Monday, March 18, 2013

Private Letter: Falling in and out of Love and the Transformative Power of the Holy Spirit

This is a recent email conversation that transpired between me and a young woman I know, who recently ended a long-term relationship. Removing her name, there's no personal information included in it, and my "treatise," if you will, may serve to be of interest to others, both guys and girls, who may have asked, or been toying with, the same question.

I'm not going to italicize this one, however, because that would remove the emphases on some parts, since I'd already italicized and bolded parts of the letter before I sent it.


Hey [Hakam], I thought of a question I wanted to ask you.
Does God change our hearts so that we find certain people amiable, strongly dislike others, and fall in or out of love with someone?

Hi [friend],

There's a lot of different individual questions wrapped up in this big one, so I'll do my best to answer them all.

The Question of whether God changes our hearts.
Certainly (and I’m just taking this step by step, not dumbing it down to insult your intelligence. I just don’t want to miss anything). As believers, God has ‘taken out our heart of stone and replaced it with a heart of flesh,’ and through the ongoing transformative power of the Holy Spirit (sanctification), does indeed change our desires. Specifically, our desires will change to more align with God’s desires—we’ll love the things God loves, and hate the things God hates. As we grow in the Spirit, we’ll find ourselves taking joy in such things as seeing God glorified by another Christian in some other part of the country, and we’ll find ourselves anguished by deception and murder, to the point where we might even feel physically ill contemplating such things as lies told in school, from the pulpit or from the press chamber, and much more besides that I won’t belabor here. Now, none of these are a prooftext, since you can’t fully trust your emotions, but sustained growth and change in one direction over time is a sign that serves to encourage us that we are developing the fruit of the Spirit. While the phrase “the heart is deceitfully wicked, who can know it?” might technically only refer to unregenerate hearts (I haven’t studied this to be sure), I think it means that the heart in its natural state is susceptible to desiring things which are wicked. Left to itself, the heart will desire to sin. Believers can be “filled” with the Holy Spirit, or they can “grieve” the Holy Spirit, by resisting His influence, and I think in this latter case, you are more likely to fall into sin, because as believers we have two natures—that of sin, and that of the Spirit. We don’t actually lose our sin nature until we become glorified upon death/rapture—otherwise, it would be possible for us to be sinlessly perfect, and that’s certainly not true, when you survey the evidence! So to summarize my view on the heart, I think that we have two contrary natures, Spirit and flesh (I looked up the reference and it’s in Galatians 5 that Paul talks about it), which “war against each other,” and the one we give in to the most is the one that has the most influence; the one that controls us and directs our desires and our actions. To briefly recap the concept of being filled with the Spirit, I was given two parables to understand this. See, all believers have the Holy Spirit. He is in us at all times, but we can either be “filled” with Him, or not. And the first analogy is to consider chocolate syrup/powder in a glass of milk or water. When it’s settled in the bottom, it is not effecting the rest of the mixture. To make chocolate milk, you need to stir up the chocolate so it can fill the glass and spread its flavor evenly throughout, ‘taking control’ of the milk, if you will. The second analogy is that of a steady wind blowing on the ocean. If you are on a sailboat but have the sails furled up, you will drift and go nowhere in particular. To be driven by the wind, you need to let down your sails so that the wind can fill them, and allow you to move with purpose. Hopefully these two analogies have been helpful to you, too. In summary, God does change our hearts—at least believers (as far as speaking about guarantees, here), but out of His respect for our personal autonomy, He will rarely override our decision-making process, instead allowing us the freedom to submit to His influence or to suppress it by indulging in our heart’s natural (sinful) desires, so that by willingly allowing Him to rule our hearts, we may experience the difference between trying to do things our way vs His way, and thus He gradually cultivates an attitude in us over time whereby we want to give Him control, and freely submit it with the full knowledge that His way is better than ours.
     TL;DR God changes our hearts, but we have the ability to suppress the effect by indulging in sin. The choice is ours, and the effects will vary.

The Question of whether liking or disliking people is okay.
      I see no inherent reason why having affinity for (liking) someone or aversion to (disliking) someone else would be wrong. Now, following Jesus’ teachings about how it’s the thoughts and intents of our hearts that matter, it ultimately comes down to a question of whether you have the right motivations. Sometimes it’s unclear why you like someone; you just do. But it’s typically easier to determine what your reasons are for disliking someone – we naturally rationalize our behavior so that we can justify that we are in the right and they are in the wrong. Nothing’s wrong with that as long as we’re actually in the right. So the important thing is to carefully analyze your motivations, introspect, and determine whether what you actually feel, and why, is in fact what you’re telling yourself that you feel, and why. As for liking someone, having a “good reason” is less pressing, because there is no restriction on kindness, gentleness, compassion, etc. Only things that can be abused are restricted. Hence the fact that slavery, for example, is restricted heavily in the OT strongly implies that it’s not inherently good. But love is inherently good (most people fail to understand what love is, sadly), and so it is not restricted. We are encouraged – no, commanded – to love everyone, without limit, without regard for who they are or what they’ve done. This is agape love, though, mind you. Not romantic (eros) or sentimental (philias) or familial (storge) love. Greek is a lot more nuanced than English. So the analysis necessary is not so much to question your motivations for liking someone, so much as the importance is to verify that it is in fact a pure desire you have toward them, and not a selfish one, for example. I’m being a bit technical, here. You might say that, well, if you like someone because you think you can get some satisfaction from them but don’t actually regard their person highly, then you like them for the wrong reasons. I’d agree if we’re talking on “normal language”-level English, but on a philosophical level, I’ll rebut that such a desire toward a person is not authentic ‘like.’ And so it wasn’t the motivation that was the problem, it’s that the desire was the wrong desire in the first place. But on a pragmatic level, the effects are essentially the same, so I’m pretty much splitting hairs, here. Just offering something for you to think about. (If I haven’t made it too complicated).

The Question of whether God makes you like or dislike people.
       I suppose He can, if what you’re asking is whether God will perform “divine intervention” and flip a switch that makes you irresistibly drawn toward a person – or irrevocably turned off. To what extent He involves Himself in human affairs in this way is impossible to ascertain, since we’re given no actual examples (that I’m aware of), in the Bible, of God micro-managing the human heart in terms of loving another person. On the other hand, there are numerous insights into occasions where God either hardens an evil man’s heart, or softens the heart of someone so that they may freely accept salvation, unhindered by their natural sinful tendency to rebel and refuse God. There is a case of one of the minor prophets being told to marry a prostitute, that his experience of her waywardness would cause him to emotionally identify with God’s grief over Israel’s repeated dives into idolatry, that this would infuse his ministry with a personal desperation. However, it seems that this was more of a simple divine command, rather than a Greek-mythos-esque scenario where he was made to fall in love by a divine act. From what I can tell, the Bible is silent on whether God ‘destines’ humans for each other by making them desire one another. On some level He must, obviously, since whatever actually happens in reality is what God sovereignly willed to happen, but this is not very informative to us, since His sovereign will incorporates human “free will” (better termed autonomy, or personal responsibility/choice) into its consideration. And on another note, there’s evidence that love is not necessarily something that is expected in marriage to come naturally, or to come before the union. I just checked Ephesians 5 in the interlinear and it is the word “agape” that is used when it says, “husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the Church” ( ), which is fascinating. I had guessed that this was intimate love, but it makes more sense that agape would be commanded, since you can’t force yourself to have romantic love for someone. Agape, on the other hand, transcends feelings and manifests itself as a pure intention of the conscious mind, a continual attitude of the heart toward seeking the best interest and welfare of the object of that love. From my readings on the subject of romantic relationships as hinted at in the Bible, (and see the other email I sent earlier today), it seems that romantic love, far from being a prerequisite for marriage, is instead something that is expected to naturally blossom out of the commitment that the two partners have with/for each other. This is flowing into the next point,

The Question of ‘falling in love.’
       Summarizing what I’ve already said, since I’ve essentially answered this topic already, it seems that love is not merely a feeling, in the Bible. It seems to be a desire, but this also seems to be separate from what we today consider to be emotions. Far from being a fleeting affection, love is a sustained urge that persists even when you strongly dislike the target of your love. Again, this is agape, what one might consider ‘divine love,’ or ‘perfect love,’ or ‘ideal love.’ You can’t manufacture affection, be it romantic, or a sort of friendship (philias), or the sort of love that is fostered between close family relationships, such as parent and child. And it’s not implied that agape can be, or should be attempted to be, manufactured, either. However, you can express agape toward someone without feeling anything particularly positive toward them, in the way of feelings/emotions. That’s why God can command men to love their wives, because this command holds whether the man is feeling extremely ‘in love’ with his wife, or if he is distant, or even if there is strife between them. Love is not optional in marriage. It does not depend on your feelings. Here’s the key: rather than being a creation of your feelings, true love is the foundation for all of those feelings. The attitude of agape and the act of loving the other person comes first, and the ‘feel-good’ affections normally associated with the term “love” in our culture, comes afterwards. Agape cultivates what we normally consider ‘love,’ it is not caused by it, nor dependent on it for its continued existence or expression.

As a final note, don’t feel guilty if you find that you don’t like a particular person who is Christian. This is not necessarily a sin on your part (make sure to self-analyze). After all, even Christians are sinners, in that we have a sin nature, and so we still do things that are, let’s just say ‘not good.’ We are still rotten on the inside, in part. Each of us in different ways. The challenge is to – while not minimizing or enabling sin, if that’s the issue – continue to love our Christian brethren even when they let us down (as they inevitably will, even those we like very much—it’s good to constantly remind oneself of that), and to not let our faith in God be shaken because of the actions of His Children – because we all are hypocrites, who make God look bad. This should come as no surprise, and it should be even more evident to those within the Faith than those without, since we have a window into the lives of other believers (especially if we’ve chosen to confess sins to one another) that lets us see the dark reality. What we must remember is that this is (one of the things that) what makes God so glorious – that He condescends to save wretched little sinners, and use people who are inherently broken inside, to accomplish His goals. When we inevitably fail – when other Christians inevitably hurt us and cause us pain – that’s a reminder of how loving God is, that He would save us anyway. So the fact that we might dislike some Christians is a bittersweet reality – we shouldn’t be surprised by it, and we should be careful that it doesn’t lead us to cause division in the Church if our differences are not theologically significant. Higher than our own personal vindication is the goal of the vindication of the Gospel, and we will be allied with many people who at some point or other have—or will—bring us grief or harm, as we serve a higher purpose than our interpersonal conflicts. It hurts. I can sympathize with this pain, because I’ve been hurt by Christians, too. What the hurt should do for us is to remind us that this world is not perfect, but that perfection is coming. One day we’ll live in a new universe where there is no opportunity for us to be hurt or to hurt other believers. Our strifes will seem as nothing by comparison. So I encourage you to soldier on. Sometimes we take friendly fire. Sometimes we dole it out. But it will all work out in the end. “God works all things (incl. bad things) together for the good of those that love Him.” Far from meaning that everything that happens to us will be good, it means that all the bad things and good things will ultimately result in something much greater than what our limited perspective allows us to see.

Even as I write this, I am a hypocrite. Because days have come, and days will come, when I won’t take my own advice. I’ll disregard something of what I’ve said in the above, and be bitter. The hope I have is that God will not let me continue in my sinful refusal to practically apply what I know to be true, and will lift me out of my depressions quicker each time, and equip me to carry on the cause of Christ. My personal failings do offer me one thing for certain, and that’s the ability to reflect on what I’ve done wrong and gain insight so that I can give advice to other Christians facing the same or similar situations. Sometimes all we need is for someone else to tell us what we should do or how we should think. Why we don’t trust our own advice or knowledge when we feel bad is a mystery to me, but it’s an experience I know well. That’s why I’m not hesitant to give you my advice. It’s not that I know much more than you or that I’m farther along in my Spiritual growth than you; this is not patronization in the least, but a willing attempt to serve by giving you everything I know and hoping that God will use it to bless you. He can accomplish this despite the fact that the message is coming via one who is much less perfect than the message implies. 

~ Rak Chazak

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