Wednesday, August 15, 2018

To Will the Good of the Other? Rethinking Love

"To love is to will the good of the other."

For years now, I have heard the above formula offered as the correct definition of love. In my experience, it has become more or less the standard definition in the Catholic world––I hear it from the pulpit, in the classroom, and in all kinds of Catholic Media. And this popularity is not without reason––one can find the definition in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas (CCC 1766). When I first encountered this definition of love I was not interested in the Christian faith at all, and in fact quite skeptical about the Church's teachings regarding human love, relationships, and sexuality. Having this mindset, I immediately perceived the glaring contrast between what the Church taught about love and what society embraced and promoted. This contrast struck me in a positive way, for the Catholic understanding of love seemed much richer, more beautiful, and more desirable. Having been left disappointed and empty by the world’s take on love, I was open to the Catholic vision. The curiosity ignited in me at that time has grown steadily ever since. I find it unfortunate and even strange that, despite the fact that love is clearly the most motivating and powerful force in human history, relatively few people today are actually willing to think critically about what love is. Perhaps this lack of critical thinking is itself a sign that we have embraced the idea that love is an emotion or feeling, and therefore something only to be felt or experienced rather than analyzed or philosophized about. As the existence and title of this post indicates, I disagree.

Love as an Emotion

The prevailing understanding of love today is indeed that it is an emotion or feeling. Many people are quick to qualify is as the most noble, powerful, or important of human emotions. And yet, however wonderful and important, love is still regarded as an emotion, that is, something that happens to a person rather than something one chooses. This is reflected in popular expressions such as “falling in love”. The consequences of a society adopting this definition of love-as-emotion are easily observable today:  The promotion of contraception and "casual" sex partners, the epidemic of pornography addiction, the breakdown of the definition and institution of marriage, the decay of family life, and the millennial generation's near total fear of commitment. All of these phenomena can be traced back, more or less directly, to an understanding of love as an emotion. Because, of course, if love is primarily or even exclusively something that one feels, then it only makes sense to seek out whatever relationship or activity best produces the feeling, and to pursue other options if and when the feeling stops. In the same way, when two people stop loving each other, no one can judge it to be either person's "fault" when infidelity occurs, because after all, “people change” and “love runs out”. Many other examples could be offered. The point is, given all this turmoil in the realm of human relationships, it makes complete sense that those seeking to correct the prevailing definition of love-as-emotion would do so by focusing instead on the will. Unlike an emotion, which is mostly beyond one’s conscious control, a willed decision or action is completely conscious. Hence, we have the definition: “To love is to will the good of the other.” However, while this definition is very effective in correcting certain common errors, I believe it is a kind of over-correction that can lead to different errors. Let me explain.

The Theological Problem

I first sensed a problem with this definition in my own spiritual life a few years ago. At the time, I had fully embraced the idea that “To love is to will the good of the other,” because it made sense to me. The problem arose when I tried to apply this definition of love to my love for God. After all, I reasoned, surely a valid definition of love must apply to one's love for God, as this is our most important relationship of all. However, I realized that my love for God couldn't possibly be understood as my willing the good of the other, when the "Other" in this case was God Himself: How can one "will the good" of Goodness Himself? How can one do anything to improve the circumstances of the unchangeable One? It is impossible. The normal response to this difficulty is to say that one wills the good of God by glorifying Him. However, this doesn't actually resolve the problem, but dodges it by using a different term to describe what remains a contradictory concept. This is not to say that we cannot glorify God by our lives. However, if God had a “good” that consisted in the glory He received from human beings, then to increase His glory would still be to increase His good., which is impossible. Therefore, to love God cannot mean "to will His good"––it must consist in something else.

“Willing the Good” in Human Relationships

Along with the theological problem of our love for God, there is also an issue with this definition of love as it applies to human relationships. The issue is that, by making the will the exclusive defining element of love, one fails to account for the reality of love as we experience it in human relationships. For if the measure of one’s love is the engagement of one’s will, then it logically follows that the more difficult it is to love someone––in terms of the will-power required––the greater one’s love is for that person. Of course, we all rightly recognize that authentic love must be capable of enduring intense trials and obstacles, and that these circumstances do in some sense serve as a kind of "litmus test" or evaluation of the quality and strength of one's love. St. Paul speaks beautifully of this in the famous passage from his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:4-13, “Love is patient, love is kind…”). This “enduring” quality of love is also acknowledged in traditional wedding vows, when each person promises to love the other "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part." Without a doubt, we must also admit that times of challenge and suffering, if embraced by both persons in fidelity and hope, serve as a kind of forge that strengthens the love in the relationship. However, while every married person can attest to these truths from experience, we do not therefore want to say that the measure of love consists in the difficulty of loving. If this were the case, then the most tumultuous relationships would be the gold standard for love rather than the happiest and healthiest ones. For example, the love in a marriage that barely survived after affairs and every other kind of transgression and tragedy would by that very fact have to be considered stronger than the love found in a crisis-free marriage. Likewise, we would have to say that couples of incompatible people, who surely have to exert more willpower than their more compatible counterparts, must therefore love each other more.

The “Ease” of Love

While endurance through trials is an essential mark of true love, we surely don't want to say that love has to extremely difficult in order to be authentic or strong. The reality is exactly the opposite. As one loves another person more and more, it becomes easier to love him or her, not harder. Two people who have been close friends for many years do not find it more difficult to love each other (unless some tragedy occurs in their relationship). Love tends to become more "second-nature" or instinctive as it grows, and the more one loves, the less one counts the cost and sacrifice of loving. If to love someone meant simply “to will his or her good,” then to do anything whatsoever for a person whom one despised would be much more praiseworthy and meritorious than a greater act of love made for a friend or loved one (Not that love is quantifiable in a mathematical sense). Put differently, if one “loves to love” someone or finds it relatively easy to make sacrifices for that person, then by that very fact the love would have to be considered lesser. But who actually thinks about love this way in practice? It's absurd! This is the same problem that plagues the ethical theory of Immanuel Kant, which is focused completely on the will. For Kant, one’s moral merit decreases as one becomes more habituated to act morally (i.e. more virtuous). Surely this completely misses the meaning and beauty of morality­­––to become and to act as a moral person–––not simply to exercise one’s willpower properly and to the maximum extent possible.

The Contribution of Dietrich von Hildebrand

Recognizing these problems, the great 20th century Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand developed a more refined understanding of love. He went beyond defining love as “willing the good of the other” and taught that love is “a free response to the value of the other.” For Hildebrand, love is not simply an act of the will, that is, a completely disinterested, rational, and free choice to love someone just because to do so would serve his or her good. Rather, love is the recognition of the objective value of a person, and the free response of the will to act in a way that conforms to this value. When one perceives the intrinsic and unique beauty, preciousness, and lovability of another person, one is moved or motivated to freely respond to this reality in love and reverence. This definition of love conforms more closely to human experience and avoids the problems that arise from defining love as simply “to will the good of the other.” Indeed, the latter definition begs the question: Why? Why should I will the good of the other? Hildebrand's definition of love, by contrast, contains within it the motivation or reason for loving. Love is a value response––this response is desirable and even obligatory because the beloved person is recognized as objectively valuable and therefore objectively worthy of one's love.

Loving God as the Correct Response to Reality

This definition is particularly effective at resolving the theological question concerning love of God. If God is the Highest Good or Value, as well as the source of all other (created) goodness and value, then He is most worthy of our response. His infinite beauty, goodness, truth, justice, etc. deserve a total response of love. It is a fundamental question of justice. There is a kind of cosmic law, an absolute rationale underlying every other explanation or reason for doing anything. This law is to live in conformity to reality, to live in the truth, to respond or act towards things in a way that corresponds to their objective value and importance. If we choose to live in conformity with reality, we will acknowledge God as the source of everything, including ourselves, and therefore as worthy of our absolute response, the dedication of our entire lives. This should be reflected, among other things, in the way we worship Him.

The Motivation for Love

Hildebrand’s definition of love also resolves the question of motivation in love. What motivates someone to love another person? The most popular answer is perhaps that loving others makes one happier, at least in the long run. While this is certainly true, it cannot be the primary motivation for love. If one loves another person in order to obtain happiness for oneself, then that person has become a means to an end. This is use, not love. While it may be a more “noble” form of use, it is use all the same. To love someone necessarily means that one does not see that person as a means but as an end in him or herself. This is why one of my favorite quotes from Hildebrand’s work is: “Happiness is love’s outcome, never its motive.” If you love someone for who he or she is, then yes, you will undoubtedly be happier as a result––it’s a basic fact of human nature. We are built to love, we thrive on loving, and we deeply desire to pour ourselves out in love, despite the fact that, from a purely biological or evolutionary perspective, to do so often makes no sense; it offers no advantage. As soon as I treat another person as a means to my happiness, I immediately cease loving and begin using him or her. The happiness that is the fruit of love can only be achieved when one does not treat love as a means to happiness. In real love we must forget ourselves in self-gift, and this is what makes us happy; it is rather paradoxical. As soon as my own happiness becomes the primary motivation or theme for my love, authentic love becomes impossible and its resulting happiness unattainable. This must have been (at least in part) what Jesus meant when he said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35), and “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). This mystery is what Saint John Paul II referred to as “the law of the gift”. He loved to quote a passage from the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes, which states that “man…cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS 24). A “sincere gift of self” implies that one is not seeking one’s own happiness, even though, because of the way God created us, to sincerely give of oneself will lead inevitably to one’s happiness.

Love and the Desire for Reciprocity

There is one final difficulty that must be resolved. The definition of love as “willing the good of the other” often leads to the erroneous idea that true or pure love excludes the desire that one be loved in return. In other words, the desire for reciprocity in love is a form of selfishness, an imperfection. That this idea is false may seem obvious to some people, since it is so clearly at odds with lived experience. This bizarre ideal of love demands that the person who loves be indifferent to whether or not the beloved person responds in love. The reason for this error is the failure to distinguish between love of neighbor and love of enemies on the one hand, and the love of family, friendship, and romance on the other. Our awareness of the tremendous value of every human being, including the poorest, most destitute, and most difficult to love, as well as our Lord’s command to love his “least brothers” (Mt 25:40,45), does indeed obligate us to love such people regardless of whether or not they love us in return. Further, as our Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount and modeled perfectly in his own death, we are called as his disciples to love even our enemies. This being said, the love that our Lord commands us to extend to the poor and our enemies is categorically different from the love that should exist between family members, friends, and lovers. In these latter forms of love, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that one should simply love without desiring to be loved in return. On the contrary, such a "one-way" love should not be considered purer or stronger, but defective or disordered in some way. Imagine: What would a woman think if her boyfriend of several years, upon asking her to marry him, told her, “I love you so much that I don’t even care if you love me back.” This would indicate not a pure or heroic love, but immaturity at best and a personality disorder at worst! The desire that love be reciprocated does not taint love but rather indicates that the lover longs for intimacy with the beloved, for intimacy can only be reached through mutual love. There is no such thing as one-way or unreciprocated intimacy. This is how failing to distinguish between different types of love can lead one to pursue unhealthy and even inhuman ideals in relationships.


In summary, the definition of love as “to will the good of the other” can effectively correct many misunderstandings about love that prevail in popular culture today, a culture that regards love as an emotion or feeling. However, this definition of love is incomplete because it fails to capture fully the essence of what love is. First and most important, it cannot account for a person’s love of God, because to love God logically cannot consist in willing His good, since He is Goodness itself and the source of all goodness. Second, this definition also does not adequately describe love between human beings, because we know from experience that our love is not simply a willed decision to improve other people’s circumstances, or even an altruistic attempt to make them happier, but rather our free response to their objective value, which we first perceive and then act upon. Third, love defined as “willing the good of the other” fails to account for why human beings are motivated (or should be motivated) to love either God or each other, whereas love defined as “value-response” accounts for both of these relationships very well. Finally, love defined as “willing the good of the other”, especially without the distinction between various forms of love (i.e. love of enemy, neighbor, family, friend, spouse), leads to confused ideals of love, such as indifference towards reciprocity. These problems are more easily avoided when love is understood instead as a value-response. 

Careful reflection on the most important realities, such as love, can greatly enrich our lives here and now, especially our relationships with God and others, and thus help us on our journey towards our ultimate fulfillment and happiness in eternity. To that end, I hope this reflection has been helpful in some way. Thank you for reading!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer

“Happiness is love’s outcome, never its motive. Where someone is loved he is an end in himself and certainly not a means toward something else. It is therefore of love’s essence, wherever it is found, that the loved one seem precious, beautiful, and worthy of love.”

–– Dietrich von Hildebrand, Man, Woman, and the Meaning of Love: God's Plan for Love, Marriage, Intimacy, and the Family

Friday, April 20, 2018

“Depart from me, O Lord!” Confronting Unworthiness in Our Response to Christ

"...they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:6-8).

Confronted by Holiness

A significant obstacle for many of us in our life of faith, in the process of conversion in general and in our response to our vocation in particular, is our awareness that we are not worthy to approach God. This was Peter’s response when he first encountered Jesus and His divine power: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). When we first encounter God in a unmistakable way, for example, on a retreat or in a moment of deep prayer during Eucharistic adoration, our initial response of excitement can be tainted by shame and disbelief. We think to ourselves, “Wow, this love is so intense, pure, and sincere, and here I stand in my brokenness and sinfulness! How can it be that God loves me?” Faced with the holiness of Christ, or even that of other Christian men and women whom we admire on the one hand, and our own sinfulness and shortcomings on the other, thoughts of unworthiness can immediately put up a wall:  “No, not me. He might be able to imitate Christ that way, or she can leave behind worldly concerns to pursue that vocation, but not me. That way of life is only possible for certain, special people. I’m too average, too weak, too damaged, too half-hearted, too doubting, too anxious, too afraid––too whatever.” And so it is that we talk ourselves out of the very experience that is meant to elicit our joyful and generous response to God. As is true of many elements of Christian discipleship, our sense of worthiness before God has a certain paradoxical nature to it, and it is only when we learn to embrace this paradox that we can move beyond fear, doubt, and self-disqualification and begin to make real progress.

I myself have experienced all the above-mentioned emotions and doubts at various times over the last several years of my life. The two most pronounced times that I was held back by feelings of unworthiness were 1) when I first returned to Christ and the Church at around age 22, and 2) when I began discerning my vocation to the priesthood a couple years later. However, thanks to God’s grace and the advice and witness of several loving people in my life, I was able to break out of the cage of unworthiness and respond to Christ’s call. I can clearly remember how I felt when I first thought about the priesthood. I almost laughed at the idea of me being a priest. It seemed too good to be true: “Me? Ha, yeah right! There must be a million guys out there who are much holier and better-qualified. God would never call me to do that!” Even after entering seminary, I was often tempted to compare myself with other seminarians whom I considered much holier and more fit for the vocation than myself, and to think, “Wow, maybe I don’t really belong here.” This was especially the case when seminarians whom I greatly admired decided to leave seminary. I thought, “Wait––if he isn’t called to be a priest, then how can I be?”

Pride in Disguise

As strange as it may seem, such thoughts and feelings of unworthiness are, more often than not, rooted in our own pride. But how can it be that feeling unworthy comes from pride? Is it not rather humility that makes us feel unworthy and unable to draw near to God and follow Jesus? No, not usually, because if we were truly humble then we would allow God to decide whether or not we can approach Him; we would allow Him to judge whether or not we have what it takes to do whatever particular thing is He is asking of us:  overcoming this habitual sin, giving up this destructive influence in our life, ending or starting this relationship, marrying this person, welcoming this child into our lives, applying for or quitting this job, entering this seminary or religious community, etc., etc. True humility demands that we live the reality that God is God, that He is in charge, and that He knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us more than we love ourselves. If we really believe this, then the fact that we are not worthy of anything by our own merits becomes quite irrelevant. In the spiritual classic Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand stressed this aspect of humility. He writes:
…this is precisely the test of true humility, that one no longer presumes to judge whether or not one is too miserable to be included in the call to sanctity but simply answers the merciful love of God by sinking down in adoration. The question of whether I feel worthy to be called is beside the point; that God has called me is the one thing that matters. Having abandoned all pride and all craving for being something of my own resources, I shall not doubt that God, from whom I receive everything, also has the power to lift me up and to transform any darkness into light: “Thou shalt wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow” (p. 168).
God Qualifies the Chosen

It is Christ Himself who makes us worthy to respond to Him––NOT our own efforts or will-power. Recall what He said to His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:16). Christ’s call is not an ordinary command or invitation; it contains within it the power and the grace we need to respond to it. In fact, we explicitly profess our belief in this at every Mass when, just before coming forward to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, we pray:  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Are we worthy to approach God? No, not of our own abilities or merits. Do we have what it takes to accept and follow Christ’s invitation? Again, by our own strength, absolutely not. However, when the King Himself calls us, it is not for us to say, “No, Lord, you must be mistaken––I can’t follow you.” There is a wonderful line often used to reassure men discerning the priesthood that speaks to this: God does not choose the qualified––He qualifies the chosen. In this regard we must imitate Saint Matthew, the tax collector whose response to Christ is not recounted with any words, but simply his actions:  “And he left everything, and rose and followed him” (Lk 5:28).

I think all of us can benefit from reflecting on the ways, big or small, in which we allow feelings of unworthiness to cripple us and hold us back from making a full and free response to Christ. Let us not disqualify ourselves on account of our brokenness, wounds, and sins, but instead exercise true humility and allow Christ’s call be enough for us. In addition to this, we should not wait for some overwhelming and miraculous evidence of this call, but rather be willing to receive this call through others in our lives whom God uses to speak to us, as was the case for the blind man, Bartimaeus:
And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; rise, he is calling you.” And throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus (Mark 10:49-50).

Thanks for reading and God bless you!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer