With Valentine's Day quickly approaching, I'm sharing a series of posts on love taken from my book on marriage. In order for today's post to make the most sense, I'd recommend reading parts one, two and three first. I believe a concept as complex as love is best described as a progression of phases. I think love develops along a chain from one phase to the next. It's sequential. I think love (both virtuous and sinful) follows a certain reproducible pattern every time. From the beginning of the progression to the end, as long as the sequence is followed, any point along the chain could be called love. Here's the progression: All love begins with an affection... from there it may or may not develop into a desire... if a desire is strong enough, it may or may not proceed to an inclination of focus... and from there, it might or might not overflow in an action toward or on behalf of the beloved object. Part one explained affection, part two explained desire, and part three explained an inclination of focus, or what happens when a desire just has to be fulfilled. Today we'll take a look at the action part of love.
Love May Progress to Action
We've finally come to the point that many begin to talk about love -- action. When we have an affection flowing from a sense of beauty or value, that sparks a desire and progresses to an inclination of focus, love may overflow in action toward or on behalf of the beloved object. Love doesn't have to overflow in action, but it would usually be (feel) incomplete or insufficient without some form of action. The action may be something seemingly insignificant or highly sacrificial. The action may overflow in any number of ways.
Virtuous Affections, Virtuous Actions
We could begin with a virtuous affection and end with a virtuous action, with all points along the progression being virtuous. This would obviously be what the Lord Jesus Christ did when he walked the earth. He said he always does what pleases the Father (see John 8:29). His love was perfect at all points, and unblemished by any stain of sin. He always had perfect affections, valuing just what needed to be valued with just the right intensity. He always had righteous desires in perfect measure. His inclination of focus was zoned in on his Father's will every moment of his life. He ruthlessly prioritized and sacrificed to achieve his righteous goal "for the joy that was set before him" (Heb. 12:2). Jesus' actions were always wholly virtuous. His actions were always appropriate and always flowed from virtuous affections. Jesus (and only Jesus) was sinless all along the progression of love his entire life. Such perfect virtue all along the progression of love will also be the norm in the new heavens and earth that Christians will inherit.
Virtuous Affections, Sinful Actions
We could also begin with a virtuous affection and end with a sinful action. This is because anywhere along the progression, sin can stain and pervert love. Amnon had an affection for Tamar. It's not a bad thing to have an affection for one's sister. A virtuous affection for his sister could have overflowed in guarding her purity and providing for her. On the other hand, sin could have intermingled with the original virtuous affection and tainted and twisted it. As children, Amnon's affection for Tamar may have been fine. But 2 Samuel 13:1 says, "After a time Amnon, David's son, loved her." Where Amnon may have begun with a virtuous affection, his sin distorted his sense of beauty so that Tamar's value to him flowed as an object to be consumed; rather than a sister to nurture and cherish by helping her be happy in God.
Sinful Affections, Seemingly Virtuous Actions
Though we can begin with a virtuous affection and end with a sinful action, we cannot begin with a sinful affection and end with a virtuous action. That's why it's a progression. If an action is going to be virtuous, it must come from a virtuous affection. Once an affection is sinful, a virtuous action cannot flow forth from it. We must repent of the sinful affection and begin again with a virtuous affection if a virtuous action is going to flow from it. We see this clearly in the Pharisees: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Mat. 23:25-28).
The Pharisees outwardly appeared beautiful. In other words, their actions looked right! How many people are being counseled everyday to make their actions look right? But the Pharisees were hypocrites. Why were they hypocrites? It wasn't as though they told others to do what they themselves didn't. They wanted everyone to live by their rules. They wanted people to tithe, and they tithed. They wanted people to pray, and they prayed. They wanted people to give alms and they gave alms. They wanted people to live by their rules, and they lived by their rules. There's no hypocrisy in that. Their hypocrisy was in the realm of their affections.
Two different affections can bring forth the same action. Love for God and love for man's praise can both motivate tithing, praying, giving and keeping rules. The affections of the Pharisees were bringing forth actions that most people thought God should be pleased with. However, he wasn't pleased because he wasn't just interested in their actions. He wanted their hearts. "This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men" (Is. 29:13). God doesn't say, "Go to church and worship, even if you don't feel like it. Give, even if it isn't cheerful." He tells us to go to church and give because we feel like it. The only way we'll feel like doing God-pleasing action is through God-pleasing affections.
At this point, someone may argue that we must complete certain actions whether we feel like it or not. We do have a duty to perform as Christians. We have rules to obey. That is true. However, it's not enough to just do the actions, even though we don't feel like it. We must do the actions while confessing to God our hard-heartedness. We must pray that God would change our affections and trust in Christ's atonement for our callousness. We cannot fall for the deception that it doesn't matter how we feel or what we want. If our actions flow from our hearts, the root is just as or more important than the fruit. It is possible to begin with a non-virtuous affection and end with a seemingly virtuous action. This is where many people are in their spiritual lives. For example, it's possible to have an affection for our own reputations. So we go to church to look respectable or to follow a counselor's suggestion. Now seated right beside us are people that began with an affection for God. They came to church to be satiated with God's glory. Which love is virtuous? Both resulted in the same action -- being at church. But only one is virtuous because only one began with a virtuous affection; namely, to be happy with God.
This also happens often in marriage. Rather than having an affection for God or for our spouses, we have an affection for ourselves or sex, or money or comfort or security. So our actions can come out all wrong and openly display our faulty affections (in adultery, for instance). Or it may take a very long time to figure out that our affections are non-virtuous because the actions seem to be so virtuous. An example of this might be a husband who works sixty-five hours a week and provides well for his wife and children. His seeming virtue may just be hiding a love for money. Even if his wife and children would leave him, he'd still work sixty-five hours a week. Even if his wife and children desired him to work less, he wouldn't because it's not concern for them that's motivating him -- even though it superficially looks like concern for his family. God is not pleased with this hypocrisy.
Love Can Overflow Toward the Beloved Object
Love can overflow in action toward the beloved object. We see this with Amnon and Tamar. Amnon's love for Tamar overflowed in a sinful act directed toward her. She was the direct recipient of Amnon's sinful action. This would also be true of a steak. I love steak. I have a desire for steak. I eat steak. Steak is the direct recipient of the action. It would be the same with other objects of the creation that people consume (alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food, etc.). Love overflows in action toward the beloved object in marriage all the time. Imagine a husband coming home from work with flowers for his wife. He gives her the flowers. She is the object of his affection and she is the direct recipient of his loving action, giving flowers. Picture a wife wanting to hug her husband. He is the object of her affection and he is the direct recipient of her loving action, a hug. So when an object of affection is the direct recipient of the action, then the love is toward the beloved object. Love overflows in action toward children as well. A mother loves her children, so she gives herself to her children. She may give her children herself in spending time with them. Or she may give presents to them on their birthday. Or she may give them special attention when they need it. They are the direct recipients of their mother's love. Her affection is for them, and they receive the action.
Love Can Overflow on Behalf of the Beloved Object
Love can also overflow on behalf of the beloved object. We also see this often with a husband and wife. Not only does the husband's love for his wife overflow in direct action toward her, it also overflows in action on her behalf. So one day, the husband could bring home flowers for his wife. She is the direct recipient of his loving action. That night, out of affection for his wife, he takes out the trash. The action was taking out the trash. But the love behind the action was directed toward his wife. So she wasn't the direct recipient of the action. He didn't take her out. She was an indirect recipient of the action. The husband's love for his wife overflowed in action on behalf of his wife. This distinction is important because it shows that love can begin with an affection for someone or something and end in a loving action that benefits someone else. In other words, what if love spreads into more love? What if the man didn't just take out the trash on behalf of his wife? What if he loved her children on behalf of his wife? Rather than love overflowing in taking out trash, what if love overflowed in creating more love?
Consider a man who marries a young widow with two young children. The first time he laid eyes on her at a church picnic, his affection was stirred because of her beauty and value to him. He began talking to her and found out she was widowed the year before. He really desired to be with her and inclined his focus toward her. His love overflowed in action toward her and he proposed. She is the direct recipient of his love. He wants intimacy with her and he wants to give himself to her. However, her children also benefit from his love for their mother, even if he doesn't highly value her children at first (please don't act as though that never happens). His affection wasn't for the children. He didn't propose to the children. His love was directed toward his wife and the children were part of her life. But even though he doesn't value her children (yet or highly), his love overflows toward the children on behalf of his love for their mother. I'm not saying that he may not develop strong affections for the children. He probably will. However, at first, when love is new, he loves what his new wife loves as part of loving his wife. So he loves his wife's children on behalf of his wife. Love for her actually sparked love for a whole new object that may have otherwise never happened.
This dynamic also explains how we can love our sinful neighbor out of love for God. We see this dynamic clearly in the life of King David. "And David said, 'Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan's sake?'" (2 Samuel 9:1). The word "kindness" there is often translated "mercy" or "lovingkindness." What if our love for our friend was so strong, that even though our friend died, we still honored his friendship with our love? Out of the overflow of affection for our dead friend, we seek out one of his relatives to show loving favor to. That's what King David did for Mephibosheth, Jonathan's son. David took him into his own court and treated him as if he were his own son. David had no direct affection for Mephibosheth. He didn't even know he existed. He had to ask someone. But he knew Jonathan. And he remembered his love for Jonathan (though Jonathan was dead). And out of the overflow of his love for Jonathan, he loved a stranger on behalf of Jonathan, "for Jonathan's sake."
Loving on behalf of another in this way can be a tremendous benefit to our marriages. What happens when we stop valuing our spouses? Affection weakens or dies. What happens when affection dies? Love dies. What happens when love dies in marriage? God's glory gets tramped on. So what happens when our spouses are really not that valuable at the moment? What if we catch our spouses in adultery or they get their fourth DUI? Our affection for them may be at an all-time low. So how do we continue to love them? How do we be a blessing to them? How do we keep giving and serving them with loving actions? We see from King David that it's possible to love someone on behalf of love for someone else. So we can value our spouses even when they don't seem so valuable, because God is. God loves marriage. He hates divorce. So it's possible for a godly spouse to value his mate, not for something inherent in his mate, but on behalf of God. We could say we value our spouses, not because of inherent worth, but because of the preciousness of marriage and the preciousness of God who gave us a spouse. Our spouses are automatically valuable because marriage is valuable. Marriage is valuable because God loves marriage and God is valuable. So, even when our spouses are not living up to our expectations, we can continue to love them out of the overflow of our love for God. We may say something like, "How can I love my spouse for God's sake?"
The best example of love is Jesus. He loved the church and died for her. Christ's loving action flowed toward the beloved object. The church is a direct recipient of Christ's loving action. He loved his church from all eternity (see Eph. 1). He came down to earth as a man. He desired fellowship with his bride. He wanted her and made advances toward her. The church is also an indirect recipient of Christ's love. When sin stood like a wall between God and man, Christ acted on behalf of his bride. He died in her place and tore down the wall. He took on her shame and her guilt and her punishment. "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed" (Is. 53:5). Christ died on behalf of the church. Where an ordinary husband may take out the trash, Jesus hung on a cross. So Christ's love overflowed in actions both toward and on behalf of his bride.
Let's briefly review how far we've come. 1) Love is best described as a progression of phases. 2) Love begins as an affection flowing from a sense of beauty or value. 3) When affection for an object dies, love dies. 4) An object's value is determined by the pleasure granted or expected. 5) Love may progress to a desire. 6) Desire is sparked when affection is intense and the object of affection is potentially available. 7) Thoughts and desires determine choices. 8) Love may progress to an inclination of focus -- prioritizing and pressing in on the beloved object. 9) With inclination of focus, love becomes increasingly unreasonable and sacrificial. 10) Love may progress to an action toward or on behalf of the beloved object.
In a few upcoming posts, I'll tease out the implications of this description of love.