What Is Love?

Grete Rachel Howland
11 min readJul 23, 2019

We act as if the definition of love is, to borrow words from one notorious explorer of the subject, a truth universally acknowledged. We say that all you need is love. We reassure each other that love trumps hate. I have the word “love” tattooed three times in a row on my forearm (having been taught that in Hebrew, a word appearing thrice in succession is a mode of emphasis indicating wholeness or perfection.)

And we all kind of know — or we assume that we all kind of know — what is meant.

In general, I think we do. I think there is indeed a collective, perhaps hackneyed but no less agreed upon understanding of love amongst folks in our society. It is rather indistinct, of course. As with many abstract concepts, if you were to ask a random person on the street to explain “love”, they would likely have an easier time using synonyms than settling on a denotation. Love is…care. Love is adoration. Love is loyalty, love is affection. Love is commitment, love is sacrifice, love is devotion.

Love is something we understand, basically. To be sure, English is sparse on words that more precisely get at the different kinds of love one might experience (romantic love, for instance, friendship, and so on) but those of us operating in this linguistic bubble seem to be doing alright conceding to a string of somewhat anemic approximates for the sake of establishing common ground. It’s when we get out of the abstract and into the praxis, however, that things can sometimes start to get a little shaky.

Thankfully, it’s probably more often than not that an action I take that’s intended to be loving is also felt as loving by the person who’s receiving it. I give my younger brother a big hug as a gesture of my affection, and he feels loved by me as a result. I buy my co-worker an iced coffee because I want her to know she is cared for, and when she gets the coffee, she does. This is all well and good. In these moments, we don’t sense any need to make our definitions of love explicit; we assume we’re on the same page, and it turns out we are.

But what about when we’re not? Sometimes, a person takes an action that they believe to be loving — that they would insist is them being loving, or expressing their love — that does not feel like love to the person on the receiving end of it. I think of a parent spanking their child, and saying that they do it because they love them (as my parents did with me). I also think of a church trying to cast the ‘demon of homosexuality’ out of a young man because they believe being gay is an abomination, which is something that has happened to more than one person I know. In both instances, disparate as they are, you have folks imposing a version of “love” that does not, in its manifestation, match the definition we count upon sharing. In fact, it is beyond a mismatch — it is the opposite of love; it is abuse.

How can this be? How can a person use the word “love” as a label for something that does all harm and no good? How does a person not see that this violent action that they’ve convinced themselves is loving is in fact only an expression (and perpetuation) of their own fear and pain?

When I was young, I was taught that loving people meant telling them about the salvific power of Jesus. I believed that anyone who died having not accepted Jesus into their heart was guaranteed an eternity of terror and torment. So of course I, being a loving person, felt a great burden to share with folks the Good News (and to argue them into accepting it, should they find it ridiculous, as many of those to whom I proselytized did.) Again and again, throughout my adolescence, I mustered the courage to tell any unbeliever I could about the way to heaven. Were they annoyed? Often. Did I care? Not really. On the contrary, their exasperation only made me more desperate to convince them. I believed I was acting in love, that I was literally saving people’s lives. I believed that love could mean denouncing someone, and even threatening them with permanent condemnation, if I was doing it because I had special knowledge of what was best for them in the long run.

I’m embarrassed that I did those things. I try to make up for it now in some small way by writing about all of the religious foolishness I was caught up in back then. Much more difficult than understanding why I was such a pesky little Christian, however, is coming to terms with the premise from which I was working, the one mentioned above: “anyone who died having not accepted Jesus into their hearts was guaranteed an eternity of terror and torment.” What we have here is not just the idea that my love, as a believer, needed to look like evangelism, but that central to God’s love was sending people to hell if they didn’t accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Putting aside the fact that hell as it’s generally conceived of is not actually Biblical, if we’re working from Western society’s “hell” archetype — which is the theology I inherited — then what I’m saying is the Evangelical Christianity in which I grew up taught me that God’s “perfect” love necessitated that those who didn’t accept or believe in him would be tortured in perpetuity.

Often this was framed as God “allowing” those who rejected the Gospel to go to hell. Somehow that was supposed to make it more palatable (of course palatable doesn’t really matter if you’ve been brainwashed into this so-called logic since infancy.) In other words, “love” meant giving the people what they wanted — if they heard the Word and still said “No”, then what they wanted was hell; love was giving it to them. This was also a nice way of affirming free will, which was a fairly foundational tenet in the tradition in which I was raised. And in your so-called free will, you were presented with a pretty straightforward choice: become a Christian to enjoy total forgiveness for all of your wrongdoings plus residency in heaven for time infinite, or don’t become a Christian and maybe have some superficially fun hedonistic years, but ultimately you’ll be handed over to Satan.

I believed this set-up was somehow love — perfect love. And for a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with being indoctrinated into submissiveness) I didn’t have the wherewithal to bring some serious inquiry to it until I was well into adulthood. When I finally got to that point, after years of brushing off the concerned and incredulous voices of non-believers, I started to wonder: if God’s love is the most perfect version of love, then shouldn’t it be exponentially better than the love of a human? And, if even wildly imperfect humans would not, if they could at all help it, allow loved ones who reject or ignore them to experience literal torture as a consequence, then shouldn’t God be infinitely more unlikely to act in such a way?

My conclusion was yes. Yes, this supposedly loving God should act in ways that we humans know to be loving, and should do it better than we could ever imagine. Hell is not compatible with love. I realized this, and the expertly-packed Jenga tower that was my belief in the Christian God lost an essential block. But I don’t want to get too far into the long story of the toppling of my faith in this post. My point here is that not everything that we call “love” is in fact love. Because of the nebulous nature of the concept, it can be easy to reason that there’s some relativity to it, and we (or at least I) tend to want to give people the benefit of the doubt regarding their intentions. But maybe, even if someone believes they’re being loving through what is actually a damaging action, it’s time to push back. Maybe we need to get a bit more strict about what we allow people to classify as “love”.

In 1992, Dr. Gary Chapman published a book called The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. The premise of the text, according to the book’s website, “is simple: different people with different personalities express love in different ways.” When we learn about how we give and receive love, and how the people around us give and receive love, our relationships will “strengthen and improve.” Dr. Chapman proposes that there are five love “languages” — words of affirmation, acts of service, gift giving, quality time, and physical touch. Typically, each person has one or two languages with which they primarily express love, and one or two languages through which they feel most loved (or “receive love”, as the lingo goes). Figure out how you show love, how you feel love, and how the people with whom you’re in relationship do the same, and “you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, give and receive love in more meaningful ways, and grow closer than ever.”

There is some merit here. After all, the book was and continues to be on the New York Times Best Sellers list, which doesn’t necessarily speak to its quality but does speak to its felt relevance. It clearly struck a nerve. I happen to know it well because it was big in the Evangelical scene (Dr. Chapman is a pastor and religious ‘counselor’, with 2 of his 3 graduate degrees, including his PhD, being from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) and the idea behind the book truly did have therapeutic power for me and many people I know.

I learned that there are different ways of loving — genuine loving — that we can be open to, and maybe should be open to. I came to understand that some combination of our innate personalities and the environments we grew up in will mean we don’t always express ourselves, our love, in ways that immediately make sense to those with whom we interact. But if I can recognize that, say, my partner folding my laundry for me is them showing me love, even if I would have felt love more immediately had they told me something they really appreciate about me, then I can avoid going straight to the place in my mind that is insecure about their motivations. It is important to partner with someone whose love languages are compatible with yours — I would think, assuming there’s any truth to this idea — but we can also, through this lens, learn to have more compassion for those whose actions are mysterious to us.

This is also where the danger creeps in, though. In our desire to understand each other and be understood, as evidenced by the Love Languages phenomenon, we can become a bit too broad with what we accept as love. Or maybe I’m veering into victim-blaming here. Maybe I should say that there are people, sometimes whole groups of people, who take advantage of our eagerness to come together and embrace each other in all our subjectivity. While it can be helpful to validate a variety of love expressions, as the idea of Love Languages does, we have to remember that, at the same time, not all expressions of “love” as defined by the actor are valid. Who’s to say that someone’s not using that word incorrectly? It can’t mean just anything. Even the person-on-the-street definitions that I threw out earlier all fall under a wide but decidedly bounded umbrella of interpretation.

So then, what is love?

This is where I get stuck, because my first thought is, somewhat ironically, Who am I to define it? I immediately go back to its subjectivity, despite all that I just wrote about the dangers therein. But then that just leaves space for others to define it in ways that are toxic, which is the problem.

And it’s true that love is not always pleasant for the one being loved. Young children have good but frustrating boundaries imposed on them all the time by people who want them to stay safe and unspoiled. When a close friend calls us out on our ignorant or unkind behavior, it stings, even if we want to know the truth. I’m not saying that if we’re going to call something love, we’d best make sure it’s an action that everyone enjoys. What I am saying, I guess, is that we don’t have to agree.

Consensus is nice; tolerance is nice — in a certain way of thinking. These are virtues in a liberal society. But they are also often used in the interest of maintaining the status quo, a surface-level peace, which then ends up obscuring a multitude of sins. All I know is that I and so many people in this world, especially people who have encountered Evangelical Christianity in one way or another, have been deeply damaged — and I mean significantly harmed — by people professing love but acting out abuse. This isn’t unique to some segments of the church, of course; it is core to abusive systems: telling someone that the nefarious thing you’re doing is love. Wherever it comes from, it thrives on silence, on people being too nice to stand their ground and say, “That’s not love.”

I am often silent because I dread the thought of making someone feel bad. I’ve also been silent for fear that I won’t find healthy love somewhere else. I have settled for insufficient love again and again because at least someone was saying they loved me. At least someone was accepting me, as long as I accepted the terms of their “love”. I’ve thought that I should take what I can get, because what if I walk away from it to look for something better but something better never comes along? What if that idea of love we’ve all agreed on, nebulous as it is, is just too good to be true in the end?

There are a lot of reasons to settle, to be scared, to not speak out. It’s easy to give up on holding strong boundaries around what is acceptable love. We become exhausted fighting off those who, aware of what they are doing or not, keep trying to take advantage of its semantic elasticity. But it just so happens that I have the energy right now, so I will take this opportunity to say that I may not always be able to articulate exactly what love is, but I do know what it’s not.

Love is not ignoring people’s autonomy. Love is not threatening people into obedience, or forcing it through violence. Love is not demeaning people’s intelligences by insisting they don’t know what’s true or good for them. Love is not rejecting and condemning people’s natural identities, especially those related to sex and gender. Love is not seeing others’ selves as things to be conquered or won. Love is not telling people they’re inherently bad, and unacceptable to their creator.

We do not have to accept these things as love, nor do we have to agree to perpetuate them. If it feels off, the version of love you’re being told you must receive or you must enact, it probably is.

You do know what real love is, in your heart or in your mind — I think we all do. And we need to offer it to ourselves as much as anyone else. Care for yourself. Adore yourself. Be loyal to and affectionate with yourself. Be committed and devoted to what’s best for you. Be forgiving of yourself when you do these things imperfectly (because you certainly will), and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you have to accept a “love” that does the opposite of these things, to you or anyone else.

Originally published at http://www.weird-name.com on July 23, 2019.



Grete Rachel Howland

Reflections on growing up in Evangelical Christianity and finding freedom on the other side of belief.