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Love endures—even more than it emotes

On Valentine’s Day, it’s important to remember that real love is clearest in times of suffering

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Love endures—even more than it emotes
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Valentine’s Day is the annual reminder that love is an important part of what it means to be human and that the rituals surrounding it strike deep chords. The exchange of cards and gifts has been somewhat transformed in recent years. Now everyone seems to be in on the action. Children give Valentine’s cards to their teachers, for example, whereas in my youth the exchange was restricted to those in, or those aspiring to, a romantic relationship. Still, even this broadening market for Valentine’s cards and gifts witnesses to the fact that people see love in various forms as important.

While a consensus exists on the importance and goodness of love, there is little agreement today on what love is. It is no insight to comment that for many “love” has become simply the affirmation of a person on that person’s own terms. This was the understanding epitomized by the hashtag #LoveWins with reference to the campaign for the recognition of gay marriage. Criticize anyone for any belief or behavior that happens to reflect the spirit of the age and you are likely to be denounced as unloving or even hateful. Love in these terms is a form of selfishness: I will consider you loving if, and only if, you give me the affirmation or the pleasure I crave. It’s about taking, not giving.

As #LoveWins indicated, perhaps no other institution has been so damaged by this understanding of love than marriage. Since at least the arrival of no-fault divorce, the institution has come to reflect the idea that love is about each of us assuming that the other person exists to make us feel good. Gay marriage won in large part because it capitalized on the general cultural intuition of our age that had turned marriage into a utilitarian contract. When a marriage stops delivering that feel-good factor, it no longer binds the parties involved. They can dissolve it and move on to somebody else who can deliver the goods. A marriage need last only as long as the spouses can take from it what they want.

As a minister, I have had the privilege of officiating at the marriages of many couples over the years and one question I ask in my homily on each occasion is one about love: When in a marriage is love demonstrated most beautifully and dramatically? Love is easy on the big day. The bride is beautiful. The groom is besotted with her. The early days of marriage are marked with the joys of sexual attraction and the physical fulfillment of erotic desire.

Love, true love, is at heart the giving of oneself to and for another without conditions and without the expectation of reward.

It is easy to give yourself to the other in such a context. But this is not when love is most beautifully demonstrated or most powerfully revealed. Love, real love, is clearest and strongest in times of suffering. Couples who have endured agony either as a result of illness or of the malice of others learn something about the strength of their marriages and the nature of true love that is only revealed in times of pain.

I have known numerous friends over the years whose spouses have in later life declined into dementia. In each case, the healthy husband or wife has had to care for his or her beloved in a sacrificial way. Erotic attraction and sexual union have long since ceased. In cases of dementia, the ill wife might not even recognize her husband and even basic conversation has become impossible. Yet the lover continues to give to the beloved in forms of service, seeing to her most basic needs. That is surely where love is most effectively shown. Love, true love, is at heart the giving of oneself to and for another without conditions and without the expectation of reward.

All of this points to the supreme example of love, Jesus Christ. God’s love is the ultimate example of self-giving: the one who gave Himself for others not because they were intrinsically lovely but rather despite the fact that they were unlovely. And the closest parallels to that are those spouses who lovingly give their lives to their beloved partners long after the partner is incapable of giving anything back.

It is right to celebrate romantic love on Valentine’s Day for such love is one of the great delights of human existence. But we must never forget that the greatest form of human love is that which mirrors in some distant but real way the love of God. That is often found at the end of a long marriage, not so much at the start of a romantic tryst.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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