How can two people who say they love each other so much that they will promise to forsake all others for their whole lives, come to the place where they get a divorce and don’t want to see or be reminded of one another? The news is replete with stories of couples who turn on each other, often violently. Did their love fade or was it perhaps not love in the first place? Dallas Willard, in his book The Allure of Gentleness, wrote, “We have a terrible time understanding love, because we confuse it with desire. Desire and love are two utterly different kinds of things.”
The portrayal of love as desire has been promoted by the popular culture in music, literature, and movies. For example, the phrase “love is a many splendored thing” comes from a movie that depicted a woman falling in love with a married man who could not obtain a divorce from his wife. A song from the movie became a hit in the 1950s. Did they really fall in love or were they enslaved by desire? Had the married man truly loved, he would not have turned from the wife he had promised himself to. And if the woman really loved the man, she would have encouraged him to be faithful to his wife. Instead, the movie glorified desire above true love.
A couple came into my office asking me to marry them. They were so in love, they pled. But she was still married to another man. Pointing to her significant other, she said, “But I love him now.”
“No,” I said. “I will not perform the ceremony.”
And turning to the man I said, “If you really loved her you would encourage her to get her relationship right with her husband.” They angrily stalked out of my office. If they did get married, the chances of that arrangement lasting were slim, at best.
The Biblical story of Amnon and Tamar shows that the confusion of desire with love is not a new thing. He was so in love with Tamar that he fell sick. But after he forced her, Amnon “hated her exceedingly; so that the hatred wherewith he hated her was greater than the love wherewith he had loved her.” Here was desire disguised as love, but when the desire was satisfied, it turned to loathing. The concept of a love that is patient and kind was completely absent from Amnon’s desire.
Dallas Willard observed that “Not only is desire not love; it is often opposed to love.” The popular saying “love makes the world go ‘round” is followed by another that says “men love women and women love love.” Both reveal something about humans in general; there is a natural attraction between the sexes. That natural desire, or attraction, when properly channeled, leads to marriage.
However, marriage does not negate natural attraction, hence the need for the loving commitments of each for the other and forsaking all others. Desires that arise outside of these commitments are obviously wrong to pursue, and if love is to be kept, then the desires must be resisted. That does not mean that the desires are non-existent. It is a fact that we are tempted because of desires, otherwise there would be no temptation. It is precisely the attributes of love that keep those unlawful desires in check. Love is patient and kind, and does not insist on having its own way. As Willard says, “Right action is the act of love, regardless of the desires of anyone involved.”
Yet desire has become so much the focus of our culture that we have in a large measure lost what love is really all about. The problem is that definitions of words have been changed, where love now means acceptance. Just accept people how they are and don’t make any evaluation of good or bad and you are a loving person, in modern terms. But that is not what love is. To see destructive behavior and fail to give warning is not love; it is negligence. “You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor” (Lev. 19:17 ESV). The loving thing to do when people are involved in behavior that is destructive to themselves or their families is to reason frankly with them.
Reasoning frankly with people does not mean we hate them. On the other hand, reasoning frankly does not allow for a mean or proud spirit. The truth must be spoken in love, and “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” ( 2 Tim. 2:24, 25).
True love is multi-directional, meaning that if one is motivated by love he will not merely love one person. He will be kind and considerate of all people. He would say that his faith “makes me love everybody.” So when desire arises, love will consider everyone involved. That is what kept Joseph from failing even during the great and continuous temptation of Potiphar’s wife. He did not merely consider his own desires. When she finally cornered him, Joseph considered his love to Potiphar as well as God when he said to her, “neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). Keeping from committing adultery also keeps one from violating the commandment to love all involved. Joseph could not love Potiphar and also commit adultery with Potiphar’s wife. That would be wickedness, not love. And he would have violated the seventh commandment, indicating his lack of love for God, for Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Instead, Joseph fled, maintaining the tenet of the old time religion.
Keeping the distinction between desire and love is not always easy and there are those who fall prey to its confusion. Like David. He allowed desire for Bathsheba to quench his love for Uriah her husband and also for God. The results were long lasting. However, there was forgiveness and David sought and found it. As one has said, failure is not final. To the humble, who seek God’s grace, there is great help. David cried out, “Have mercy upon me, O God…blot out my transgressions…wash me and I shall be whiter than snow…create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (see Ps. 51). God’s answer to David came from the prophet Nathan. “God also hath put away thy sin.”
The basis for forgiveness is the cross of Christ. God sent His Son so that whosoever believes will find the forgiveness and cleansing that David so earnestly sought.
The greatest defense against sins of desire is love. Jesus gave us the proper way to rediscover real love: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind…Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”