Love Doesn't Work

I was once asked the question, "how is this 'love your enemies' stuff supposed to actually work?"

It was a welcome question from a friend who happens to be an atheist. He doesn't usually ask such questions, he's usually in debate mode around me, but at a soft moment in our conversation he really wanted to understand how loving your enemies is supposed to work. Since it was posed to me, this question has stuck with me. How, exactly, am I to explain the practicality of something like love, especially love for enemies?

The fact is, love doesn't really work at all. In fact, though I love the phrase "love wins" (coined by Rob Bell), love doesn't really win either. If anything, it loses. But asking how love works or if it wins or loses is misleading, probably the wrong question altogether, in fact. To say that something works is to imply an external function, that it has a purpose outside itself, that it is a means to an end. I think we have subconsciously trained ourselves to see love in this way. We see love as a tool in our belt, an option among a smörgåsbord of postures with which to approach a given situation or circumstance. That's why loving our enemies seems so counterintuitive, it just seems like the wrong way to approach someone who is diametrically opposed to us as long as such options as caution, defensiveness, or confrontation are still on the table. Love seems like an ineffective way to win over an opponent or to "defeat evil."

Love makes sense in this framework if someone deserves it, if they've earned it, or if they are somehow directly connected to you because when love works toward something it becomes a sort of relational compensation, a benefit of social connection. As we have made it, love is about comfort, it's something with which we season our relationships. Loving our enemies, then, is a bit like putting powdered sugar on smoked salmon... it seems like bad seasoning for what's on our plate. The way we think of it, love accomplishes something, creates a flavor, that we just don't want to have among some people.

The truth about love is that it has no external function. It isn't about accomplishing or producing something. We don't love people because they did something, because we want to have a certain standing with them, or because they deserve it. Indeed, love isn't even about reconciliation or peace (though it may result in such). When we love genuinely, we love simply because love demands it. If we ask how it works, we are missing the point. Love doesn't work. Love does not depend on what it can create or what it accomplishes among people, it is not measured by its effectiveness, it does not depend on desirability, indeed it creates desirability. Love is its own goal. Love loves for love's sake.

If love wins, and I'm inclined to believe that it does, it wins by virtue of its refusal to seek victory. If it works, it works by virtue of its refusal to coerce.