“All You Need Is Love…da ta da ta da…”
Randall Smith wrote that in our world today we tend to think of love as only an emotion – something into which we “fall”, something that “happens to us.” There is certainly love of this sort: love that we “feel” and sometimes feel very strongly. But it’s important to realize that this is not the only kind of love. Thomas Aquinas said that love is both a passion and a virtue. The word virtue has fallen out of our vocabulary. It means conforming of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles. When love becomes not merely a feeling we have, but a settled disposition to be self-sacrificing, compassionate, and just, a disposition to do good for others, love is a virtue.
There is perhaps no more misused phrase from the writings of Augustine than the saying: “Love and do what you will.” Many people have imagined this means: “Love and do what you want.” Or: “If you do something with love, then whatever it is, it’s okay.” The truth, however, is that the sentence “Love and do what you will” comes from Augustine’s seventh sermon on the First Epistle of John, a study that covers all of 1 John 4 including the verse “We love because God has loved us first.”
According to Augustine, because God is love, when we love truly and selflessly, we love with God’s own love. He gives us what Thomas Aquinas calls “the New Law,” the “law of grace,” by which “charity is spread abroad in our hearts.” (Rom 5:5) With the “New Law” comes the fulfillment of God’s promise in Ezekiel 36:25-27: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”
Love enables us to do God’s will, not merely follow our own passions and addictions. Love as a passion might tempt me to commit adultery. And yet, when love is a virtue – when my love is formed by God’s grace, and not my own willfulness; when I am moved by a love that is selfless as was Christ’s love for us – then I do not mistake my passion to possess another person as justification for doing something I ought not to do.
When love is a virtue, it requires discipline. It requires us to cooperate with God’s grace. And so, shortly after Augustine made that famous comment, “Love and do as you will,” he warned his congregation that they should “not imagine love to be an abject or sluggish thing,” or that it can be preserved by a sort of “tameness and listlessness.”
The dove that descended upon Jesus at his baptism was a sign of love, Augustine says, “because although the dove has no bitterness, yet with beak and wings she fights for her young. Hers is a fierceness without bitterness.” Anyone who has seen a mother protect her child from strangers will understand that phrase. We do not see the “fierceness of love” in today’s understanding of “love and do what you will.” Or more likely “love and go with the flow.” That is love as self-justification for what I want. And that sort of “love” is the result of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” I’m feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, so what I’m doing can’t possibly be wrong. That is a “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right” kind of love.
Passions are good things. But they can also trick us, causing us to mistake what is “satisfying” or “pleasurable” for what is truly good. When your “love” tells you it’s okay to cross moral lines, although you’re undoubtedly having a very powerful feeling, don’t mistake a powerful feeling for God’s will or for what it really means to love others as God has loved us. “All you need is love,” the Beatles informed us, and a quick glance at our culture reveals how much we’ve bought into that. Our songs, advertising, our personal aspirations—all pay homage to love—or at least our silly substitutes for it. We love our wireless plans; we love our Bulldogs or SeaHawks; we love our coffee in the morning.
But if everyone agrees that all we need is love, we’d do well to understand what love is. In our culture – in movies, music and TV shows – to love is to feel strongly. This then shapes our marriages, and even our faith. To love our spouse or “love Jesus” is to have strong feelings for them. But what if the feelings go away? What sustains love then? The love of the Advent candle is not mere feelings. And we know what love is, the Scripture tells us, because God loves us.
God’s people, of course, are not just called to point people to such love, but to share love with them. But how do Christians put Christ’s love into practice in an increasingly hostile culture?
Paul’s love chapter is helpful: “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.” We all know this, of course. The problem is doing it, especially today, when we face the temptation to lash out and demonize those not like us.
So the Beatles weren’t wrong, just incomplete. “Love is all you need”, but it’s a love from its divine source, the love that reflects the goodness of God. That love will cost us, but to reach a world looking for love in all the wrong places, it’s a cost worth paying.