Monday, June 05, 2023

Anonymous Asks (252)

“Is it possible to love a person you don’t like?”

Thankfully, yes. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We may wink at certain kinds of misbehavior, especially when we find them clever or funny, but God knows there is nothing to like about sin. Yet he displayed his love toward us when we were thoroughly detestable and utterly unfit for his presence.

But I suppose the real question is whether it is possible for human beings to love unlikable people. That’s a little tougher.

Love’s Not a Feeling

Feelings of affection toward unlikable people come few and far between for most of us. We cannot summon them at will, and I have found trying to stir them up by reminding myself of my duty to God to love others a lost cause; those feelings will still do as they please. Happily, Christian love is not primarily about feelings, but rather about actions of good will toward others.

The word agapaō and its various inflections appear over 300 times in the New Testament. On a number of occasions, it seems to be used as a synonym for the Greek word for “affection”, which indeed describes an emotion, but many times what is said about Christian love in the context makes it clear there is a lot more to agapē than feelings. For example, the command to “love your enemies” in the Sermon on the Mount is amplified with the phrase “pray for those who persecute you”, indicating a love which is immediate and practical. In the same passage, the Lord urges his followers to imitate their Father in heaven, who “sends rain on the just and on the unjust”. Love for God, the Lord said, must be “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. Intellect, effort, truth and loyalty are required, not just feelings. Love for others may require us to exercise the same sort of self-discipline. In Luke, love is tied to “doing good” and lending without expectation of payback. Everywhere in the New Testament, love is tied to giving, not just of worldly goods, but of self. Love demonstrates itself not by the intensity of our feelings, but by what we do.

Subjective Likes and Dislikes

First and foremost, biblical love is sensible. I can put someone’s interests before my own and seek good on their behalf whether I find them pleasant company or not, and even when my emotions are entirely unstirred. Do I like him? Not in this moment, perhaps, but maybe in the next. Investing ourselves in the lives of others helps us keep their eternal value in view and surprise ourselves with things about them worthy of credit. We start to see people we don’t like as they might be if they learned to treat others the way we are treating them.

Affection is a feeling, so whether we like people or don’t is a very subjective thing. Perhaps I choose my friends for shallow, irrelevant reasons: because they flatter me, or are physically attractive, have worldly status and clout, or are like me in ways that simply don’t matter to God. Equally, we may dislike people for the wrong reasons, not because they are intrinsically unlikable, but because our “likes” are not yet conformed to the values of Christ. For example, I have never been fond of people who see through me when I’m putting on airs. They annoy me, for obvious reasons. The problem is not them, it’s me. Other times, we say certain individuals are “holier than thou”. That may be so, but the problem may not be that they are following Christ too closely, but that I am not following him closely enough. They make me jealous, and I don’t want to be around them. Or maybe we dislike people because we have listened to gossip about them, or are bearing an ancient grudge we need to unload, or because they remind us of somebody else we don’t like.

Hypocrisy and Obedience

In such cases, the command to love our brothers and sisters in Christ is all the more necessary: it keeps us around the people we need to mature us in the things of God even if they make us feel uncomfortable.

We may not always love (or like) people as we should, but as children of God we can look forward with confidence to a day when our likes and loves will be perfectly aligned and absolutely ordinate. God is making our characters over in the image of his Son. When that has been accomplished in all of us, our feelings and actions will be in complete harmony.

Until then, if the affectionate feelings for the objects of our displays of agapē love trail along behind and show up late once in a while, it’s not hypocrisy to proceed without them, it’s obedience.

To the Lord, that’s worth something.

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