What happens when a man and woman promise to love one another until death do them part? Well, that depends on how they define that little word “love.” In both our fields of work, we have to pay close attention to the words people use. This has sparked discussions between us about the language we use in our daily lives and in our marriage. Through these discussions, we found that we could agree on the meaning of love, but that we each faced unique challenges in living it out. Here, we reflect on how we stumble through our attempts to live out our promise to one another.
As a lawyer, I am especially conscious of the choice of words people use and their intended definitions. During the course of interviewing witnesses in depositions, I often have to ask: “What do you mean by that?” or “How would you define that word?” This has caused me to engage in the intellectual exercise of defining words I have used my whole life, but have never really attempted to define.
Around the same time I became a lawyer, I also became a husband. Early in my marriage, I decided I probably should determine my definition of “love.” After all, I just vowed to love my wife, but what does that mean? How do I know if I am actually fulfilling my vows? What does it look like to love my wife? Or to love anybody? We all use the word: “I love pizza.” “I love the 49ers.” “I love you.” But, how many of us have actually stopped to define it?
When I set out to create my definition of “love,” I actually started with the opposite. What is the antonym of love? Perhaps many of us have been told that the opposite of love is hate. You may have even answered a test question to this effect: Transparent is to Opaque as Love is to Hate. But is hate really the opposite of love? According to the Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” I agree with this statement, but think the word “indifference” could be unpacked further. Indifference means: a lack of interest, concern, or sympathy; deeming something unimportant; an unwillingness to care about others. But what drives indifference? I would say selfishness. The decision to not care for others is, by definition, as selfish decision.
Love as Selflessness
Once I was comfortable with the idea that the opposite of love is selfishness, then the direct definition became more obvious: Love is selflessness. Selflessness—having or showing great concern for other people and little or no concern for yourself; giving to others without looking for personal gain. Now this is a definition I can use to determine if I am really loving my wife, or anybody else, for that matter. Am I being selfless or selfish? Am I putting someone else’s interests first or my own? This is actually a relatively easy question to answer. My wife has asked me to take the trash out, or I see that the kitchen is a disaster, or I smell an unpleasant odor coming from my toddler. The selfish response is to ignore my wife’s request, or keep walking past the kitchen, or pretend I cannot smell my child, and keep doing what I want to do.
To be completely honest, this internal conflict is constant. Do I do what I want to do, or put someone else’s interests above mine? This is not an uncommon battle. In fact, not even Christ was immune from this struggle. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with the idea of his impending death, even asking God to take away this burden.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26: 36-39, NIV)
Jesus was tempted to forgo the needs of mankind for his own interest. But Jesus, being the flawless sacrifice that he was, put his own selfish needs aside and sought to fulfill God’s will over his own. Jesus was the perfect example of selflessness, and Paul made it clear that we are to imitate Christ’s selflessness.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:1-4, NIV)
While this understanding does not make it easier for me to ignore my innate selfish desires and put my wife’s interests above mine, it at least makes it possible for me to know whether I am fulfilling my vows or not. So the next time I get a whiff of my child while watching the football game, I will know that fulfilling my commitment of being a loving husband involves getting up off the couch and changing the diaper, and hopefully I will make the right decision.