A Boy’s Dilemma About Love
In my weaker moments, I sometimes have a thought that goes something like this: “Trying to love my neighbour by being kind and gentle, is good. But am I not sacrificing a lot? Other guys are getting ahead in life through their loud self-assertion, and maybe I am being left behind.”
I won’t be coy about what “getting ahead” and “left behind” often mean here. The internet has a ready supply of youtube videos for boys who are lonely or in love, telling them they must be more self assertive, more strong-willed, more of a man, to be attractive to women.
I do not know if all my readers will see the seriousness of anxiety, but I think that, at some point, many young men think something like this.
As I mentioned, there is a lot of advice about this being offered to these young men. Not enough of it acknowledges that a Christian understanding of love has something to say to them. My task in this post is to try to satisfactorily acknowledge this.
Christian Love Admits of No Compromise
One thing a young man with this anxiety could say to themselves is: “Yes, I admit that self-sacrificial neighbour-love is the best kind of love I can pursue. I will make it my priority. But having fulfilled this duty, it is only reasonable to pursue my wants and needs in another, more effective manner.”
This is entirely reasonable. The only problem, from a Christian perspective, is that the love we seek to embody is not reasonable in this sense.
In the New Testament, the love that is demanded of us admits of no moderation. In every direction, it is always demands the extreme. It’s demands are extreme in height, as we are to love with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to even sacrifice our life for love; they are extreme in width, as we must love everyone, even those we see as losers and outcasts; they are extreme in length, as, even after the world disappears, this love is to remain.
From a worldly perspective, it may appear reasonable to keep some space in our lives removed from this love, so that we can accomplish something for ourselves. But, if Christian love is what the New Testament describes it as, we cannot keep even our romance to ourselves. It would be a strange misunderstanding, as Søren Kierkegaard points out, to think we must embody self-sacrificial neighbour-love for those who are hard to love, but that we may excuse ourselves from any such duty with regard those to who are easy to love, like those we consider potential lovers (117).
The Toughness of Christian Love
Many readers have no doubt been eager to tell me that I’ve been missing something essential. Christian love is not only about being kind and gentle, but also about being confident in our identity in Christ and persevering through trials. There is enough hardiness in Christian love to satisfy the love-struck young man who is worried about success in the dating world.
This is certainly right. But we must articulate the hardiness of Christian love carefully, because it is not the manly self-assertion too often recommended on the internet.
Some of the viler youtube videos that advise young men to be more self-assertive like to disparage less self-assertive men as weak, as “beta males,” and such. But compared to the toughness required to love Christianly, it is the self-assertive men who are weak.
The ability to find a reasonable compromise between our romantic pursuits and Christian love is a kind of strength. It is a kind of strength to be able to put a limit on loving your neighbour. It is all the stronger insofar as a man, in his self-assertion, squeezes neighbour-love out his life altogether. We might say that the strength in such an attitude toward love comes from one’s ability to fulfill one’s own law. You are able to make actual and succeed in what you want to do.
But the strength in Christian love comes from its ability to fulfill God’s law (see Romans 13:10), to make this law actual and perfect, according to Jesus’ example and by the help of the Holy Spirit, in our lives. And it is much harder, much more demanding, much more — if I may say so — manly, to make any headway in fulfilling God’s law.
Not only is God’s law more demanding than any “law” we create for ourselves. Trying to love by following God’s law means loving in a way that will be misunderstood and opposed. For, the world does not understand love in this way.
So, Christian love is tough alright. But its toughness is not self-assertiveness, but the courage to fulfill God’s law in the face of challenges and opposition.
It follows that young men who are lonely and in love cannot, in their love, be totally servile and ingratiating to those they love. For, fulfilling God’s law will very probably demand things of them that those they are pursuing will not appreciate and may even oppose. Kierkegaard describes the totally self-abasing person as one who wishes to exist only in the eyes of the one they love, to have everything demanded of them by this person (128, 29). This weakness is not the self-sacrifice involved in Christian love. If youtube-style manliness is fulfilling one’s own law, then we might call such self-abasement fulfilling the beloved’s law. But we are called to fulfill God’s law.
The Boy’s Dilemma About Love Reconsidered
I, of course, have no idea whether loving in the way I have described Christian love in this post will make a young man popular with the ladies. But one thing I know is that it not weakness.
The manly self-assertion recommended in some youtube videos is like getting into a schoolyard brawl. You test your strength against other self-assertive men, trying to win some recognition in the eyes of your peers and impress your lady friends.
Christian love is like preparation for war. We must assert the love which fulfills God’s law in a world that is in mutiny against God. Our task is too serious for us to care what our peers think. Indeed, our task is so serious that when those we love or want to love are a part of the mutiny against God, even then, we must love in a way that fulfills God’s law.
So the boyish anxiety described above is not addressed by trying to be a “tough” guy in the worldly sense. This is actually to acquiesce to the demands of our anxiety. It is to try to become stronger on the basis of the weakness of needing to be accepted.
The self-abasement in such “toughness” has no place in Christian love. Insofar as we are able to practice this love, which will take much discipline and prayer, we will not acquiesce to our boyish anxiety, but overcome it. In such practice, we learn that true love does not mean fulfilling our own law or even the law of the one we love, but God’s law. And, may I say, such toughness surpasses by far anything you’ll hear recommended by the gurus of manliness on youtube.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. Trans. Howard Hong. 1962. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.