Love. What is love? Is it a feeling? A fantasy? A dream? A reality? A hoax? As I see more and more marriages ending with the words, "I don't love you anymore," I am wondering…What exactly is love?
There are so many different kinds of love that it would seem impossible to answer this question. I can say that I "love" my car, but that is because it is dependable and gets me through the Michigan winters. I might say that I "love" my job but that is because it allows me to research and contemplate the things of my heart. On occasion I have even been heard saying that I "love" my household chores because I recognize what a gift it is that I have a home that needs cleaning.
Regarding people…maybe not always lots of love. I certainly don't "love" my dentist because every smell and sound in his office makes me cringe. Nor is my ophthalmologist held in any "loving" esteem because she continues to tell me that my eyesight is getting worse with each passing year. Although I truly appreciate their dedication that allows me to enjoy good health, I still can't say I love either of them.
But my husband: I love him so much that the word "love" seems lacking, only touching the surface of what he means to me. I love him more today than when I married him twenty-two years ago. Would I have even imagined, on my wedding day, that it would be possible to love John more? No. And yet there it is! It happened, but not overnight. Slowly, eventually over the years our love has grown into a deep mutual respect and admiration, a renewed understanding of the beauty of our vows and a renewed commitment. And my children: they are loved to a degree that I didn't think humanly possible. Does that translate into a carefree life with my husband and children? Unfortunately, it doesn't.
But that takes me back to my original question, "What is love?" When I proclaim that I love my husband and my children, does it mean that am I always enamored of them? No, I can't say that I am. Yet I can say with all certainty that I love them. So love must be more than a feeling, right? Definitely. I know this because even in the depths of exhaustion I will whip up anything my oldest son wants to eat or I will, in the five minutes before we are leaving, iron the shirt my husband sheepishly hands to me. My commitment to my family carries me through when my feelings wane. And the same can be said of John. My husband's commitment to our family is above reproach. I may be the only female in the house but I've given him a run for his money. And I am able to say that my sons have been brought up in a home where their father bears witness to his family commitment every single day, in big and in small ways. And, God bless John, we seem to have given him plenty of tests of his fortitude! In our little family of five we've weathered lots of hurt and sorrow along with our fair share of joy and triumph.
All this isn't to say, however, that "feeling" isn't part of love but to say that "commitment" is as well. Both are necessary on the roller coaster ride of loving another human being, of having a loving family. If love is the roller coaster, then the "feeling" parts of it are those exhilarating, heady experiences and the stomach lurches; but "commitment" is the seat belt, or that cross bar, that holds you in for the duration. Would I want to get on a roller coaster that didn't have the seat belt or cross bar? No way.
Did my love for my husband start with pheromones and heart palpitations? Definitely, but those things have their time and place. I can also remember dating my husband and watching him with his nieces and nephews and witnessing his commitment to family. Contrary to the pop culture view of love that our children are inundated with, those initial feelings of giddiness and abandon must give way to a conscious commitment. I am convinced that this is something that our children need to hear, know, see, and live. We need to hold up role models of commitment so that our children long to attain these traits, so that they will see them as heroic and noble. Dare I even suggest that we make an effort to portray commitment as being cool?
And isn't it interesting how commitment then gives way to a deeper love than could have been imagined? God most assuredly knew this and that is why such qualities as diligence and perseverance are valued in Scripture. This deeper love may make those first feelings of giddiness and abandon seem silly, but they are often necessary to get the relationship started. However, once those feelings take their rightful place in the scheme of things, it is a person's willingness to persevere and plumb the depths of the next level of the relationship that speaks the most about his or her character.
But even the commitment ebbs and flows. It is ridiculous to say that we each can be "on" 100% of the time. This is why we become one in marriage, so that as the tides of feeling and commitment run their natural courses, together as a married couple we are able to withstand the undercurrent that might otherwise pull us down.
What does God teach us about love? God's love is often called "Agape Love." It is a love that could send a most beloved Son to the world for crucifixion. It is completely selfless and cannot be earned, bought, traded, or sold. Agape love is unconditional love. But is it a feeling? God's love towards us is not a feeling but fully a commitment supported by the term "unconditional." However, when it comes to our personal relationships, God must surely know and even expect that our emotions do come into play but it is His commitment to us that He must hope we will mirror to one another. As any of us can attest, without the commitment aspect of love in our human relationships, there would be no endurance of time.
God's love for us, His creations, reflects His commitment to us. As soon as sin entered the Garden, God planned for our salvation. Why? Because of His commitment to us. Consider in the everyday existence of your marriage the times when hurt, pain, frustration or even anger are the emotions you are experiencing. If you made your decisions about your marriage based upon those emotions, your marriage would not survive.
Then, of course, the next day or a week later, your emotions change. You've experienced a reconciliation of sorts, maybe a box of candy or a long talk helped move your emotions from one area to another, and now you are back "in love." Throughout the years this sort of emotional roller coaster begins to break down and sooner or later everyone chooses to get off. This is why God's example of complete commitment should be the key factor in our earthly marriages. When we make the conscious decision to commit ourselves to our marriages, we are making a conscious effort to reflect God's love to our spouses — a love that sent a most beloved Son for Crucifixion, on our behalf. It is a commitment unlike anything most of us could fathom, a monumental commitment we are asked to mirror in comparatively miniscule ways.
We have loads of feelings about things: Brittany Spears' mothering, PG-13 ratings, all the candidates running for the presidency, and even how our parish priests ought to say the Nicene Creed. But it is our commitment to God and the ways of God that will keep us in the race for the long haul. It is understanding what commitment entails that will brighten our marriages and bring pleasure to our lives. The beautiful thing about committing oneself to God is that there are immediate and eternal rewards. All of our relationships are better and more fulfilling. Our marriages strengthen, and heal when necessary. Our homes are more peaceful and filled with joy. Our jobs, both in and outside of our home, are seen as blessings and our circumstances are understood as gifts for our own edification. Undoubtedly, learning about commitment from God makes our world a better place.
[Note from Cheryl: As a way to celebrate Valentine's Day this month, watch for two additional columns on the central theme of marriage. One will be on the Holy Sacrament of Marriage and the other will be on the Church as Christ's bride and Christ as the bridegroom.]