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The Discipline of Love

The Biblical mandate throughout the Old and New Testaments is to love others – as God loves you; as you love yourself (or at least as you are supposed to love yourself!). It is the same grounding ethic that is also in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Jainism, and almost every other faith. It is what we are called and prodded to do by the teachings of all the world religions – the very value systems by which we cherish. And yet, unconditional love (sometimes referred to as compassion or the Golden Rule), has never been an ethic that has caught hold in entire societies in practice. So why have we not been better at actually living by such genuine love when we so often claim it is what we most revere?

Most every society, as well as the individuals within them, has been “hypocritical” when it comes to love. It is espoused and professed in word, but too often not in deed. We are all victims of this truth – the religious, the spiritual, and the neither religious nor spiritual. If we are human, we have likely been hypocritical more times than we can count about how we so want people to love one another, and yet we often don’t show that love for everyone ourselves.

It is ironic that many despise the “religious” for their hypocrisy by casting aspersions that they don’t really love others as they profess. But if you ask such persons if they also value love, they will tell you they do – even though they don’t like connecting it to any religious tradition. And yet, they continue not to love and respect those whom they see as hypocrites. They don’t see they are violating the very love of others that they criticize in others.

Perhaps you have done this too. Even though I’m very intentional about not doing this, I occasionally find myself doing it as well. Who is not a hypocrite when it comes to love?

Our own era is one particularly susceptible to hypocritical love. Part of this is that we conflate the various meanings of the word, “love”, and treat love as an emotion rather than as a conscientious choice and deliberate lifestyle. We have all heard people say that they don’t want to be “hypocritical” by acting like they love someone whom they really don’t “feel” love for them. This is a prime example of those who don’t understand what genuine love is all about.

Love isn’t a feeling or an emotion. It isn’t something that just happens to you when circumstances arise that make you feel all caring inside. It is a hard-fought, and perpetual determination to act with caring consideration and loving-kindness towards others -- no matter how you feel about them. It is a choice that arises out of an intentional ethical framework that one has created, nurtured, and sustained, and has given countless hours of thought and effort. It is anything but easy or spontaneous. It may be the hardest thing we will ever do in life, and the one in which we must remain most committed to if it is to have any real effect on our character.

It requires us to treat others as we’d want to be treated, not how we think they deserve to be treated based on their words, actions, attitudes, and behaviors. This is what makes it “unconditional” love.

Paul’s words from Romans 13.8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” imply that we “owe” one another love. There are no qualifications here. There are no “except when…” or “unless s/he” contingencies.

Yet we have to be careful with Paul’s metaphor. Love, when it is genuine, is not given, felt and acted upon as if it were a duty. It, ideally, should be done out of the joy of living a life of love. We should so habituate and ingrain love in our characters (since “a loving person” is who we most want to be) that it makes us happy to love others. And if we should ever be tempted to not love others, the thought itself, and much more the action, would be so repugnant to us that we couldn’t stand to live with ourselves. We rather should so want to live up to our highest ideals that we do all in our will-power and daily practices to let love fill up our thoughts, emotions, words, and actions.

Will-power, of course, is sometimes lacking. I think Paul has this in mind with his metaphor of love as a duty we have to each other. In other words, if we don’t yet have the will-power and determination to love others, then it is better to see it as our duty to others (even if it may mean we are hypocritical in ‘loving’ them) than to not love them and feel justified in our self-righteous back-patting that at least we weren’t hypocritical like those ‘other’ people.

Granted, it is better to love authentically than begrudgingly. Yet even if you don’t feel it, you need to practice it. It is the only way to get better at loving, and to make it a more consistent and harmonious part of your life. Better to be temporarily hypocritical in not living up to your highest ideals than to be permanently hypocritical by thinking yourself as better than those “bunch of hypocrites” who don’t practice what they preach.

If you love others, you will naturally not violate the other ethical principles that make for good relationships – like disrespecting, hurting, killing, stealing, lying, etc. This was Paul’s point about love being the fulfillment of the rest of the law. As he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor” (Romans 13.9-10). You don’t want to harm yourself, so if you love your neighbor in like manner you will be sure not to do anything that will harm them either.

Again, this is not an ethic about how you “feel” towards your neighbor, but rather how you “treat” your neighbor. To love is an action and an ethic, not an endorphin rush. It is best when it comes from the heart and soul – i.e., when you do it because you want to be the kind of person who loves everyone and everything because it is good to live this way. But even when you have not cultivated that kind of moral, religious, spiritual, or ethical discipline in yourself, it is still better to act as if you love someone when you don’t feel it deep inside than to allow your inner core be deprived of the practice of loving others. In a way, you also owe that to yourself – not just others. You have an obligation to make yourself the best person you can be. And if you don’t practice loving others when you don’t feel it, then you are abandoning that obligation to yourself; and to them.

Coaches and teachers don’t let it slide when you tell them you aren’t really up to practicing your chosen sport or studying for your elected class. Even less so should we let ourselves slide when we are not living in love towards everyone and everything. If we are going to claim love as our highest value, then we need to practice it – whether we feel like it or not. That is how we will get good at loving – lots of practice, thought, discipline, and effort; for the rest of our lives.

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