“Love.” Never was a word more empty till it was filled up with something. I hear more about “love” these days than any other word except “hate.” God says to “walk in love” (Ephesians 5:2), and that sounds as broad and wide as a dime-store greeting card before you apprise yourself of the delimiting contours in His Word. Those contours are not stultifying restrictions but guardrails. And who doesn’t want to be kept from driving off the cliff?
There are many legitimate kinds of love. There is love for nature, which is a splendid thing unless you make it a religion. For nature, apart from the surround-sound declaration of the power and deity of God, gives no instructions in living. And if you count on it to do so, you end up making it say what you wanted to hear: thus, the hippies’ free love and more modern debaucheries. C.S. Lewis said the mistake of the 19th century was to make nature love a direct path to God. This, he writes, led “to a great deal of nonsense.”
There is another kind of love, one that makes my four children dig each other though some of them would never have chosen each other as friends. This domestic love is comfortable like bed slippers, and doesn’t ask much of the other person. It learns to appreciate things in the other that it would not have if a base of affection had not been laid that alchemizes potential irritants into endearing qualities. My sons have some fondness for poetry because of their poetic sister.
But this domestic love is not to be confused with Christian love. It is natural like love of the dowdy elementary school you went to is natural. But its tensile strength is not great enough in itself to sustain much freight. My children could conceivably become alienated from each other in certain circumstances. (Who doesn’t know siblings who have turned enemies over their parents’ will?) And the danger of domestic love is that we take liberties and presume upon it: We expect to be loved though we don’t lift a finger to make ourselves lovable.
Maternal love is reputed to be the strongest. A mother hen or wildebeest will put herself in harm’s way for her chick or calf, defying an enemy much stronger than herself. Mother love can go bad too, however, and can morph into a sick dependence. She insists on making you a meal—never mind you told her you’re not hungry. She is “helpful” to the brink of smothering. This is the mother who “lives for her family.” Her Jimmy (he is 40 now) wants to try something different this Christmas and go skiing. Woe to Jimmy if he breaks tradition.
Companionship is splendid—the power of two or three to break the fundamental loneliness of one. Companionship’s chief danger is that groups will dare a mischief that a single person would not dream of. Proverbs opens up with warnings on the choice of pals, and Paul concurs by saying that “bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Friendship—by which I don’t mean our accidental companions but those people whom we discover we share a truth with—is a wonderful love and less taxing on the nerves than romantic love. It is not instinct and it is not cloyingly needy. In fact, the only potential pitfall here is pride and cliquishness. For some reason, there is a tendency to think those “inside” our circle better than those “outside.” This love also, then, needs the alien grace of a higher love to keep it from going bad.
Marital love is the love God invented to illustrate His own relationship with us, His church. Its intimacy is multifaceted and exclusive. Its jealousy is fierce and right. But here we come full circle to the danger we saw in nature love, which making it a god lets in a demon. We are also back to the contentless Hallmark view of love that baptizes sodomy as a legitimate love so long as there is found affection in it.
We find ourselves back again at the need for Scripture and those guardrails. God says to “walk in love,” then tells us how to walk and what to watch for, that our journey may go pleasantly.