuse their authority over their children and even use religion to do so. It is startling when it occurs and the emotional scars can be extremely difficult to overcome. With that being said, I want to highlight one thing you stated here, ” 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.” This is absolutely not true if you are a Christian. We are given clear grounds for what love is and what love is not, we do not get to choose what actions are loving and which are not. In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 we are told “love is patient, kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always preserves.” There are many more references to love in the Bible, and if your actions do not fall into the category of what love is defined by God, than it is not love regardless of what you call it. It does not sound like your parents acted out in love according to God’s standards from reading through your article. I am a firm believer that love is an action or a choice, not a feeling, but again we do not get to decide what is loving and what is not just by stating the way we feel about our actions. Read through the Bible and you will find very clearly how the Lord feels about love and how to walk in love each day of your life. I pray that your emotional scars will heal and allow you to be a far better person for what you have endured at the hands of your parents.

    1. Thank you for your comments and sympathies. There’s a couple of things worth addressing here. It’s true, that “love” in the bible has different connotations attached to it, but then again, there are multiple words in the bible that are translated as “love” and not all of them really mean the same thing. And even the word in 1 Corinthians 13 which you discuss is also used by Jesus in Matt. 24:12 where he says “the love of many shall wax cold”. That seems to imply that this Greek word can be both used for the concept of “perfect love” as in 1 Cor., or imperfect love (more like a feeling) in Matt. 24. There is an ambiguity in the terminology used, and that ambiguity is even stronger in English where we have only one word to describe all forms of love.

      So, more to the point, if a parent loves a child but doesn’t behave 100% perfectly towards that child, would you say to them “you do not love your child?” What word would you prefer such a parent to use? What person could really dare to claim to love anyone if love must be 100% perfect as in 1 Cor. 13? What words then should a parent use to describe their care for their child?

      You see, Christians can claim to redefine love to mean “the actions of perfect love” all they want, but that’s not what it means in English. That’s not even how Christians normally use it. Most Christians would never hesitate to say they love their spouse or parents or children even if they know that their actions aren’t always 100% perfect or honoring in every instance. That’s because, in English, love is a feeling and it ought to motivate us to act in good ways towards the people we love, but it won’t always because we’re human. Attempting to redefine love as perfect actions just muddies the waters and gets us nowhere.

      Besides that, even within the bible’s definition, there’s a lot of room for personal interpretation. Without a doubt, my parents feel that their actions fell right in line with the requirements laid out in 1 Cor. 13. You disagree. Okay, who gets to decide? God certainly hasn’t showed up to settle the matter himself. So again, we are left with a poorly-defined object called “love” which people can use in whatever way they please while insisting that others should not object because theirs is the perfect, god-ordained “love”. No where in 1 Cor. does it say that the person being “loved” must feel edified or respected. As such, I reject that definition of love as inadequate.

      I should add that I’ve read through the bible many, many times. There is very little clarity about what its god feels about love or anything else. If you find it edifying that is fine, but my lack of acceptance of biblical definitions of love certainly is not due to a lack of knowledge of the bible. To your last statement, my emotional scars have been healing and I am indeed a much better person than I once was. Thank you for your kind words!

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