A youth pastor I’m Facebook friends with due to connections forged in a former life* recently shared a blog post about a sermon he preached to his youth group on love. He titled it “The Love Song that’s the Biggest Boatload of Crap” and posted a link to John Mayer’s “Who You Love.” The song, which I’d never heard of before, talks about how the object of our love sometimes surprises us. The chorus says, “I’ve fought against it hard enough to know that you love who you love.”
The graphic he used with the post seemed to reference the hook from Mackelmore’s “Same Love,” which was written by Mary Lambert and later expanded into a complete song, “She Keeps Me Warm.” To be fair, that’s the closest he came to actually referencing homosexuality. It’s also the main reason I clicked the post and probably should have been a sign to stay away.
The sermon had three points: “Love is a choice. Love is not an emotion. Love is a commitment.”
It’s something I’ve heard before. The arguments aren’t new. I sat on my parent’s couch six weeks ago and listened to them. But they make my blood boil every time.
I’m not a Greek scholar, but I’ve hung around churches long enough to know that there are different kinds of love. C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book called The Four Loves, which discusses the four ancient Greek words that get translated as “love” in modern English.** Eros is romantic love. Philia is the love between friends. Storge is familial affection. Agape is unconditional love or “charity.”
Saying “Love is a choice,” is manipulative. Some types of love are a choice. Maybe even all types of love are a choice sometimes. But when we say, “Love is a choice,” we usually mean “Eros is a choice,” and then back up the statement with examples of agape. We set people up for failure when we do this, implying that if they are attracted to or fall in love with the “wrong” person (whether that means a person of the wrong gender, race, religion, or moral fortitude) they have somehow sinned. They have failed to be self-controlled. They have neither the mind nor the heart of Christ.
Frankly, that is the biggest boatload of crap.
There are lots of choices to be made in the romantic sphere of life. Acting on attraction is a choice. Entering into a relationship is a choice. Becoming physically or emotionally intimate is a choice. Marriage is a choice.
Commitment is an important part of a romantic relationship. We commit ourselves to a single partner. We commit ourselves to planning for marriage. We commit ourselves to marriage, itself. And each of these commitments deserves due consideration.
Love is a choice, sometimes. Love is a commitment, sometimes. Certainly any long-term relationship will require love to be a choice and a commitment at various points. But love isn’t only those things.
In today’s Western culture, most marriages begin with a combination of eros and philia. Two people find each other attractive. They get along well. They decide to date. This first, heady rush is why we have idioms like “falling in love” and “love struck” and even “lovesick.” It’s incredibly emotional. It’s not something that’s carefully reasoned and well thought-out. It just . . . happens. This is the narrative we grow up with. This is the narrative we hear from movies and television, but also from our parents and pastors and Sunday School teachers. This is how we learn that love works. So to stand in front of a group of teens and say, “Love is a choice,” is to twist that narrative in a way that is viciously cruel.
I know what it’s like to love as a choice. For years, I have silently quoted I Corinthians 13:4-6 to myself during difficult moments with my parents. I have chosen to be patient and kind and unselfish as I loved friends and co-workers. I have wrestled with what it means to “keep no record of wrongs.” I have been challenged by the idea that “[l]ove does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” I have thanked God for a love that perseveres and never fails.
I have also found myself completely and unexpectedly in a different kind of love. I looked up one day and realized that what started as friendship with an edge of attraction had turned into something entirely different without me noticing or intending it to. And when I realized that the object of that affection was not an appropriate partner, I made the choice to ignore those feelings and continue to nurture the other types of love in our relationship.
“Love is a choice” is a pithy tagline for a sermon, and sometimes it’s true. But let’s be honest about what we really mean when we say that, and let’s be consistent about the story we tell when we talk about how love happens. To do anything else is manipulative and hurtful.
*I actually unfriended this person immediately after reading the blog post.
** I apologize to any actual Greek scholars who read this for any mistakes I made in discussing these words and their meanings. I hope my overall point is still adequately clear.