Two Ways News
Two Ways News
The two loves

The two loves

Part 1 of an exploration of 'love' in the Christian life

The French call it l’esprit d’escalier—which means something like ‘the wit of the staircase’. It’s that clever thing you wished you’d said but only thought of after the conversation was over. 

After last week’s post on faith, I had two of these moments—one I thought of myself and one pointed out by a friend. After a comment from a friend, I really wished I’d made more of the fact that ‘faith in a word of promise’ is the character of the Christian life because it is the character of the God we relate to. He is the covenant-making, promising, speaking God, and so the primary way we relate to him is by accepting and trusting his word. I kind of implied this at various points in last week’s post, but never actually came out and said it (which leaves me shaking my head on the staircase).

Making the connection between God as a speaker and our response of faith is important because it helps us discern false versions of how the Christian life unfolds. It helps us see, for example, that Christian experience is not mystical (where we feel our way towards a wordless force or power); nor is the Christian life lived by sight (neither in the need to see miraculous signs, nor in representing God visually); nor is it a prosperity cult (where God is a capricious non-communicative power that you have to please in order to be blessed). 

The God of the Bible is personal and verbal, and that’s why the primary way we relate to him is by trusting what he says. 

And by talking to him. 

That’s the second thing I wish I’d included in last week’s post—and thought of almost immediately after I pressed ‘Publish Now’. Possibly the most important implication of ‘faith’ as the foundational virtue of the Christian life is prayer. Prayer is faith put into words. It’s our trust in God verbalized in the midst of life—as we call on him, make our requests to him, cast our cares on him, and generally express the fact that we depend upon him for everything. And so faith is strengthened as we hear the word of God and as we exercise our faith in prayer. 

(I’m hoping to turn these posts into a little book about the Christian life in due course, and so these staircase thoughts won’t be completely wasted.) 

But enough apologies about last week. Time to think about the second virtue of the three—love. And because love is more complicated than it first appears, it’s going to take two Payneful Truths to cover it even moderately well. Here’s part 1.

The two loves

I’m lovin’ it. Love your work. Love what you’ve done to your hair. I love my wife. I love golf and lazy Saturday mornings. What’s love, but a second-hand emotion? 

If ‘faith’ is a saggy, middle-aged word that has put on too much weight around the middle,  what are we going to say about ‘love’? It’s so bloated with meanings, associations and cliched usages, we hardly recognise it any more.  

Perhaps this is why we don’t talk as much these days about ‘love’ as the summary and capstone of Christian living—even though the Bible does repeatedly. Maybe it just feels too vague and soppy, like a soft-focus picture of puppies on a 1 Corinthians 13 poster. 

In fact, even if we do want to be biblical and talk more about love, 1 Corinthians 13 illustrates our problem. Just what is ‘love’ in this passage? 

We’re given lots of adjectives—that love is patient and kind, and not arrogant or rude or resentful. We’re told what love does (rejoices with the truth, bears all things, and so on) and what it doesn’t do (boast or insist on its own way). 

But what sort of thing is love itself? 

We’re fond of saying that love is an action, not a feeling—and given the general romanticisation of love in our culture, that’s a fair enough corrective. But love is not really reducible to an ‘action’ in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is certain things, and does certain things. It drives action, and is seen in action, but it is not simply an action.

Then again, we also wouldn’t say from 1 Corinthians 13 that love was primarily a feeling or a sentiment, since feelings don’t act as such—they just are.  

So love seems to be something else. 

Perhaps it is a description of attitude or character. For example, when we say that someone is ‘laid back’, we’re describing something about that person that sums them up—their habitually relaxed way of acting, their easy-going orientation to life in general, their chilled way of responding to things. 

Is that what ‘love’ is—a cumulative description of someone’s habitual way of being and acting? Is it a description of ‘character’? 

That seems a bit closer, and to fit with 1 Corinthians 13 a bit better. But there are still problems. For example, a description of someone’s character is a summary seen from the outside and after the fact. It’s an evaluation of how we observe someone acting and behaving over time. I judge you to be laid-back because of certain things I’ve repeatedly seen you do. 

But what are those ‘certain things’ in relation to love? What sort of actions (repeated over time) would lead me to describe you as loving? What, in other words, is the defining characteristic of an action, the repeated performance of which might lead me to describe you as having a ‘loving’ character? 

Defining what ‘love’ actually means or requires turns out to be quite a bit trickier than first appears (as Love Actually itself illustrates, in the confused claptrap of its sentimentality). 

And we are hardly the first people ever to notice this. In the history of Christian thought and ethics, there has been considerable debate about the nature of love (both God’s love and ours). 

In particular, the debate has often been about the relationship between two kinds of love, captured in the two Greek words eros and agape.1 Is love fundamentally a desire or longing for something good (eros)? Or is love primarily an unconditional benevolence that acts for the sake of others, regardless of whether they are good (agape)? 

As gospel people, we are immediately drawn to the second alternative. True Christ-like love, we would say, loves the unlovable. God’s love for us is not drawn forth by our goodness or lovableness. In fact, quite the opposite—God’s love is spontaneous and uncaused by us. God’s love is seen in giving his Son to die for his enemies, for those who are dead in sin.

The Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren is well-known for having argued that this agape-love of God is true Christian love, and is the antithesis of eros-style love. Eros is a desire for something that I value. Eros sees something it regards as good, and is drawn to it, longs for it, desires it. Eros, argued Nygren, is inevitably self-centred. It is sub-Christian. 

True agape-love, according to Nygren, doesn’t correspond to the goodness or value of its object. It creates that goodness and value by loving it unconditionally—God’s love for sinners being the prime example.

So far, so good, we might think. But there are problems. 

What about our love for God—the great and first commandment? Does our love for God have no relation to the goodness of God? Do we just graciously decide to love God unconditionally, as if there is nothing good about God himself that calls forth our love? That can’t be right. 

Or for that matter, what of other good things we love in the world—a husband’s love for his wife, for example? Does my love for Ali have nothing to do with any qualities she possesses? I must of course seek to lay down my life for her, as Christ does for the church, regardless of whether she deserves it at any given moment. But when I tell Ali that I love her, should I add, “Of course, there is nothing at all objectively good or attractive about you that makes me say that—it’s just my gracious decision to love an otherwise unlovable object”? This doesn’t sound right either (and would very likely result in cold shoulder and burnt tongue for dinner for quite some time). 

We can see why Nygren wants to make love independent of wanting or desiring ‘the good’ (because that seems to be how God loves us), but his approach isn’t an adequate explanation of love as a whole. In fact, if we over-emphasize the spontaneous, unconditional nature of love, and say that love has nothing to do with the goodness of its object, then we find other problems emerging. 

‘Situation ethics’, for example. This approach to ethical thinking (propounded by Joseph Fletcher among others) suggests that a benevolent love for others should be the driving force of our morality, not rules or laws of behaviour. It’s a very modern and recognizable ethic—just do whatever love drives you to do in the situation. So if you judge that it would be more loving to leave your marriage (in which you are both unhappy), and shack up with someone else, with a net total increase in love and joy all round, then go for it. Don’t let an old-fashioned ‘thou shalt not’ stand in your way. 

The problem with ‘situation ethics’ is that making unconditional love the sole criteria for action just kicks the can down the road. My intention to love is all well and good, but how that is expressed depends on more than the intention alone. It requires me making judgements about the situation and what sort of action would be loving action here and now. It requires us, in other words, to think about what ‘the good’ would be in this situation, not just about my motivation to be loving.

Love, in other words, cannot entirely exist within me (within the subject), as an undifferentiated beam of kindness or affection that flows out onto everyone and everything around me. It must also have some reference to its object—to ‘a good’ that we’re perceiving or seeking in the thing or person that we’re loving. 

Love does have some connection with seeking ‘the good’, and therefore with ‘desire’.   

But then that throws us back on the problem of God’s love for un-good people like us, his gracious, self-sacrificial love for the undeserving. 

And how does all this talk about the nature of love relate to faith? Faith is the foundational virtue of the Christian life (as we’ve seen), and is ‘worked out’ in love (as Gal 5:6 says). How does that work? What is it about love that makes it dependent in some way on faith? 

Well, dear reader, so many questions. But having (hopefully) helped you see the problems, and cleared some of the ground, we might be ready for some answers … in next week’s Payneful Truth


We’ve skated over some deep waters in today’s post, and missed out some interesting examples and byways. For example, the idea of love being more about desire has made a bit of a comeback in recent times. Writers like Charles Taylor and James KA Smith have argued that we are driven far more by our desires than by knowledge and rationality, and that (accordingly) people will come to love God not through preaching and rationality and arguments, but through a deep, sub-rational change in what they want. A new and growing love for God will be achieved (Smith suggests) not through rational persuasion or words but through being ‘schooled’ in a new set of desires, through the habits of Christian worship and liturgy. We’ll come to love new things (i.e. God) by practising wanting and loving them over time. 

There is some truth in this (as well as significant problems). It’s true that our desires and our knowledge or reason often work in different directions. We are much more than thinking machines. And we are fallen and complicated, and don’t always respond to rationality—in fact, we are often driven by desires or preferences that we can’t easily explain, or that run counter to what we know to be good and true. 

But what Romans 7 describes as a wretched state—of our desires and our knowledge working in different directions—Smith seems to accept as the unchangeable norm. The sword of the Spirit (the word of God) seems powerless to make any impression on the desire-dominated human heart. The best we can hope for is to train Christians like circus animals to want something different.   

And of course that ‘something different’ is not contentless, just as desire is never contentless. It is always and inevitably based on some perception, no matter how inarticulate, of something good and desirable. And if the thing desired is a person—who is only revealed or known as he speaks—then desire or longing for that person can never be separated from listening to him and knowing him as he really is. 

(Incidentally—how surprising that a liberal Catholic like Charles Taylor should come up with a theory of love and knowledge of God that looks like this, and that ends up with the practices of the church being the mediating power that really changes me. This is hardly shocking. What is more surprising is how many Reformation types have embraced him.)

But I get ahead of myself. More on love and knowledge and how the gospel is the foundation of love … next time. 

I was very tempted to use a Tina Turner image for this week’s post (‘What’s love got to do with it?’), but couldn’t find one that was suitable for a Christian newsletter. And then searched for images illustrating ‘two loves’ and found lots of LGBT pics. So I settled for this one, the Alan Rickman character in Love Actually, who gets into trouble because of ‘two loves’.


It’s a linguistic mistake (characteristic of the word studies movement that was so popular in the mid-20th century) to think that the word agape means ‘God’s unconditional love for the undeserving’—that is, to load all the concepts or referents associated with agape in the Bible into the meaning of the word itself. But in the history of the discussion of ‘love’ this is how the terms have often been used, and I am reflecting that in this post. 

Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.