Is It Love If I Don’t Feel It? // Ask Pastor John

 

Pastor John, here’s a good question we get all the time — and worth addressing often. This comes in from a listener named Jacqueline: “Hello Pastor John! I have a follow-up question to episode 897. I appreciated your answer to: Is love fake if motivated by reward? As a follow-up, I want to ask: Is love fake if it’s only motivated by duty? I am thinking of relationships where the believer acts lovingly — as in Philippians 2:4 and in 1 Corinthians 13 — but without the ‘feeling’ of love, often due to ongoing sin in the life of the beloved. Is it enough to love because I am supposed to if I know in my heart it is not tied to the desire to know and glorify Christ as you mentioned as the motivation for reward-fueled love?”

Let me start with an illustration. I read this years ago in Edward John Carnell’s book, Christian Commitment. He says: Suppose a man asks, “Must I kiss my wife goodnight?” Carnell gives the answer: Yes, but not that kind of “must.” That is very profound. It really affected my Christian Hedonism. What did he mean? He meant that the man who asked this question misunderstands the nature of duty. He thinks that duty only relates to the external behavior of kissing and that, if he kisses his wife, he has done his duty.

But Carnell’s point is that Christian duty is deeper than physical acts — always deeper than physical acts. Our duty includes not only the external, physical acts that are appropriate and virtuous but also a right heart or a right disposition or a right set of affections, emotions. So yes, it is a man’s duty to kiss his wife — but that includes the duty of feeling affection for his wife.

Now, I think Jacqueline might be making the same mistake as the husband in that illustration. Maybe. I might misunderstand her. But let’s see if this helps. She asks: Is love fake if it is motivated by duty? Is it enough to love because I am supposed to? That sounds like she conceives of love as a set of external behaviors which one can will, even if one does not feel any gladness in the act of love. But is that the biblical duty of love? Does not love, biblically speaking, always include more than mere physical behavior?

So, I want to argue that our duty is more than deeds, always more than deeds. The duty to give, for example, includes the duty to rejoice in giving. So, giving or loving out of duty when there is no delight in giving is really only doing half our duty. God’s will as revealed in the New Testament is that our loving behavior, the deeds, should always include gladness in God that overflows in the hope of including other people in it. I am going to say that again because that is an absolutely crucial ethical sentence for me. The biblical duty to love, that is, the very meaning of love, always includes gladness in God that overflows in the act, the behaviors of love in the hope of including others in it; that is, in our gladness in God.

I get that definition of love from 2 Corinthians 8:2 and 9:7. Here is what it says: “In a severe test of affliction, their” — that is, the Macedonians’ — “abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” — giving, loving — “on their part.” Notice carefully the subject of the verb “overflowed” is “joy.” “Their abundance of joy . . . overflowed in . . . generosity.” In other words, love was the overflow of joy in God — and you can go back to verse 1 to see that. Joy in God is God’s grace being poured out on them that aimed to bless others and, thus, include others in that joy. That is what love does — always.

Notice also that there were two huge obstacles standing in the way of this generosity: “a severe test of affliction” and “extreme poverty.” In other words, it was very costly — you might even say painful — for Christians to show generosity when they themselves were hurting and poverty-stricken. If there ever was a time when a person might say, “Surely all that is expected of us here is dutiful deeds, not heartfelt joy” this was that time. But, in fact, what marked these deeds of generosity as love was the abundance of joy in God that was overflowing in love in the hope that others would be included in that joy.

We know we are on the right track here, because in chapter 2 Corinthians 9:7, just a chapter later, Paul makes it a principle. He takes this behavior, and he makes it a principle. He says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion” — that is another way of saying mere willpower duty — “for God loves a cheerful giver.” Now, that is the clearest statement that doing good things for people generously without any delight in the doing is only half our duty.

So, let me restate Jacqueline’s question the way I would ask it, because there is a real problem she sees. She is right to see the problem, and I am just complaining about the way it was asked. And I hope something really important is being seen. Here is the way I would ask the question for John Piper: What does a Christian do when he is confronted with the opportunity of a helpful good deed that he doesn’t feel like doing? That is the issue. Because that is real life. Perfect love to God will always delight perfectly in doing God’s will. But until we reach perfection, which none of us does in this life, we are an embattled people. Satan and sin corrupt our wills so that we feel disinclinations to do the loving thing. And that is a reality. And this is why Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself” (Matthew 16:24). In this fallen world where sin and Satan disincline us to love, self-denial will always be a part of the duty of love.

How does this work in the moment when there is an opportunity to do good and we don’t feel like doing good? I am going to give you two options to do here, and people line up on these two options. I mean, most line up on the first one, I am afraid. The difference between a Christian Hedonist — my understanding of our duty at that moment when we don’t feel like doing the good we ought to do — and those who think emotions don’t count — they are marginal; they are not essential at that moment — that group says: Just do it. Just do it. Do the right thing because it is the right thing, all the while ignoring the biblical teaching that doing it cheerfully is part of the right thing at that point. You can’t just say do it as though it were your whole duty. It is not. It is half your duty. But the Christian Hedonist, therefore, does four crucial things at this moment. Because I am admitting John Piper, the imperfect, fallen, selfish Christian Hedonist, doesn’t always want, love or delight to do what he ought to do. So, here are the four things we ought to do.

1) Admit honestly to God and to yourself you don’t feel like doing the good thing. Admit it.
2) Confess it to God as sin, and tell him that you are sorry for your heart not being more loving.
3) Ask God in that moment to restore the joy, the fullest joy, of your salvation and an overflowing gladness in a grace that can be shared with other people. Ask him to restore your joy.
4) Now, go ahead and act. Do that good behavior. Do that half of your duty. Do the good deed hoping, expecting, believing. You have asked, you have prayed, that in it, joy will be awakened and you will actually, before you are done, be delighting in the love before you are even finished, the loving behavior. Now, you are glad you are doing.

Tony, I have seen this happen in my life as a pastor over the years again and again and again. I would be on my way to the hospital when I didn’t feel like it. And some saint is in trouble, and I repent to God. “God, I wish I had more compassion. I wish I felt more affection. I wish you were more fully in charge of my heart right now. Please, restore to me the joy of loving my people.” And how many times have I walked into that room and, either before I get to the bed or as I put my hand on some dear saint’s arm, God awakens gladness in being there, gladness in being able to share the word, gladness in being an instrument of their hope, gladness in hoping that some of my gladness in the Lord would sustain them in their trial.

So, my answer to Jacqueline’s question is that the duty of love always includes more than willpower behavior. It includes the gladness in God that overflows in the hope of including others in it. When the behavior and the gladness are both there, the duty is being performed. And when the gladness is not there and we confess it and repent and pray for forgiveness and act in hope that God will restore it, that, too, is our duty.