Little children, let us love, not with words or talk but actively (in action) and genuinely (in truth). (1 John 3:18)
Søren Kierkegaard gives helps us with thinking about love as action in the second chapter of his book Works of Love. It is, he writes, as love rises above being emotion to being action that it gets at the real love, which is the basis of all existence, and thus becomes able to convince people of the existence of love — and therefore also convince them of the gospel (I tried to say something close to that in this post). It is with this active love that we imitate divine love, that is, God’s covenant faithfulness.
We are commanded to love:
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39)
This commandment, Kierkegaard says, “is precisely the criterion of the Christian love and its characteristic, [in] that it contains the apparent contradiction: that loving is a duty” (Works of Love, page 20). It can seem odd or even contradictory for love to be commanded because we think of love as feeling arising within relationship. We know naturally the sort of love that comes within relationship, whether it is love for mother, country, or romantic partner, and we celebrate it. But that other love, commanded love, is unnatural. That it seems unnatural to us means, according to Kierkegaard, that it could only have come from God.
Jesus speaks of the love that comes naturally, love for friends and family, contrasts it to the unnatural, commanded love for one’s enemies, and in effect says “so what” to the natural love:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on bad people as well as good people, and lets it rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward do you get? Don’t even tax collectors do that much? And if you greet only your relatives, what more are you doing than anybody else? Don’t even Gentiles do that? Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:46-47)
To “be perfect” here, to be like God the Father, is to add the unnatural love to the natural love.
The commanded love, love for enemies, is, indeed, shocking. “[T]he idea that love is a duty is an everlasting innovation — and [because of it] everything has become new” (Works of Love, page 21). This love is altogether different from the love of emotion, immediacy, and poetry. Because it is carried out as that which has been commanded, not as that which expresses emotion or attempts to win by manipulation of another’s emotions, it can be sincere, self-denying, and reliable: “Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love everlastingly secure against every change; everlastingly emancipated in blessed independence; everlastingly happy, assured against despair” (page 25). But the uncommanded love of emotion feels a need to guard itself, to test itself, and to look for and offer proofs of itself.
There is a continuity of love of neighbor, family member, and enemy. Jesus’ point could also be expressed by saying that my enemies are also among my neighbors and my relatives. (It is a sign of the times that regarding love for relatives as natural, as Jesus does here within his culture, is not a foregone conclusion for us. I was tempted to title one post “Love for Relatives and Other Enemies,” but why belabor the point?) And we can turn that around the other way by observing the contrast between uncommanded, natural love and commanded love in a long and real-world view of what comes after a wedding. Marriages survive as they move from feeling to commitment, from proving that “I love you” to “blessed independence,” that is, to love undiminished by changes in, say, a spouse’s appearance or health. This is a movement from emotional love to “commanded love,” though the commandment may be understood as coming from oneself as reflective commitment as well as from God.
Quotations of the second chapter (vol. I, chapter II.A, “Thou Shalt Love”) of Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses are from the translation by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946).