Ain’t Love Grand?

It’s almost Valentine’s Day. That glorious time of year when we all get to show someone how much we care. The stores are filled with red and pink; romantic ads show up everywhere; and lots of couples will jump at the chance for a special occasion. Sure, the whole thing is a commercialized, superficial racket; businesses turn a huge profit off the sale of candy, flowers, cards, and jewelry – even stuffed animals. But it’s still kind of nice to have a day set aside for romance, to express and commemorate our feelings for someone special.

Unless, of course, we have no one to spend it with in the first place, and our plans are to sit home alone reading about someone else’s life. In that case, the whole thing may seem cruel – like a painful reminder of our own solitude. We joke about it, but it’s true: those blissfully lovestruck fools can seem awfully selfish when we’ve got no one to fill the void in our own life. As they prance about in pairs, nobody gives a second thought to the lonely guy (or girl) in the corner. Most of them don’t even know we exist, and they would honestly rather not let some Gloomy Gus (or Gertrude) bring them down, mmm-kay?

But let’s not kid ourselves: many of those “happy couples” will be over in a year or two, and half of them will hate each other by the time they call it quits. All of that initial Valentine-y romance tends to disappear – sometimes like a flash in the pan and sometimes like a slow leak. It’s hard to tell looking back if it was ever love at all. Shouldn’t “true love” stand the test of time? How could it go so bad if it was real?

In many cases, we all know the answer: it’s because the excitement has worn off. Our “feelings” were just infatuation, our “affection” just attraction. We don’t like to admit it because it makes us feel childish, but we know it’s true. The reason it fades is because we were “in love” with the wrong thing: the sense of humor, the flattery, the physical attraction. None of those things are bad, but they can lose their appeal over time. And it’s not enough trying to keep our love lives fresh and exciting if we have nothing to believe in beyond our feelings for each other, if we don’t know what real love is to begin with.

So what is love?

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (I didn’t write that. I borrowed it from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.)

This is how you know real love – of any kind, romantic or otherwise. It always seeks the other person’s benefit, always shows kindness, and always gives the benefit of the doubt. We sometimes fail in this, even if our love is real; but those moments of failure are not demonstrations of love. It’s when we get it right that we show real love. We don’t do it because someone makes us feel good; we do it to make them feel good. It’s sacrificial. It’s unconditional. It’s undeserved. And most of us understand this to some degree, even if we don’t understand the Christian faith: we often love people – especially our families – in spite of how they treat us.

It’s easy to love someone who adores you; it requires no sacrifice or effort because you want to do it. But how much better and stronger does it have to be to love someone for no reason at all, when you don’t want to? Love is more than just a feeling; it’s a choice. And we can choose to show love best when it’s not easy, when the person we love is not lovable. That’s why Jesus told us to have love for those who can’t repay us, even to love those who hate us: because the more we give – expecting nothing in return – the greater our love must be. And that’s why Jesus said there is no greater love than this: “that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Now, that obviously doesn’t mean that we should choose a romantic partner based on who is least lovable. That would be foolish and reckless and no way to start a healthy relationship (never mind a family). But that’s because most of us are lucky enough to choose our significant other before making a commitment. Once we commit, however, we should be even more dedicated to showing love in all the same ways… even when it ceases to feel good. That may not sound romantic, but it’s a sign of real love.

Yes, romance is supposed to be different. But that doesn’t mean it should be any less than all of this. No, it should be more – as in, all this and more. It should include the sacrifice and the selflessness, but it should be magnified for the sake of our commitment to one another. Romance comes with a kind of intimacy that no other relationship enjoys, and that’s a good thing. But it also comes with a promise of lifelong companionship, and that’s why we should choose wisely before making a commitment.

How? By knowing what we stand for and what we believe in – not only in our words, but in our actions. It’s important to know and agree on matters of faith and morality. But it’s not enough to say that we believe in something if we don’t live by it. On the other hand, we should have good reason for doing so – a solid belief system on which our hearts and lives depend. We should require integrity and responsibility in our partner and ourselves; but we should also know why we practice these virtues. Because sooner or later, it matters. It determines how we communicate, how we resolve conflict, how we work and live from day to day, and how we raise our children. As a Christian, I want to live my life for God – the source of all love in the universe – and if my partner shares that commitment, our relationship will survive because it’s built on something stronger than our selfish desires and fickle emotions. But if we share no values and priorities, no moral foundation on which to build our life together, it may well lead to heartache and separation.

None of this means that romance is bad. We all want to find someone who makes us weak in the knees, someone we love to be around. As a hopeless romantic, I’m no exception. But I’ll go even further: I actually like the idea of having someone who worries about me; who asks for my help; who shares every annoying detail of her life; who wants to know why I’m late; who lets me take care of her; who coordinates her schedule with mine; who drags me along on her girly adventures; who sits in silence with me just because we’re together – someone whose idea of “me time” is making the best of the time we’re apart. To me, that sounds every bit as romantic as flowers and a fancy dinner.

It’s good to keep the flame alive, as they say, but we shouldn’t confuse raw passion for love. If we’re only dedicated to making sparks fly, neither the passion nor the dedication will likely survive. If, on the other hand, we’re dedicated to something greater – if our commitment to each other is built on a commitment to God – we might keep that flame burning out of pure love. By sacrificing for one another, putting each other’s needs before our own, and living for the same moral and spiritual purpose, we might fall deeper in love along the way. That’s true love.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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