learning the words: love

god is love

Today’s guest post is from Timothy Swanson, who blogs about his literary explorations at Diary of an Autodidact. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

As in so many other aspects of the Fundamentalist/Christian Patriarchy worldview, the twisting of the meaning of words comes through a long series of half-truths. An idea that is true to a degree will be taken just beyond that degree. Then the next idea builds on that, and so forth, until the original meaning of a word has travelled so far from its intuitive and normal meaning that it almost cannot be recognized.

Let me explain how this happens for the concept of “love.”

Throughout Christian culture – and even in our culture in general – there is the idea that “love” isn’t just a feeling. It is an active word that must manifest itself in our actions, not just in our emotions.

As I noted above, statements like this are true, to a point. Love, in the deep sense, cannot be merely an infatuated feeling like “puppy love.” If you really love someone, it will come out in actions. Country Music singer-songwriter Clint Black wrote a delightful and mushy song, Something That We Do, which captures the good side of this idea, the intertwining of emotion and action. Our feelings of love and our loving actions feed on each other, support each other, and together make up this messy, complicated thing we call love.

So far, so good.

The next step in the progression gets more interesting, however. Most of us Generation Xers are familiar with the concept of “tough love,” which was a bit of a trend and a buzzword in the 1980s and 90s. In essence, it was a refusal to enable self-destructive behavior. When one truly loved another, one would not contribute to a person’s self-destruction. Thus, it would not be loving to give one’s child money to buy drugs, for example. Or lie to protect a loved one from the legal consequences of committing a crime. The point of “tough love” is that by refusing to protect a person from consequences or contribute to bad behavior, one would be doing the more “loving” thing. The best result would be for the errant person to bottom out, and make a change for the better, rather than stumble along due to the enabling. Again, this idea is largely true, to a point.

Let’s follow the progression. Love is an action, not just an emotion. Enabling self-destructive behavior is not a loving action. Allowing a person to suffer the natural consequences of bad actions is the loving action, because it is more likely to lead to a change in behavior. We parents do this to our kids sometimes. A child might miss an opportunity to play with friends because he or she didn’t finish the schoolwork, for example. This is part of good parenting: teaching children to link actions and consequences, and take responsibility for their choices.

To this point, we haven’t gotten off track, but we have set the groundwork for what follows.

The next link is this: love means wanting and seeking “the best” for the beloved. Now this one is a genuine half-truth. Sometimes it is true. If a person also desires the same “best,” then it would be loving to help support that person in seeking that “best.” But what if something that is “the best” isn’t desired by the person? Let’s say I think that the “best” for one of my children would be a degree in medicine. That’s a good thing, surely! Unless the child would prefer a less lucrative career. Would I really be loving by wishing for the “best” rather than the “good enough” that my child wants? This is a dilemma for all of us in a variety of situations.

What comes next? For Fundamentalists, the next step is the definition of “best.” The “best” isn’t some subjective standard. “Best” means God’s best. It means God’s will for a person’s life. It means doing things “God’s way.”

Again, this is a half-truth in practice, if not exactly in theory. In theory, pretty well all Christians would agree that our goal in life is to do God’s will, to follow Christ, and so forth. So far, so good.

But it goes wrong in Fundamentalism because of the next turn. This requires a few assumptions:

  1. We (the fundamentalists) know God’s will on most or all things.
  2. God’s will is the same for everyone (of a certain gender, at least), regardless of situation, personality, or any other consideration.
  3. God’s will can be expressed primarily as a set of detailed rules.

Now the links connect. Love is an action, not a feeling. Love is expressed through refusing to enable bad behavior. Love seeks the best for a person, not something less. The best is God’s will for a person. We know God’s will for a person. God’s will is these rules.

Love for a person is expressed by telling them to follow the fundamentalist rules.

Or, if that fails to get them to follow the rules, taking other actions to force them to do so. Nagging. Coercion. Expressing disapproval. If possible, forcing them. In some cases, shunning until the rules are followed.

For some surprising reason, the recipient of this “love” usually finds the “love” to not be particularly loving.

Thus, the series of half-truths twists the meaning of “love” as it is commonly understood until it is unrecognizable. I actually had a Reconstructionist friend of a friend make the claim that forcing people to obey God’s law was the same as sharing the Gospel with them. Not “as important as,” not “similar to.” The same as. Because forcing people to follow the rules is now defined as the best way to show love. As the most extreme example, I would wager that Fred Phelps (“God Hates Fags.”) believes he is loving.

This applies in lesser degrees across the fundamentalist spectrum. A fundamentalist can be “loving” by constantly expressing disapproval of a skirt deemed too short. A fundamentalist can be “loving” by keeping his or her children from associating with other children who listen to the wrong kind of music. A fundamentalist can be “loving” by loudly proclaiming that no “true Christian” would vote Democratic. And the list goes on. Calling out women who work outside the home. Complaining about easy-bake ovens marketed to boys. Make your own list! There are plenty of rules to choose from.

Because of this new definition of love, certain things that are generally associated with love can be disregarded. How about communication? Seeing the other side’s point of view? When one already knows God’s position on everything, that is all that is necessary (conveniently, you already know God agrees with you). Empathy? Not so much, obviously. Bearing each other’s burdens? Those burdens are self inflicted in the fundamentalist view. First start following the rules, then we talk.

The result is this: the twisted definition of “love” enables the fundamentalist to believe that he or she is loving while engaging in behavior that is, in reality and common understanding, unloving.

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  • BAM! couldn’t have done it better. kudos!

  • What a journey! Good job!

  • Reblogged this on Lana Hobbs the Brave and commented:
    An excellent analysis of the problem with the word ‘love’ in fundamentalist circles. I’ve had my own problems with what love actually is.

  • Manner. C

    Man, I get this thrill when I read something this well articulated. It is like you took all the dark menacing secrets of my past, and by describing them, you expose them to light and disarm them. Thanks!
    Have you see Russell Brand’s “discussion” with Westboro Baptist Church…..They talk about differing definitions of love,”From a Bible standard, we love you….I know it’s not popular, but we are not making this stuff up, it’s in the Bible…….we are not talking abotu a base human passion like you and I might feel, it’s simply God’s determination to punish the wicked in hell for their sins, because He can” Probably the most speaking example of people creating a God in their own image I have ever seen.

  • I’m not sure if you read Fred Clark (Slacktivist on Patheos), but he’s done a pretty nice series the last couple of days about the white protestant evangelical theology that arose out of opposition to abolitionist movements in the 1840’s and 50’s. It combined a raw focus on biblical “literalism” with an intense focus on individual salvation as the only important part of Christian religion.

    This allowed evangelicals to redefine “loving” from being something that would pretty explicitly outlaw slavery (and 100 years later, segregation) to simply “sharing Jesus with someone”. Did you tell someone about Jesus? Congratulations, your Love Your Neighbor obligation is fulfilled.

    This is not just a fundamentalist issue; it’s an issue with evangelicalism in the United States at large, and the issues with the word “love” are a feature, not a bug.



    For further details.

    • Thanks for linking those, which I hadn’t seen. I agree that the issues with “love” are a feature, not a bug. Love is too messy and demanding anyway. Much easier to just make rules.

      I too am deeply concerned with the connections between White Supremacy and fundamentalism – particularly certain segments of the home school movement. (My wife and I were both home schooled and home school our kids.)

      You might find my blog post on the connections interesting.

      • Thanks for sharing the post. I’ll be working to read through it today and I’m very interested, as my wife and I plan to home school our children.

  • This is so excellent. When I look back on what people do “out of love” for others in that environment, it’s sickening. Rediscovering love has been nothing but healing.

    • You remind me of the watchword many of us legalists used about working with sinners and sub-standard believers: Love them with the love of Jesus!

      I came to understand that this ‘love of Jesus’ did not seem like love at all; it was arrogance, condescension, and judgment. That ain’t love.


  • Reblogged this on outflow of the heart.

  • Morgan Guyton

    Whenever any one of those imbeciles says you’re talking about love the way the world does, I’m talking about love the way God does, then remind them of that little chapter 1 Corinthians 13. That’s where the Bible defines love. Why in the world would any Christian imagine that it’s somehow just a pretty poem and not a guide for us?

    • Kreine

      According to the rules of Fundy self-assessment, you are following 1 Cor 13 if your tone is saccharine when rebuking & show no outward negative emotions when confronted with (understandably) outraged response of your target.

      Delores Umbridge is the perfect Fundy.

      • Morgan Guyton


      • Excellent observation!

      • krwordgazer

        Yes! And their rage is then viewed as evidence of their sin, which keeps their side of the story from ever getting listened to.

  • krwordgazer

    This is profound. Suddenly I understand the love-disconnect which I came out of.

  • Pingback: Notable News: Week of September 14-20, 2013 | unchained faith()

  • A resounding applause of “yes!” from this corner as well.

    Too often have I seen “love” as not meeting the person where they are and showing them a better way, or simply sitting in silence.

    Too often, “love” is really a pretty word for abuse.

  • Skitzarella

    I can’t help comparing this type of legalism to the Pharisees that condemned Jesus for breaking their laws. Isn’t it main point of the new testament that no regular human being could possibly keep the law perfectly? As in, morality can’t be legislated it has to come from within (in spirit).

  • Dan C

    I am sorry that you feel the way you do about God’s love. You make some terrible assumptions that just dot hold water.

    1st You say we (fundamentalists), know God’s will on all or most things.

    Not true. We must seek God’s will but sometimes we never really know what that is except that it is His will to have a relationship with us. How that relationship leads our lives is different for everyone.

    2nd God’s will for everyone is not the same (except for the relationship part I spoke of) it might be His will for me to be a truck driver or a nurse or a preacher depending on what He wants me to accomplish in my life. But because He loves me, He gives me freedom of choice to follow what or where I believe He is leading me or to go off and do my own thing. Gender, race, sexual orientation, etc, doesn’t play into it.

    3rd God’s set of “rules” (I assume you mean the 10 commandments) are there to protect us and guide us through life. We don’t follow them as “rules”, we follow them as a result of our love for Him. It becomes an unconscious “keeping of the rules”. You don’t “try”, it becomes second nature.

    God’s only hard and fast “will for my life or your life or anyone’s life is to have a fuller, more complete relationship with all of us.
    You mention that a parent might want a child to become a physician, or some other lucrative career because we love them and want “what’s best” for them because we love them. If we truly love and want what’s best for our children we will support them in what makes them truly happy. A happy and content life is what is best.

    To follow with anything after your 3 points is pointless because your 3 points are flawed.

    • Support them in what makes them happy as long as they’re a white, heterosexual male right?

  • Tom
  • Larkin

    A while back, I found an article in a Zen Buddhist newsletter I received that discusses how, though love is a positive force, if we do not truly know the person receiving our love, we may harm them with our good intentions. Just because something seems positive or good in our hands or in our perspective does not mean that the person receiving it will feel the same way or perceive our actions as loving. Truly knowing another person and understanding their needs requires listening and stillness. It involves letting them show us or tell us what they need of us.

    I’m not a Zen Buddhist, though I find many of their teachings interesting and edifying, but this post reminded me quite strongly of that particular lesson. My experiences with the Fundamentalist church tells me that they have focused far more on creating a cacophony of noise to bring down the ‘walls of Jericho’ they perceive in their fellow humans and have not focused at all on actually listening to them.