While contemplating the nature of love, a friend said to me that “In English, a whole range of feeling is stuffed into that stupid word ‘love.’” It made me think of how love is expressed in other languages. In Spanish, for example, there are different words that are used to describe different types of love that—when translated into English—reveals what my friend calls its “semantic inadequacy.” To say, “Te amo” in Spanish is to say “I love you” in a sense of the love one has for a close friend or family member but to say “Te quiero” is to express a much more intense sort of love, as one would have for a spouse. It literally translates into “I want you” but the intended meaning is still one of romantic love. The best we’ve been able to come up with in English, it seems, is to make a distinction between “loving” someone and being “in love” with them. But what’s the difference between those two types of love? Are they two different emotions or just two variations of one emotion?
Christ was once asked, “Which is the great commandment in the law?”
His response: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second [is] like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matthew 22:36-39)
Christ also said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all [men] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34-35)
One might assume that “one another” refers only to love among Christ’s disciples but the Savior also says to, “...Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you... For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?...” (Matthew 5:44,46-47)
So, we’re supposed to love everyone. And from these commandments, we can infer that that love is to be unconditional, no different from the love we have for God and that God has for us, “As I have loved you... love one another.”
But this still begs the questions, what is love? And can it really be given unconditionally?
I posed this question to some friends. One replied, “[Love] should be unconditional, but it isn't. In real life, people always setup conditions to their love, to how they feel, where they go in their relationships, friendships, acquaintances. They are more guarded if they've been hurt. even more so when they are selfish. It's human nature. There is romantic love, crazy love, foolish love, there is doomed love, even faked love... Love has conditions. In the people we hang out with, people we want to date, or marry. In acceptance or rejection. We always have conditions.”
Two statements stand out to me from those remarks: “Love has conditions” and “We always have conditions.” So what is the true source of those conditions? Love itself or us? I think it’s the latter, rooted in our own unwillingness to love unconditionally as we've been commanded.
Another friend wrote, “The only one that will truly have unconditional love for us is our Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ. As a natural man (Mosiah 3:19) or women we will feel it in moments. But to truly have it all the time, it's a life long processes, and something that we probably won't have until the next life?”
The reference to Mosiah, is an interesting one and is worth exploring here.
“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (emphasis added)
This friend seems to be hedging a bit when they say that having unconditional love is “a life long processes” and “we probably won't have [it] until the next life?” But the very scripture they referenced says nothing about achieving a capacity for unconditional love in the next life. The natural man can yield to the Spirit and put off his natural tendencies and become “full of love” in this life.
So, what is love? It’s a difficult question to answer because we’re all trying to define love within two very limiting constraints; that of human language and human experience. I want to understand love not as it’s defined by the OED or humanity in general but how it’s defined by God. Of course, trying to explain how God defines love requires us to filter our understanding through our language, “semantic inadequacies” and all.
The simplest definition of love that I could find in the scriptures reads, “...God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:16)
God dwells in us through the Holy Spirit. If we are striving to feel the Holy Spirit—which is God—and God is also love, then doesn’t it make sense that we should strive to love all the time? To embrace the idea of unconditional love as a means to Spiritual awareness? And yet so many of us are resistant to the idea of unconditional love. We’ve become cynical about love, which means we’ve also become cynical about God. Is it any wonder that we feel so alone? That when presented with the idea of unconditional love, we fall back to a place of defensiveness and suspicion? Especially those of us who have been hurt.
So, we’ve come to believe that there are different kinds of love that are applied in different ways to different situations and relationships. But if God is love then which of all the different kinds of love out there is God? Some might argue that it’s Charity—the pure love of Christ. But charity has such a broad definition that can be applied to so many different situations and relationships, I contend that all those “different kinds” of love aren’t separate things from Charity just different applications of it, thus love is a pure thing, it just gets diluted, applied in different levels or degrees—usually within the context of differing relationships—and even manipulated for our own purposes.
I believe that love is more than just a human emotion. I believe that love is a force in nature. Albeit one that is extremely difficult to measure. So, let’s compare it to something else that we can easily find in nature.
Love is like water.
Like love, water can take many forms. In other words, there are many different kinds of water. It exists in nature as a gas, as a liquid and as a solid. Usually we just think of this solid water as ice but there are 15 known solid phases of water. Water is also a conductor of heat, we use it for cooking, cleaning and sanitizing. Under intense pressure, water can be used to cut hard materials, everything from solid rock to steel. Dam a river and water pressure can power a city. Add salt and water becomes an excellent conductor of electricity. It also becomes unfit for human consumption. We need water to live but it’s possible for water to kill us if we drown in it. Spill boiling water on your skin and you can receive a severe burn but we can use cool water or ice to relieve the pain. Fall into a frozen lake and you can get hypothermia. Water is also a solvent. Many other chemicals, minerals and elements are miscible in water, making it an effective carrier of medicines or poisons.
Despite all of these factors, one thing remains constant: it's still water. Hot or cold, gas, liquid or solid, pure or polluted. Almost anything you add to water just gets dissolved in it, it doesn't actually become bound to the water molecules. Thus saturated and even poisoned water can be purified through various processes.
Like water, love is pure but can exist in many different states. It can be casual, platonic, deep, romantic. What changes it? Just as one applies or subtracts heat to water to change its state or dissolve other chemicals and elements in it for different purposes, one can apply different attitudes, emotions and motives to love to change how it is used and how it affects people. Love can even be poisoned with our fears, our neuroses, our addictions and our agendas. But through it all, love is still the same. Any negative effects we feel are a result of psychological, emotional and even rational—or irrational—impurities that get applied to it. But if we can learn to filter out those negative impurities—like fear, selfishness and base motives—then we can experience and express love in its purest form and if we add anything to it, we add the humor, fellowship and affection that we enjoy in the love we have for family and friends, the romance, bonding and connection we seek in the love we reserve for our eternal companions.
Perhaps love is a kind of energy. We certainly feel it. When people love each other very much, they feel bound to one another; whether it’s family or between individuals. They sense each other’s needs and desires without having to speak them. Love is a means of communication. And just as we use both visible and invisible frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum to communicate, then love is the means by which God communicates to his children and a means by which we can better communicate with one another, if only we are willing to love unconditionally. That’s what God commanded: “As I have loved you... love one another.” (John 13:34) And that love is the same, it’s not a mortal love differentiated from God’s eternal love. It’s just love.