The Impossible Love

The greatest commandment in the whole Bible can be found in Matthew 22:36-38 where it says:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

This is the first and greatest commandment.

This is a grand and honourable notion, but is it possible?

What is Love?

The first and most difficult task in answering this question is defining what love means. Love is a term which gets bandied around and abused with great frequency. I could say that I love chocolate for example, but the fact is that I don’t really love chocolate; that statement is just hyperbole. I like chocolate, largely because it is a source of pleasure, but I can’t actually love it. When the term love is used in this way, it is just an expression of exaggeration. Love is not just a set of feelings but also a long-standing commitment, a powerful genetic drive and a construct of human interaction with a far deeper component that is quite difficult to explain. Love is also not infatuation, although it sometimes begins that way. Infatuation is a set of emotional feelings that generate pleasant chemical experiences within the body but without the long-standing commitment and deeper more undefinable aspects that are present in long term love. Love is also different from like. It is possible to love someone but not like them, or at least not like certain aspects of them. Although liking a person certainly helps you to love them, it is not a necessary component of love.

There are a great many definitions of love, so let’s explore a few to see what we can to deduce. Some possible definitions of love include:

“Love is a complex set of emotions, behaviors, and beliefs associated with strong feelings of affection, protectiveness, warmth, and respect for another person.”[1]

“Love is something that is cultivated between two people and grows over time, through getting to know him or her and experiencing life’s many ups and downs together. It involves commitment, time, mutual trust, and acceptance. Lust, on the other hand, has to do with the sex-driven sensations that draw people toward one another initially and is fueled primarily by the urge to procreate.”[2]

“Love is a force of nature. However much we may want to, we can not command, demand, or take away love… Love is bigger than you are. You can invite love, but you cannot dictate how, when, and where love expresses itself. You can choose to surrender to love, or not, but in the end love strikes like lightening[sic], unpredictable and irrefutable. You can even find yourself loving people you don’t like at all. Love does not come with conditions, stipulations, addenda, or codes. Like the sun, love radiates independently of our fears and desires. Love is inherently free. It cannot be bought, sold, or traded. You cannot make someone love you, nor can you prevent it, for any amount of money. Love cannot be imprisoned nor can it be legislated… Love itself cannot be bought.”[3]

“Biologically, love is a powerful neurological condition like hunger or thirst, only more permanent. We talk about love being blind or unconditional, in the sense that we have no control over it. But then, that is not so surprising since love is basically chemistry. While lust is a temporary passionate sexual desire involving the increased release of chemicals such as testosterone and oestrogen, in true love, or attachment and bonding, the brain can release a whole set of chemicals: pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin. However, from an evolutionary perspective, love can be viewed as a survival tool – a mechanism we have evolved to promote long-term relationships, mutual defence and parental support of children and to promote feelings of safety and security.”[4]

The Essential Components of Love

I would like to identify certain key components that must exist for love to be present. As human beings we know what love is experientially. That is to say that we have all experienced it, we have all loved and been loved. But what is it that makes this love work? That is a much more complex issue. What I am going to provide is by no means an exhaustive list; I just wish to identify a number of elements that must be present, and whose lack would mean that love was impossible. The components that I am talking about are physical connection, physical intimacy,[5] communication and interaction. These should be fairly self-explanatory: physical presence and physical contact help to create a bond between persons and extensive periods of interaction, with a variety of different verbal and non-verbal communication, enable relationships to grow into love.

The point here is that a person can only really love other sentient beings who have a physical presence. God neither has a physical presence nor an ability to communicate with people and therefore a person cannot love God and thus fulfil the commandment of Matthew 22:37.

Some might argue that there is no need for physical connection or physical intimacy: that people can develop feelings of love through long-distance communication i.e. email or writing letters. This is somewhat true. But only to the extent that the two people involved are able to communicate and interact in a meaningful and personal way with each other. This is completely impossible with God. Additionally, I would argue that a relationship purely based on this type of long-distance communication is not as genuine and capable of producing real love as a relationship that also has physical intimacy. Many Christians believe that God talks to them and is therefore able to provide them with communication/interaction. But when correctly analysed none of these communications are real. The voice of God can never stand up to a communications test.[6] There is absolutely no communication between human beings and God that would be capable of producing love. God is simply an idealised image.

The Benedictine nun Catherine Wybourne says: “Love is more easily experienced than defined.”[7] If this is true, then it reinforces the idea that it is impossible to love God. Because you cannot experience God in any way other than through delusion or self-deception, it is impossible to experience any love towards God. People who say that they love God, don’t. What they love is the idea of God. They love the picture of God that they have created in their mind. But this is akin to loving the idea of a person without having actually met them. When the person strolls through the door reality comes crashing down. The actuality of the person frequently can’t live up to the idea of them. This is why it is easy to feign love for a romanticised idea, like God. But the only thing that you can truly love is another sentient being. To love an idealised image is not real love at all.

Animal Love

You can love an animal, and a mammalian animal with an emotional brain can love you back. It is certainly true that a person can love a dog, and that the dog can love that person in return. However there is a difference between the love that a person can express towards an animal as opposed to a human. Between a human being and an animal the communication and physical intimacy components are far less capable of being realised than they are with a human being. So although a person can love an animal a great deal, it can never equate to the type of love possible with another human being. It is therefore fair to say that we are genetically engineered towards loving those of the exact same kind.[8]

Are you a Gape at the Gap?

In Matthew 22:37 the word used for love is agapao.[9] Agape refers to the highest form of love or charity and “the love of God for man and of man for God.” It is a higher form of love than philia, which refers to brotherly love. It embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends, and persists regardless of circumstance. The term is an ancient one and goes back as far as Homer. It is translated literally as affection and has been used to denote the love of a spouse or family.[10] The dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels also draws no distinction between the love that is experienced between people and the love that should be expressed towards God.[11] Thus the type of love that is expected to be expressed by human beings towards God is the highest form of love possible. Not only are we asked to have love without the presence of the essential elements of love, we are also asked to have the highest possible kind of love towards this invisible, silent being.

False Love

People use the term love for a lot of things. But just because a person uses the word, or even thinks that they are experiencing love, doesn’t mean that they are. If a person’s definitions are all wrong, they might legitimately believe that they actually love something, like God. But human beings are capable of convincing themselves of a great many things. Many of the so-called experiences within Christianity that might lead someone to think that they love God are actually just forms of hype. Many people say that they love worship music because it makes them feel closer to/in love with God. But music by its very nature messes with our emotional states. Music can make us feel angry, sad, happy or any other variety of emotions. Worship music is designed to create a heightened emotional state to attempt to create sensations of love towards God. It is ultimately a pointless exercise however. It cannot produce genuine love because there is no extant subject for that love.

Matthew 22:37 makes some pretty big demands. It does not encourage you to love God, it is not a love letter from God trying to woo you. It demands that you love God, and this is the greatest commandment issued by the celestial dictator. But the writers of the New Testament fail to see that this is not how love works. You cannot make someone love you and love cannot be cajoled or commanded. Love that is not freely given is not really love at all. God demands what can only be earned, through friendship, through romantic love or through genetics. But no one loves in this way. If God wants people to love him then he needs to perform the acts of love: he needs to turn up physically, spend time with us and communicate with us. He needs to love and forgive us, something by the way which God is incapable of.[12] Some would suggest that God has earned our love by dying for us, but this also shows a misunderstanding of love. Whatever country you live in there are probably soldiers who have died to protect you in one way or another. Collectively we hold a deep respect for these people who have laid down their lives for the good of our nations and the protection of our freedoms. But we do not love them. Certainly, you can love the ones that you know: your family and friends. But we don’t love anybody that we don’t know, the best that we can hope for is to like and respect them. So God’s act of sacrifice, which never took place anyway, will not provoke love in anyone. At best it commands respect.

There are a couple of other interesting facts worth mentioning. Firstly the concept of human beings loving God is only introduced in the New Testament. Nowhere in the Old Testament is there any command, or even expectation for human beings to love God. Secondly, outside of this particular passage in Matthew 22:37, and its repetitions in Mark and Luke, there are no explicit commands for people to love God. Given that Jesus says this is the most important commandment of all you might think that it would be mentioned more in the New Testament. The academically lauded Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says that the command to love God “is important because it shows that God is approachable and desires the dynamic relationship involved in love.”[13] This is very clearly false as God is not capable of engaging in the necessary relational activities that human beings need to develop love. It is reasonable to conclude that people who say that they love God are either lying or deceiving themselves.

The Genesis of the Problem

In order to expose how Christians argue about what it means to love God, I’m going to use a number of extracts from the website “Answers in Genesis” and respond to each.

Answers in Genesis states the following:

“How do you KNOW whether your love for others (or even your love for God) is real or not? It is actually not difficult to “pretend to love” someone outwardly while inwardly not caring for them at all. I guess that’s why “true love” is what many teens are looking for.”[14]

As I just mentioned it is not difficult to pretend to love, so the author here is acknowledging that it is very much possible to fake love for God. My position is that all expressions of love for God are illusory.

Answers in Genesis continues:

“Love requires a deep passion for the truth—knowing it, embracing it, obeying it, and promoting it. Just as God hates evil and loves good, so those who know Him will love (and hate) the same things He does.”[15]

But this is not how we would understand love between human beings. The love that we feel for one another is not necessarily based on truth or upon hating things that other people hate and loving things that they love. To a certain degree this can be said to be true. But we have feelings for the actual person which are deeply rooted in emotion and cannot be easily explained by simple associations.

Answers in Genesis goes on to tell us:

“When Paul urged the young Roman Christians to love “without hypocrisy,” what was he saying? “Let your love be genuine. Sincere. From your heart. No pretending—really love—don’t fake it.””[16]

So the love that you experience for God cannot be faked, it has to be genuine and real. This lets us know two things: fake feelings of love for God are a serious issue that the author here wishes to address. And secondly the love that you express has to be sincere love which as we have previously discussed is impossible in the context of how we as human beings understand love.

Continuing on:

“So how do we know if we truly love others and God as we should? True believers find themselves loving whatever the Scripture says is true and good, while hating everything that is false and evil (Philippians 4:8).”[17]

By the Christian definition of love, a person should be blindly obedient following the commandments of Scripture to the nth degree. This is the demonstration of love. But is that how you understand love? You love your children, but are they always blindly obedient to you? You love your friends, but do they always act in the way that you think is best? No! But we love them nonetheless because our love for them is not dependent upon obedience but rather a whole gamut of personality traits and shared experiences. The Bible creates an oversimplification of the concept of love in order to have people be blindly obedient to Scripture. In reality, love is far more complicated than this and I feel that the authors of Scripture who have commented on love don’t really understand what it is. In fact due to our modern understanding of brain chemistry, genetics and evolution we understand the origins, purpose and meaning of love far better than they did. Furthermore, the suggestion is that if you do not practice this type of love God will not accept you. This means that you must practice this type of love, which is actually just blind obedience, or you will go to hell. Once again, this is not a true relationship or a negotiation between relational partners, it is a threat.

God, the Obsessive, Controlling Boyfriend

Continuing with the same article from Answers in Genesis, let’s explore the psychology of this God character. The author asks:

“Do I sincerely love God with all my heart? Like Jesus, we should hate any other lovers—any false beliefs or desires that compete for first place in our hearts, Luke 14:26. We should willfully determine to love the Father and obey His Word above all else (Hebrews 10:7).”[18]

This actually sounds more like one of those really unhealthy, manipulative relationships that your mother hoped you’d never find yourself in. “You have to hate everybody else in order to love me.” Does that sound like it comes from somebody who is secure in themselves and exercising true love? This is associated with the statement by Jesus that anybody who does not hate their family members cannot follow him. This is incredibly manipulative. It also creates an unreachable standard in order to make the person feel inadequate, because who among us can truly hate their family? So it appears that Jesus wants us to become sociopaths towards everybody else in the world except for himself whom he wants us to love, unequivocally, but that love takes the form of blind obedience.

“Do I sincerely love God with all my mind? What we allow to consume and control our thoughts shows what we truly care about. Jesus was consumed with following God’s will, as revealed in John 15:10. What do you think about the most?”[19]

God wants you to obsess about him day and night and not to think about anything else. This guy is sounding more and more like a controlling, insecure boyfriend every minute.

“Do I sincerely love God with all my strength? Are my youthful energies being drained to satisfy my own comforts and desires rather than God’s cause? Jesus went to His death pursuing one primary goal—“to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).”[20]

God wants you to expend all of your energy towards loving him and not focusing it on anything else. Effectively God wants you to go and live in a cave where the only thing that you can do is obsess about him and not think about work, family, hobbies or anything else. The interesting thing about this is that although these concepts are well known within the structures of Christianity, I have never seen anyone practice them. I have never known anyone who actually lives their life this way, completely loving God with everything in them all of the time. Why is that? Because it is impossible of course! No one could possibly do even half of what is being asked of them in the Scriptures. They are asking for obscene obsession, and single-minded fixation upon this being, who doesn’t really exist.

God Love Only

I have seen a number of comments on the Internet from people suggesting that you can’t love anyone unless you first love God. Here is a case in point:

“Without a higher calling from God, many people lack an incentive to show love to others. After all, working through problems and forgiving the person that we’re dating is really hard. Being loving isn’t taking the easy route! …So, yes, we do need to have a relationship with God before we can show love to one another for long periods of time. We all have the ability to love, but we need God’s help to be able to experience love to the fullest! “[21]

It’s interesting that this author feels that a person has to have an incentive to love others. If evolution is correct however we are genetically driven to love others and in fact have very little choice about it. We love our family despite the fact that we sometimes have some fairly terrible relationships with certain members of it. A person cannot do anything but love their children unless they are psychologically disadvantaged or sociopathic. I think that the motivation for this statement comes from the incredibly naive Christian position that only Christians can actually really love people because they have God in their hearts. This is extremely sad. I just wish that Christians, and other religious people, could appreciate that all of the things they truly value about religion are simply borrowed from humanism; that if they threw all of the rest of the garbage religion out they would be left with the best parts – the parts that we as atheists have free access to. Ironically, it would seem to me that if you truly love God in the way that Scripture suggests it would be impossible for you to love anybody else. And because the two concepts of love: a love for God which is in fact just blind obedience; and a love for human beings which is genuine love, are so completely different, it seems to me that you have a far greater likelihood of actually being able to love other people if you don’t attempt to love God.

Conclusion

I recall as a Christian telling myself that love is a commitment. This oversimplification enabled the belief that I was able to love God, because, if I could make a commitment to God, then that qualified as love. But if you’ve experienced this hollow misrepresentation of love you understand just how different it is from genuine love. Real love is about communication, interaction, time spent together, physical connection and intimacy. God cannot satisfy any of these things, so human beings are incapable of loving him. This Scripture passage represents yet another shortfall wherein the New Testament fails to live up to our expectations. Love is one of the best things in life so don’t waste it trying to love something that has no physical presence and no means of communicating with you. Don’t waste it on something that doesn’t exist. Spend your love wisely, loving people, and walk away from the impossible love.

 

[1] http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/love

[2] http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/love

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/love-without-limits/201111/what-is-love-and-what-isnt

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/13/what-is-love-five-theories

[5] This includes the sharing of deep held beliefs, goals and desires, not necessarily just sexual intimacy.

[6] I am referring to testing the voice of God using an objective method. For more on this refer to my article The

Voice of God.

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/13/what-is-love-five-theories

[8] i.e human and human or dog and dog.

[9] From the root word agape.

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agape

[11] Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Green, McKnight, Marshall. p494.

[12] God is incapable of forgiving which is why he needs to send Christ as a redemptive figure. If God was capable of forgiving a person he could just forgive us and not have to jump through all of the hoops.

[13] Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Edition. Walter Elwell, p710.

[14] https://answersingenesis.org/what-does-god-want-from-me/is-my-love-for-the-lord-real/

[15] https://answersingenesis.org/what-does-god-want-from-me/is-my-love-for-the-lord-real/

[16] https://answersingenesis.org/what-does-god-want-from-me/is-my-love-for-the-lord-real/

[17] https://answersingenesis.org/what-does-god-want-from-me/is-my-love-for-the-lord-real/

[18] https://answersingenesis.org/what-does-god-want-from-me/is-my-love-for-the-lord-real/

[19] https://answersingenesis.org/what-does-god-want-from-me/is-my-love-for-the-lord-real/

[20] https://answersingenesis.org/what-does-god-want-from-me/is-my-love-for-the-lord-real/

[21] http://www.insightmagazine.org/advice/showadvice.asp?adviceid=599

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