Love is a big deal. People talk about it all the time—usually romantic love these days, but the broader concept of love for others in general gets plenty of airtime as well. We seem to agree that love is fundamental to what it means to live well as a human. It’s part of who we are, built in to the human heart. Which is exactly right: love is the image of God shining out, crying out to the world around us that the something or someone we love is worthy of valuing and treasuring. In that sense, love is natural. It is one of the deepest realities of who we are, of who God made us to be.
Then again, anyone who has tried very hard to love other people well will know that love doesn’t always feel very natural. A lot of times it feels more like hard work. “Love your neighbour as yourself” sounds straightforward—until your neighbour hurts you. Ignores you. Uses you for their own purposes. Belittles. Betrays. And I’m supposed to love them?? I’d rather do unto them as they did unto me. They don’t deserve my love.
When someone asked Jesus what to do about this, he responded by telling a parable about a man who was robbed and beaten and thrown down beside a road. As he lay dying, several of his fellow countrymen walked by him and ignored him. Eventually someone did stop—the Good Samaritan, as we call him today. This man was a foreigner, a natural enemy of the man on the road, yet he saw his needs and chose to stop. He dressed the man’s wounds, carried him to help, and paid for his recovery. Jesus said that this is what it means to “love your neighbour as yourself”.
It’s interesting that Jesus never mentioned how the Good Samaritan felt about the man on the road. He only tells us what he did for him. Evidently, Jesus does not consider love to be primarily about how we feel, but more importantly about what we do. Is Jesus telling me that I am supposed to actually, tangibly put the interests of others ahead of my own even when I don’t feel any kind of love for them? Yes. Yes he is.
This has implications. If love is primarily an action, and only after that a feeling, then love is not something we are doomed to fall in and out of without any rhyme or reason or control. If it is an action, then it is a decision. This is why God speaks of his own love for us as a “covenant”—an unbreakable promise—not just a feeling (although he is clear about his feelings for us as well). If love begins and ends with a feeling, it will begin and end a lot. It is only when love rests on commitment and faithful action that it can grow steady and strong and reach its full potential. Even as our feelings ebb and flow, the reality of love can grow stronger with time if we choose relentlessly, like Jesus, like the Good Samaritan, to put the interests of others ahead of our own. In this sense, love is a skill. It is something we can grow in, something we can improve at. With experience and practice, we can learn to embed more actions of love for others into the habits of our daily lives. We can learn to rest more fully in God’s love for us, understand more clearly how he sees others, and find more joy in serving them like he does.
If love is an action, then love is a skill. This is good news, because we all have many opportunities to practice our love for others every day. It’s good news because it means that we are not stuck where we are; we can always get better at loving others. It means that we don’t have to wait and try hard to work up a feeling first, before we can choose to act in love. We can act now. Our feelings will follow, eventually, on the path laid down by our actions. Over time, those choices to love, and those actions of love, will grow and take root in our lives and bloom into the same kind of joyful, confident generosity we see in our Saviour.
How will you practice love today?