Love Is Not Feelings

Last week, we talked a bit about the meaning of concupiscence in the Church’s moral tradition. The good news about concupiscence is that it is not sin but merely the “tinder for sin,” and therefore temptation is not a revelation of what a disgusting disappointment we are to God, but is in fact the field of battle upon which we, with the help of God’s grace, grow in virtue and become saints (CCC 1264).

Because of this, those of us who suffer from disordered appetites, a weakened will, and a darkened intellect (meaning 100 percent of all human beings, with the exception of Jesus and Mary) have hope, because God is not an impatient critic, fuming at our weakness and carping at us about what failures we are. He is “God with us,” dying for our sins and rising for our justification, pulling for us by the power of His Holy Spirit within us, helping and strengthening us with grace, surrounding us with guardian angels, and furnishing us with the cheering throng of family in the heavenly bleachers (as well as the help of the Church on earth) to assist us on the road to sanctity and happiness (which are really the same thing). Our feelings of temptation are not evidence of our hopeless inadequacy but merely of our humanity. If our Lord Jesus was tempted, then there is hope for you.

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Having said that, there is another side to our lives as disciples of Jesus that pertains to feelings as well. It is the reality that, just as feelings of temptation are no firm proof of sin, so feelings of love are no firm proof of our love of God or neighbor. Since, as John points out, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (Jn 4:20), let’s start with the love of neighbor.

We can have intense feelings of warmth, friendship, affection, or passionate erotic attraction to somebody, but if we do not act with the intention of seeking their good, then however we feel, we do not love them. The world is full of adulterers, for instance, who feel intense feelings of love for their paramours. Nonetheless, the fact is that they are acting selfishly and betraying not only their own family but their partner whom they “love” in adultery. How? By making their paramour complicit in an act of absolute betrayal and guilty of a sin worthy of the fires of hell. Whatever his feelings, by his actions an adulterer may as well be looping a second noose tied to a millstone around the neck of his “beloved” and plunging the both of them into the sea.

Conversely, we can also run into the phenomenon of what I call “eupocrisy“: that is, of people who are better than their worst words, thoughts — or feelings. For example, there may be people we intensely dislike, yet if we act toward them charitably, with the intention to do them good and not to suck up to them, deceive them, or use them, then we are, in fact, loving them, whatever our feelings may be. Uncle Screwtape gives us an example of eupocrisy he found particularly annoying during the Second World War, as he analyzes the English human patient’s bombast of “hate” toward the Germans:

As regards his more general attitude to the war, you must not rely too much on those feelings of hatred which the humans are so fond of discussing in Christian, or anti-Christian, periodicals. In his anguish, the patient can, of course, be encouraged to revenge himself by some vindictive feelings directed towards the German leaders, and that is good so far as it goes. But it is usually a sort of melodramatic or mythical hatred directed against imaginary scapegoats. He has never met these people in real life — they are lay figures modeled on what he gets from newspapers. The results of such fanciful hatred are often most disappointing, and of all humans the English are in this respect the most deplorable milksops. They are creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door.

This primacy of action over feeling is one of the points of Jesus’ Parable of the Two Sons. Their father came and said “go and work in the vineyard,” and the first son said “I will go” but then sat down and surfed the Web instead. The second son said “No way!” but then thought better of it and went. “Which son,” asks our Lord, “did his Father’s will?” Answer: the second one (Mt 21:29-31).

The first son may have had all sorts of warm feelings about his Father. He may have spent his time surfing the Web looking for a Father’s Day present. He might have spent a lovely afternoon checking over the Flickr photos of their recent family vacation together and saying Dad is a great guy. He might even have spent a couple of hours thinking, “I really feel like going out and working in the Vineyard is good — and as soon as I’m done taking my nap, I’m going to really try to examine my conscience and to understand why I just don’t feel like doing what I promised.” But at the end of the day, after all the warm feelings, navel-gazing, more feeling of feelings, and final concluding feelings, the only thing that will have mattered is that he did not do what his Father asked, while the brother who said “no” (and maybe is ticked at the Old Man) did what his Father asked.


And as far as Jesus is concerned, that’s the difference between loving and not loving His Father: what you did and didn’t do.

Biblical passages illustrating this abound:

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.” (Mt 7:19-27)

Likewise, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats concludes with the sheep being commended for what they did — and the goats being condemned for what they did not do.

In short, “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” says Jesus (Jn 14:21). Just as sin is not centered in the feelings, neither is love. Feelings are like the weather of our inner world. They come and go; do this and that; change in various ways due to circumstance, or blood sugar, or trouble at work, or pleasure at home, or brain chemistry, or any number of random factors at play in the crap shoot of life. They are no more proof that you love God than temptation is proof that you hate Him.


So then how do you love God and neighbor? By obeying His commandments. It really is that simple. Do as God commands, and you will be loving Him. What does God command? Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

We know those two commandments. They aren’t new. And yet Scripture says they are new:

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 Jn 2:7-8)

The reason the commandment to love is old yet new is because God, who is older than all of creation, is as new as the baby at Bethlehem. Love doesn’t get old, but feelings expire swifter than mayflies. Therefore, we must not imagine our love for God is a product of feelings (though lovely feelings may, now and then, be a fruit of the love of God at work in us). Rather, love is the working of grace in our soul, coupled with our cooperation with that grace by a freely willed choice.

That choice to love may be easy sometimes. “Falling in love” (that divine madness) is, like all our loves, a little image of the Great Love who is God. But no earthly relationship between lovers has ever consisted simply and solely of the spark called “falling in love” lasting forever, any more than a fire in a fireplace consists simply and solely of an endless repetition of the spark that starts it. Fire requires more than sparks: It requires fuel and the work of feeding the fire, giving it oxygen, and tending it, lest it burn out or smother. The wood of every earthly love, friendship, or family relationship is the patient gift of ourselves in small ways every day. The oxygen is the unconditional agape love of God, the breath of the Holy Spirit, who we ask to breathe on our attempts at love and charity and who graciously does so.

Thousands of little gifts of self — little prayers of forgiveness, little acts of thanksgiving, little acts of service, small compliments, daily verbal reminders of “I love you,”  minor gifts and kindnesses, taking out the garbage, making dinner, putting down the seat on the toilet, noticing the gas tank is getting low and refilling it, brief caresses, listening even when you were in the middle of a good book or TV show: All these add up like tiny grains of sand over time and form one of the most powerful things in all of human history: habits. And habits of charity, over time, can affect not just your life but those of people around you as they “catch” your habits, the way we catch each other’s colds. In short, when we act out our love in obedience to the command to love, we find that our feelings follow more and more. More than that, we find that whatever our feelings do, we are not controlled by them anymore, because we find that we are freed by the Spirit to act in love whatever our feelings may be.

This is, by the way, one of the reasons our worship is liturgical and not based on feelings. We “go through the motions” as Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Eucharist — not because the Mass is “empty ritual,” but because it is full and we are empty. We join in with Jesus’ self-offering and are not told to “take, feel” but “take, eat.” We may or may not feel something, but as long as we obey the command to eat, we are pleasing to God — because we obey Him.

Of course, that’s not the only obedience He requires, but it is the model of our lives as disciples. If we love Him, we obey Him as He obeys the Father in offering Himself and receiving His life back from the Father. If we don’t feel good while obeying Him, that doesn’t mean we are acting wrongly. Indeed, as Christ Crucified made clear, sometimes obedience to and love of God does not feel good at all. But it remains the Way.


The same is true for love in all its other forms — from affection, to friendship, to the love of children, or animals, or places, or hobbies, or whatever and however we love. Our call is to love in a rightly ordered way — God first, creatures second, in their proper order. Failure to love in a rightly ordered way is the essence of sin. It is the attempt to order something that should be second (or third, fourth, or fifth) in first place. It is often the attempt to put things before people and God (money, sex, and power are popular perennials) or to put something else first (it matters not what, since God is always supposed to be first).

What Scripture calls us to is not an emotionally based worship (though, as human beings, emotions are going to be part of what we offer to God both in good times and bad), but rather we are commanded to

present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:1-2).

It is the renewal of the mind, not the feelings, that Paul associates with “spiritual worship.” This is directly the opposite of the sort of Star Wars mush that many people today think of as “spirituality.” “Remember, concentrate on the moment. Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts,” says Qui-Gon Jinn. And lots of people take this as wisdom, judging from the proliferation of New Age sects and various emotion-based approaches to the spiritual life one finds out there. Nobody would risk ten cents on, say, a cab driver who navigated New York traffic according to this instruction. No one involved in the production of Star Wars would have been especially eager to board a plane piloted by a crew that flew by such a philosophy.

But people enter into relationship with both God and man on this basis every day, consulting only their gut and never the virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity. It is through these that we will offer the worship of rational beings — and come to share in the rightly ordered worship of God and love of neighbor.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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