Selfish Love

The English word "love" is a curious mix of ideas, especially in an American Christian context. My dictionary offers several senses, some associated with what I call the "warm fuzzies," a feeling experienced when contemplating the object of that love, and the rest mostly associated with sexual gratification, which doesn't seem to be all that different. Both of these idea clusters are essentially self-centered, with a focus on the well-being of the person doing the loving. When you look at how the word is used in public, in fiction (for example romance novels) or in the movies -- including when person being loved dies or is otherwise removed -- that (possibly lost) love is always indistinguishable from this self-centered warm fuzzies. Even the Christians see it that way: why else would they grieve over the death of a family member? The person who died and went to Heaven is far better off than they were here, so we do not grieve over their misfortune, but only for our own loss. It's a very selfish love indeed.

In the last century, Bible translations have started rendering the Greek word 'agaph' as "love" which thoroughly confuses the meaning of the text (see "Mistranslated Words"). Maybe this has something to do with what I call "job security." 500 years ago, the Bible was in Latin, and nobody but preachers and academics could read Latin, so if you wanted to know what God said, you had to go to church and support the preacher. Luther changed that, but the preachers still want their job security. So for centuries they clung to a 400-year-old translation, in which more than half of the words have changed meaning, so if you want to know what God said, you have to go to church and support the preacher, who tells you what it really means. About fifty years ago, they started translating the Bible into modern English, but they fudged when the Greek is different from their theology. For example, the first edition of the supposedly "accurate" NASB translation changed the pronouns used to address Deity to "thee" and "thou" -- to match the King James, except the KJV accurately used standard Elizabethan English "thee" and "thou" for singular, and "you" for plural because it matched the distinction in Greek and Hebrew, while modern English has no such distinction (everybody is addressed as "you" or maybe plural "y'all" in the Deep South but nowhere else). There are no formal "holy" pronouns in the Greek and Hebrew texts, but the NASB introduced an innaccuracy there, probably because the translators grew up on the KJV and still prayed to God using "thee" and "thou." They subsequently fixed that error, but who knows how many other theology-based errors linger? Like using the ambiguous English word "baptize" to translate a Greek word meaning "dunk" so as not to offend the Presbyterians and the Lutherans (who theologically understand "baptize" to mean "touch lightly with a dab of water of the forehead"). After seeing they were willing to make those kinds of alterations, I have avoided the NASB. The other recent translations are better, but not much.

Some time in the last century or so American Christianity changed the gospel from "Repent" (as taught in the Bible) to "God loves you" (which is not in the Bible, at least not as a gospel preached to unbelievers and pew-dusters). This is a topic I have examined extensively lately (see "Relationshipism" and its links), so I won't dwell on it here, except to note that this theological aberration is now affecting the English Bible translations. "God is love," one author insisted (citing 1John 4), "verse 8 in particular clearly presents John's God-inspired dogma about love's preeminence." A careful examination of that verse and its context shows no such preeminence in the text, not like the preeminence given to Jesus in the next verse. This "love" is merely one attribute of God among many (another attribute mentioned three chapters earlier in the same book tells us "God is light"); there are perhaps a couple dozen more attributes of God in other parts of Scripture in the same form, "God is ___". None of these attributes are given, by the words and grammar of the actual text, any particular preeminence over the others, it is only our preference for the warm fuzzies that gives a presumed preeminence to love. Let me repeat that: there is no prominence nor emphasis in any part of Scripture for God's attribute of love over His other attributes. That "God is love" is only mentioned in two verses of one chapter of one small epistle, where the author uses it to argue that we Christians ought also to love each other. Paul mentions God's love to believers, but he also speaks of God's wrath and God's foreknowledge and God's Son. Only the Son is given explicit preeminence. Love (more accurately "charity" in the KJV) is given supremacy over faith and hope in 1Cor.13, but it is our love, not God's.

Jesus carefully trained his Twelve Disciples for some three years. Did he teach them incorrectly? I don't think so. We are given the words they (and other people preaching the gospel) spoke on 20 different occasions. Not once did any of them ever say "God loves you," not once in the whole book of Acts. Did they screw up? Did Jesus fail to train the Disciples adequately, so they forgot to say what he told them to say? I don't think so. I believe Jesus taught them exactly what they should say, and they said it, and it is accurately recorded for us, to teach us what the gospel is. There is no "God loves you" in the gospel Jesus taught, nor is it in the gospel the Disciples and Paul and Philip and Stephen preached. To say otherwise is an example of what Paul called "another gospel," a different gospel than the Bible teaches, a gospel of warm fuzzies and not repentance. Make no mistake, it is the warm fuzzies this new gospel teaches, and it is a different gospel than Jesus and Peter and Paul taught. Yes, the modern theologians will carefully explain that this "love" is self-giving and different from the dictionary "love," but they do not use it consistently in that alternate sense.

Whenever anybody tells you that some word -- any word -- means something different from the dictionary meaning, they are lying through their teeth and plan to sell your soul to the lowest bidder. There are three steps in that semantic garden path from the Tree of Knowledge to the Gates of Hell. First they get you to agree to the new definition. After all, a word can mean anything we want it to mean, as Humpty-Dumpty told Alice in the Looking Glass. Then they give you something to believe that is obviously true with this new definition. Finally, they draw an inference from it that follows from the new definition, but they switch to the old definition without telling you, so you are left holding the empty bag. For example, the Darwinists will tell you (1) that "evolution" means "change" and (2) that everything changes, therefore (3) all species descended from a common ancestor (back to the more common definition for "evolution").

The Christians practice the same legerdemain with "love". (1) "Love" in the Bible means "self-sacrifice," then (2) "God is love" because He sacrificed His son on the cross, followed by (3) "God loves you" which quietly lets you believe that God's self-sacrificing love is equivalent to the (original definition) self-centered warm fuzzies you get when you contemplate your favorite food (as in "I love cherry pie") or a sexual lover. If "love" should be thought of as self-sacrifice (which is what the Greek word in the Bible means), then when God commands you to "Love God" (the First Great Commandment) and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (the Second), He is not encouraging you to feel warm and fuzzy about God or your neighbor, but rather the opposite, to give up those selfish desires in favor of the benefit of God (or the neighbor, as the case may be).

One of the few places I favor the King James Bible is in the translation (albeit inconsistently) of the Greek word 'agaph' as "charity" which is a much more accurate sense. Charity is what you do with no expectation of benefit to yourself. That's what the Greek word means. Read 1Cor.13 in the King James, thinking "charity" (self-sacrifice) when it says "charity" instead of "love" (warm fuzzies), and you will have a much better sense of what Paul is saying.

Most conservative theologians (who should know better) and most people in the pews of conservative churches (who get their theology by osmosis on Sunday morning and not by reading the Bible) believe that God's love is "unconditional" (their word). Nowhere in the Bible does it say God's love is unconditional, and Jesus clearly said otherwise [John 14:21]. Sometimes John 3:16 is trotted out as the poster boy for God's unconditional love, but (nevermind how it is usually misinterpreted) it does not say "God loved sinners" or "God loved people" (which it could have said, if that was what God and the evangelist meant), but rather that God loved His created universe, the cosmos, the way a sculptor might love his masterpiece and make every effort to repair a flaw that crept into it. The Apostles Peter and Paul clarify that the whole universe will be repaired by the work of Christ -- presumably by removing from it every stain of sin and every self-condemned (unlovable) person who does not want this man to reign over them. God (ahem) lovingly gives them their wish, but I would not want to experience that kind of "love". There are no warm fuzzies in Hell.

Marrying for Love

One of the young ladies in my church called herself "a hopeless romantic." It was an accurate description. She gets all starry-eyed thinking about the warm fuzzies she hopes to enjoy when she finds a suitable husband. But, good Christian that she is, she informed me that she expects her future husband to "love God more than he loves me." I once knew another woman who married a guy for that same reason: he did, but she hated him for it, and divorced him. She wanted those warm fuzzies, and he didn't give them to her. He probably should have, but he had Clue Deficit Disorder. The problem is that he was loving God (first) and then loving his wife with the kind of love God commands in the Bible, but it wasn't warm fuzzies and it didn't feed her selfishness.

Take a look at modern romantic fiction -- including, perhaps especially, the so-called ("Christian") "inspirational fiction." The local library here has a whole section for inspirational fiction, separate from the rest, similar to the way they separate out "young adult" and large-print fiction. One critic complained that "Christian fiction is predictable, sugar-coated, preachy, and poorly written." He's right. The predictable part is that a significant part of the plot revolves around "boy meets girl (or rather, girl meets boy, as these are mostly written for women), they fall in love, crisis happens and gets resolved, then they marry and live happily ever after." The details vary, but not the main plot. The fall-in-love part is the key. It's a yearning for the embrace (and usually the warm lips) of the other person. What kind of love is this yearning? Do those persons hope for and imagine ways to sacrifice themselves for the other? Or is it rather for the pleasure they themselves enjoy in the other person's company?

Of course, when the pleasure diminishes over time, they "fall out of love" and seek some other person to warm the cockles of their heart. It's entirely and without exception a selfish feeling, and everybody implicitly understands it. Picture the young lady pleading with her father, "Daddy, I want to marry him!" So he dutifully asks "Do you love him?" Not, "Is he a hard worker and will he take care of you?" (although the father may think that), but he asks her if she gets the warm fuzzies when she thinks of him. He asks the same question of the guy. When the warm fuzzies go away, the marriage is over. Everybody knows it.

It wasn't always that way. Most cultures, throughout most of history, thoughtful parents found suitable spouses for their children, spouses who would do their duty and bring honor to the family name. The warm fuzzies happened -- or maybe they did not -- but since they were not the reason for the marriage, their attrition did not end the marriage. I think it was in the middle ages, or perhaps the Renaissance, when the "courtly love" tradition made something of the warm fuzzies -- independently of marriage. That was obviously unacceptable to Christians, who gamely tried to meld the two ideas and encouraged young people to "marry for love." What a disaster it turned out to be -- for the church, for the culture, and now for the institution of marriage itself.

From the beginnings of the church, first in some of Jesus' parables, then more explicitly in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, marriage is supposed to be a picture of Christ and his Bride, the Church. That is the arranged marriage of the first-century Jewish and Roman culture, not our lovem-and-leavem culture of romantic self-absorbed narcisism. God arranged the marriage "while we were yet sinners" -- there were no warm fuzzy feelings of romance in us sinners, and there certainly was nothing warm and fuzzy about Jesus on the cross -- but Jesus acted in painful self-sacrifice for our benefit. The English word "love" is simply inadequate for what happened. We the church have continued to do nothing romantic in that so-called "relationship" for 2000 years, and I suspect what Jesus is doing on our behalf can be thought so only by stretching one's imagination to and beyond breakage.

The God-given function of marriage is procreation, and it was so in the beginning when God instituted marriage [Gen.3:20]. Although the order in Paul's metaphor to the Ephesians and in Jesus' parable does not fit the normal sequence, the relationship between Christ and his church is indeed for the purpose of procreation, to bring many children to God [Heb.2:10]. When we imagine instead marriage to be about mutual enjoyment, two Bad Things Happen. First, any two people can enjoy each other for a while, so they want to call it "marriage" while the thrill lasts, then walk away when it's over. King SCOTUS and the other governments of this pagan world seem to agree, and marriage in this country is now the only law which does not come under the Constitutional protection of "due process." Anybody can get in or out on a whim. It means nothing if it does not mean a stable environment in which to raise the biological children of the parents. Next year or next decade, you can "marry" your dog. How is that different from what we have today?

Applied to the metaphor of Christ and his Church, we also stop enjoying it, we stop caring about Jesus, and we prefer the temporary thrills of this world. Like that woman who married the guy who loved God more than he loved her, we pack up and leave. It happens: the churches in post-Christian countries are empty. And make no mistake, Jesus is not enjoying it either. You and I are not fun people to be with. On that basis, the marriage is over, and you and I are back on the fast train to Hell.


On the other hand, in all fairness I must admit that there are tiny hints of the self-giving kind of love clinging like barnacles to the warm fuzzies. When a boy or girl starts to feel the warm fuzzies, they selfishly want to perpetuate the feeling, so they start up a marketing job to sell the other party. And because we all know that everybody is unredeemably selfish, it's not hard to figure out that gifts and other tokens of attention will often have a positive effect on the other person's reciprocation of the warm fuzzies. The sales job works, because everybody -- men and women alike -- we all have been practicing the technique since adolescence. After the minister has pronounced them "husband and wife," the selling stops, buyer's remorse sets in, and the honeymoon is over. Only chagrin at their folly holds it together after that.

To their credit, the Christians who truly believe in "love" do their best to live the Golden Rule with respect to giving as well as receiving warm fuzzies. It is very important to tell people "I love you" because that confers warm fuzzies on them. It doesn't much matter what you do or think, nor even what you say about the other person when they are not listening, so long as you tell them of your love often. One of the deacons here always starts his prayers, "Lord we love you." He's an honest guy, and he tries hard to be a good Christian and a good husband to his wife, and all that (and I'm sure he is all those things), but the most important thing to him is affirmation. I call it "Relationshipism." You must search Scriptures far and wide to find a single verse that teaches that value, but they all believe it's there.

There are people who need to feel like God loves them, and the Christian magazines are full of their stories. I don't want to take that away from them. Even the Apostle Paul mentioned in his letters (a few times) God's love toward believers, so I guess it might be OK to tell believers who are doing their best to live the Two Great Commandments that God loves them. But it's not unconditional, and the Bible never says it is, and neither should we.

A Clear Path Forward

What can we do?

First, Stop talking about "love". Warm fuzzies are nice, but that's not what it's about. When Jesus said to "love God with all your mind and strength," he was saying that you (and I) must put God's agenda ahead of every personal desire we might have, whether we feel like it or not. He created us, and He has the right to tell us what to do and when and how high to jump. When Jesus said to "love your neighbor as yourself," he was saying that selfish desires -- including for warm fuzzies -- must never take preeminence over the other person's desires and needs. It is the Golden Rule in spades. NOTHING you do should ever treat any person, not even your enemies, with less respect and consideration than you want for yourself. Cutting in line is out, as is bullying and even violating minor traffic laws: suppose you were on the city commission and you thoughtfully set speed limits with due consideration for the rights of all the citizens; would you want petty scofflaws violating the rules you set up? Then don't be those scofflaws. Don't cheat on your taxes, because that takes away from other people who must pay more to make up the difference. It's not about rules, the rules only help us to understand the extent of treating our neighbor with equality. God is Good, and these are good things to do, and we (and everybody else) will be better off if we do them, but those are selfish reasons. Doing good things for selfish reasons is better than not doing them at all, but the best reason for doing good is because it is Good.

Second, Stop telling people "God loves you," especially not unconditionally. It's a Lie from the Pit, because they are mistakenly led to believe that God wants them to feel warm and fuzzy without any change in their lives. God wants no such thing. God wants them to repent of their selfishness, and to give up their personal agendas, and to serve Him (God) first, and their neighbors equally with themselves. Jesus said so. Paul said so. The gospel is not about "love" (warm fuzzies), it's about Jesus dying on the Cross and resurrected the third day to erase our bad karma which is holding us back from doing the Right Thing. So Repent (stop sinning). The gospel is that you can do it, God will help you do it. Jesus and Peter and Paul all said so, in one way or another.

The people who want God to love them are mostly already in the churches. There are far more people outside the churches who consider truth more important than love. Judging from the relative prominence the Bible gives the two subjects, God seems to agree. So let's preach a gospel of truth to them. If ALL Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for instruction and training, then maybe when the inspired Author(s) neglected to tell us to preach a gospel of love, and neglected to exemplify it for us in the preaching of the Disciples and Apostles trained by Jesus himself, but instead gave us examples and teaching of a gospel of Jesus' death and resurrection (true historical facts), maybe that is a good gospel to preach to the vast numbers of people out there who need to hear truth rather than love.

Maybe I'll think of more, but this is a good start.

I'm interested in your opinions, but not if you cannot find it in Scripture, and especially not if the only way you can make Scripture agree with your agenda is to twist the words to say what they don't mean in context.

Tom Pittman
2013 August 19