In a recent conversation a friend and I considered the difference between “seeking” God’s kingdom and the command to love God.
Which is more important?
My first concern was for clarification: Can love be commanded? How are we to understand this ‘command’? How should we understand love generally?
Many Christians claim that loving God is (or starts with) something one does rather than something what one experiences and emotes. Instead, I maintain the importance of both one’s emotions about / toward God and one’s actions for / in light of God. I do so in part because I believe that loving God always begins with a combination of understanding and experience (about / related to God), out of which emotional responses are awakened (and can, later, be dimmed).
But what about this ‘command’?
The command to love God is found in three passages in the synoptic gospels (Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 10) and each points back to Deuteronomy (noting especially Deut. chapters 6, 7, 10). Clearly much of Deuteronomy’s content has the sense of a commandment, yet I believe that this must be balanced with the biblical claim / trajectory toward relationality: from God to us, then from us to God.
Particularly, both textually and experientially, I believe that the notion of commanding love’s inception makes no sense: love never starts as as act of the will. The biblical text corroborates this, as the ‘commands’ to love in Deuteronomy come after the Israelites’ quintessential experience of being delivered (that is, deeply cared for and loved): the Exodus. Thus God is ‘commanding’ love within the pre-existing context of a long and established history with a people who have good reason to understand clearly how—and how much—God indeed loves them!
Experientially love begins as a preoccupation, yet a preoccupation that results in action. However, this is not to suggest that love “matures” from emotion into action. Instead, I believe that love is an abiding orientation chiefly characterized by excess. So the lover’s compunction for action corresponds to love’s ‘excessive’ nature which always seeks expression, as both joyful exclamation and as catharsis. And while this expression may take the form of thoughts and words (letters, poetry, songs) it also become concretized, through our choice-making, into action.
So while love is not an effort of the will, neither is it pure desire. Instead love, like other emotions, has its roots in understanding.1 In other words, just as fear arises when certain phenomenon or states of affairs threaten my existence so love begins when I perceive, at a profound level, that in the other I am being offered goods necessary to my existence / flourishing. And while love is often coupled with perceptions of the beloved’s qualities (beauty, character, etc.) love also distinguishes itself from admiration or infatuation.
So while it involves the will, love is not derived from the will. And while it expresses desire, love is not solely desire. This distinction both clarifies that emotions are not subservient to the intellect (but exist in tandem with it, each having its own role) and focuses on the necessarily self-involving nature of love: love involves (and is predicated upon) a deep, ‘gut level’ understanding that the beloved offers goods necessary to my existence and / or flourishing.
This relationship between love and understanding has three implications:
First, as an abiding orientation that is based upon certain ‘understandings’ and elicits desire, it explains why love cannot be commanded. Thus it addresses certain Christian misunderstandings about how to enter into relationship with God, such as the claim that we must “act” as though we love God or that the command to love is really a call to obedience (because “obedience is God’s love language”).
Willpower can be summoned, but emotions must be evoked: I can no more be commanded to emote a certain emotion than commanded to experience those states of affairs upon which my emotions are based (i.e., understanding the benefits that God offers relative to my wellbeing and very existence). Dually contextualized by the biblical text and the love’s functioning within human experience, the ‘greatest commandment’ is seen to be a poetic command: the command of love or of love’s significant possibility to the one who already loves (or very likely could / should love): love me! And let this love relationship reorient you towards all aspects of your exsitence!
Second, because emotions relate to (and indeed, are based on) understandings, emotions can be evaluated. On the one hand, emotions arise out of perceptions and understandings that occur at a deep level, which explains why love’s occurrence is often surprising (e.g., we don’t “see it coming”). Yet as we develop our skills of self-reflection and examination we may become increasingly capable “readers” of ourselves in this regard.
On the other hand, we do not evaluate our emotions in order to minimize or dismiss them, but in order to learn more about ourselves and to decide how to respond to them. In other words, not every occurrence of the emotion of love needs to merit the same response! So I may recognize that my disposition toward several people is love, but due to various factors I may respond to them differently.2
Third, the connection between love and what is needed to further my existence and flourishing raises the notion of “emotional responsibility”: the responsibility to be properly invested in one’s own value and worth (i.e., to be fully situated as a self within one’s world) such that I am able to respond appropriately to situations where I am offered goods the benefit my existence and enhance my flourishing.
Without this due and necessary attachment to oneself one cannot rightly understand (and so cannot develop proper emotional responses to) events that crucially support and / or renew my existence. The content of these experiences—and the relationship between loving God and “seeking” God’s kingdom—will be the focus of several upcoming blog posts.