C.S. Lewis, in his classic tome The Four Loves, describes the different kinds of love as Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Agape. The first three are based in nature; the fourth, Agape, is God’s love: eternal and underived.

Love that is not self-existent is necessarily fickle, because it is part of nature; that is, the material universe. Natural love can grow cold through time, distance, and betrayal; it depends on an object of love. But God’s love can’t, because it is its own source. Even when betrayed, God’s love, the kind that isn’t the what’s-in-it-for-me variety – continues to love and to give, for that is its essential nature. “God IS love”. We are told that God’s love is demonstrated in that while we were still enemies, still separated from God by our rebellion, that Christ died for us. That’s the kind of love that loves in spite of our rebellion, our betrayal, our decision to not trust. It is indicated in the original Greek as “agape” love. It doesn’t happen because of something else: it’s not loving in return for being loved. It loves even when love isn’t returned. And we are told to have that kind of love when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, the unlovely and unattractive.

How are we to display this kind of love? Especially, how do we do so when we don’t feel like it, which is (at least concerning enemies or the unlovable) most of the time?

First, we need to ask ourselves: is love a feeling – or a choice? If it’s a feeling, then it’s simply a reaction to something else, to someone else’s love or affection. And it’s no big deal; Jesus said that anybody can do that, but that we are called to something more. Matthew 5:43-45 says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”.

What Jesus is pointing out here is that like God, we are spiritual beings and as such live in a moral realm. To choose to love is a moral choice; the Author of morality loves, and as we also live in this spiritual, moral realm, we can choose to love as well, regardless of our natural reactions of hate and revenge. Animals don’t make reasoned moral choices in the same way humans can. They simply react.

So it is a choice, a moral choice. And loving somebody does not mean convincing yourself that they are nicer than they are, or even that they deserve your love. It means action, sometimes in spite of your knowledge or feelings about them. The interesting thing is that when we act loving,  the feelings usually do come; but they are after the fact. We are to love out of obedience to God’s command, and because we are of the same sort as He: spirit beings, His very sons and daughters. He is in effect telling us to act like the redeemed children of God that we are, to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Our love is supposed to be our hallmark, the sign to the world that we belong to Jesus.

I wonder how much more peaceful our churches would be if this was more in evidence; or how much stronger our families and marriages would be if we consistently practiced this kind of love with our spouses and children, being kind and loving even when the other has hurt us.

The exciting thing is that we can.

Getting past the idea that love is a feeling is key. Love is action, and action involves a choice to be proactive instead of being driven by our emotions. When you try to love someone who is unkind or unlovely – not because of anything you might get out of it, but because it’s the right thing to do –  you aren’t being “phony” (certainly the lamest excuse on the planet); you’re being obedient to God’s law of love. We will certainly stumble, especially when we first decide to obey God this way, but I suspect it gets easier with practice, and God will help us if we ask Him (Hebrews 4:16).

Realizing this has tremendous practical implications, and is an important part of gaining a functional life in our relations with others. In his excellent book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey introduces the idea of an “emotional bank account” that we have with each person we know. When we rub with others, when we react with anger, or are the instigators ourselves, we make withdrawals from this emotional bank account. Eventually, we may go bankrupt, and from that point on things we say, even when offered with genuine motives, will be suspect. We won’t be given the benefit of the doubt, and motives may be attributed to our actions that aren’t even there. The person reacts negatively (when we thought we were being so nice), we get hurt, and respond with anger (which merely confirms the other’s suspicions): and a vicious cycle ensues.

If we are, on the other hand, proactive in our decision to love – when even in spite of the other person’s actions or reactions, we continue to make deposits – we’ll be cut some slack when we eventually mess up. The dynamic created is positive, and tends towards healing and reconciliation.

But there is an important caveat: if we want to mend our fences with someone, we must be patient. It may take a while to build trust, and we may have lots of deposits to make. Don’t expect a favourable reaction the first time out: but if you persist, love will truly win the day.

The same principle works in reverse as well. If we treat people with disdain, if we indulge in petty cruelties and snubs, we soon find it easier to hate.

Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing”. Doesn’t it stand to reason that in the light of eternity, “nothing” is what these human loves accomplish when compared to God’s love? Nature, with its cause-and-effect, reactive character, will be remade; only God’s love, self existent and underived, is eternal and unaffected by the reception it gets. He IS Love. When we separate from God, we are cut off from that kind of love. What remains is a pale imitation of it, and always contingent on the environment it finds itself in.  Love means vulnerability, and betrayal can cool one’s love in a heartbeat – unless it’s a disinterested love, a love that expects nothing in return, but loves because that is Its essence: God’s love. We need rather to be conduits for that kind of love, and for that to happen, we need to be reconnected.