Two Loves

My daughter asked me to speak on “Loving God” for her baptism, a topic that sharpened my focus on themes I had been considering for some time. Though I respect the important contribution of a book like CS Lewis’s Four Loves, I have been drawn to the image of two loves rather than the Greek four. In the dichotomization of love into two, though, I want to draw attention to the need to have these loves in constant dialogue. I call these two loves the love we feel and the love we choose.

The love we feel represents the kinds of sentiments and attachments that seem to arise unbidden, naturally. These are the loves that can overwhelm our will and even at times our better sense. This is the love that we make movies and write books about, these are the loves that, in the modern West, drive the initiation of marital or reproductive associations. Sometimes it makes us do glorious things; sometimes it makes us do stupid things. But it always seems to _make_ us. This type of love is not restricted to human relationships. Some of us love places in nature or geopolitical entities or sports teams or particular endeavors in this kind of felt way. It is hard for us to imagine not loving when we have felt this love, at least at the time that it is first felt.

The love we choose generally seems different to us–artificial, an act of will. If we discover that we have been loved purely as an act of choosing, we may feel betrayed or angry or even, strangely, unloved. In the modern West this love–one we associate with arranged marriages and religious or political leaders who claim to love even people they do not know well–is often poorly respected.

But the love we feel will often sputter and fail without the love we choose. I submit that the love we choose is best understood among Latter-day Saints as a synonym for covenant. Through covenants we commit, through the exercise of our will, to love God or to love other specific people. In baptism and the temple liturgy we commit to love God and the Saints unconditionally, to maintain a love of choosing behind a love of feeling that will wax and wane naturally over the course of our lives. This type of love is work, and we sometimes internalize the voices representing the love we feel that tell us that love that requires exercise of will is not love at all. This simply isn’t true.

In marriage, in parenting, in relationships with relatives and close friends or with our religious tradition, there will be times that our love will need to rely heavily on our choice, our covenant, our commitment. Paradoxically the security of that commitment to love by choice can provide the environment required for love that we feel to grow. The two loves are interdependent, necessarily.

As a married man, I remember vividly courting my wise, bright, compassionate, beautiful wife, the visceral intensity of my hopes to be with her during our courtship. I also know that marriage includes differences of opinion, domestic chores, the incessant chorus of cycles of feeding and cleaning and money’s inflows and outflows. Dealing with the constant barrage of effluents that attends early parenthood can make one’s connection with the love we feel seem cloudy at times, as can the sleep deprivation and the sense of exhaustion that attends modern family life. Without the love that we choose these stresses and the ways that personalities evolve over time can severely challenge the memories we retain of the love we feel.

I believe that remembering the love that we choose is also useful as we negotiate the exigencies of church membership. There are times that Mormonism will be as natural to us as breathing, times when we feel secure in the love that we feel for the Church and its members. But there will also be times for many of us when membership feels hard, unnatural, challenging. We may struggle through a campaign against gay marriage or–on the other side of the sociopolitical spectrum–a campaign against anti-immigrant ideology. Those are the times that the love we choose, a conscious, even strenuous commitment, has the chance to carry us through. As we exercise our will in such instances we leave open the possibility that the love we feel can return or grow.

The same can apply in our relationship with God. There will be times, often times when we feel particularly blessed, that our love of God is the love we feel, a love we could not resist even if we wanted to. There are also times, often when we feel abandoned or tested or uncomfortable, when it is the love we choose that binds us to God. Both are important to our faith walk and the flowering of our relationship with our divine parent. If I may without stepping into the scholarly debates about the suffering servant, I would close with the image Handel (as multitudes of Christians before and after) borrowed from Isaiah of the Christ “with no apparent beauty that man should him desire,” a God whom we will at times have to choose to love.

[1] I apologize that this is not better organized–I’m crushed with work right now but wanted to maintain the rhythm of the fast Sunday posts.
[2] I do not intend this post to represent a criticism of any individual’s decisions with regard to marital or church commitment. I have little enough insight about my own life that I would only under duress seek to comment on another person’s life. I am not under such duress.


  1. Er, I just realized that I got the week wrong–blame it on having to work Sunday–so this isn’t a Fast Sunday post. (The positive side is that I can go have lunch though.)

  2. Great post, when I first met my wife, 12 years ago, I told her we didn’t choose who we fell in love with, but we do choose who we stay in love with. Interesting to see your take on that now. Congratulations on your daughters baptism.

  3. Our agency demands that must choose whether or not to love God. The covenants we make protect us from betraying that love by reminding us of that choice. Enjoyed this post, thanks!

  4. Thomas Parkin says:

    Partly disagree, I think.

    What you’re calling the ‘love we choose’ I would simply call duty. I don’t question the importance of it.

    I see the process of becoming holy a process in which these kinds of tensions are increasingly swallowed up into an internally consistent and functional whole. God is a being of body parts and passions. His passions don’t fail. He always feels it. It is always, for him, as if for the first time. He walks in a newness of life. Our feelings sometimes fail because we are fallen creatures. God dwells in everlasting burnings. What we hope: as above, so below – accepting this isn’t always going to be so, naturally. However, a long term failure of feeling I see as a personal failure to live vitally and is probably the result of an unconscious sin – or put better in context, ungodliness. The destructiveness of a failure of feeling knows few bounds.

  5. I like calling them both love. The first is really attraction and the second is charity…both words have changed over time.

    Attraction does wax and wane with time, sickness, business and so many other things..but charity is the lasting force in any relationship. Charity is not a place you fall. The love you choose is so critical in any long term relationship. Attraction doesn’t seem quite a strong enough word for the love you don’t choose and charity doesn’t seem as full as the love you do choose.

    interesting post

  6. Good point Sam

  7. Nathan E. Rasmussen says:

    #4: “long term failure of feeling I see as a personal failure to live vitally and is probably the result of an unconscious sin – or put better in context, ungodliness.”

    I must disagree. Though we and I have got ungodliness enough and to spare, I must reject either that this is “unconscious sin” or that it is the sole cause of long, dark nights of the soul.

    On the first point, certainly we may err unawares. We may cause great harm and suffering and impede our own spiritual growth unawares. We may even, by repetition, numb our consciousness of sin until it does not register. But there is no sin in what we are not and could not be aware of. There is only earthly error for which an Atonement corrects. Sin, the error for which we must repent, the error whose consequences *may* be permanent if we let them, only inheres where there is mental accountability.

    On the second point, depressive illness often blocks the passion for God from human awareness as it blocks other passions. Apart from depressives, many people, though striving all the same for holiness, have encountered a lost and lone period, where God seemed silent. See the early part of DC 121; see 1 Nephi 8:7-8, where Lehi’s dream-self, though he is following an angel or the Spirit, nevertheless travels “many hours in darkness” in a wilderness of woe. See, most of all, the words, “My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?” and remember that He suffered not only for our sins, but for “pains and afflictions […] of every kind […] that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people” (Alma 7:11-12)

    I believe that the Gods do walk, as you eloquently put it, in newness of life — with feelings at once deeper, more vivid, and more constant than ours. But I suspect that the wavering of our feelings is not the result solely of our failings. It is in the nature of the test; it is a quality of this dull and distant world on which we have consented to take flesh, and a weakness given us as a gift that we might be humble (Ether 12:27). We cannot see this weakness fully until we live it; but if we will see it, and acknowledge it, and nonetheless keep the commandment to call upon God, eventually we will know by revelation the things that turn weakness into strength (as exemplified in Ether 3, vv. 2, 4, 12, 13.)

    If you were training an athlete, you would exercise his or her various muscles and capacities in various ways — sometimes jointly, sometimes in isolation; sometimes steadily, sometimes in intense bursts; sometimes gently, and sometimes to exhaustion — all in the name of optimal development and long-term health. I trust that the faculties of our souls are little different: that the love we choose sometimes strains alone, unsupported by the love we feel, not by mistake, but by the design and under the eye of our almighty Trainer.

  8. I’m more with 7 than 4 on this, and I would remind us that it is not our place to judge. Mental illness may leave one incapacitated with regard to the love we choose as most of us experience it, and while I still think the love we choose can be a positive influence, I would be very hesitant about suggesting that someone is “sinful” if they stumble.

  9. Thomas Parkin says:

    “I would be very hesitant about suggesting that someone is “sinful” if they stumble.”

    Except that we all sin and it always plays a role in why we are stumbling – which we always are. There isn’t anything judgmental about saying so. It’s a truism. One of the problems is that we turn the volume up so high on sin. “You can’t say I sinned and this is why x happened to me.” Maybe not, but I can say we are all sinners and that this has a constant effect on everything that happens to us. It’s just an omnipresent fact. I follow King Benjamin when he says ‘how many ways are there to sin?, a whole danged lot. We are doing nit all the time’ Whenever we are not godly, there is an element of sin, since ultimately the law says be like God. And repentance, more than just being eliminating unwanted behavior, is a constant state of course correction to bring ourselves into line with the divine nature. From this perspective, a depressive illness is another part of the fallen state that separates us from a divine nature – and while our current vernacular keeps me from calling it sin, it is indistinguishable from sin in this important way. There is zero guilt involved with this – things don’t generally get fixed right now, but by and by.

    Thanks, Nathan.

  10. Sam, I love the first sentence of this post. What a remarkable daughter. I very deeply appreciate the insights in this post.

  11. TP, the problem is that our interactions occur within a social millieu, and within that milieu general statements about the fact that all are sinful are not likely to be productive even if strictly true. In my experience most people are acutely aware of their personal sinfulness and operate better without being reminded of it. I could be wrong, but this has been my impression.
    Cynthia, thanks. She is indeed remarkable.

  12. Latter-day Guy says:

    The same can apply in our relationship with God.

    The implications of that sentence are enormously important. (And, for some of us, very tough to learn.)

    Oh, and ditto to #10. Congrats.

  13. Thomas Parkin says:

    “TP, the problem is that our interactions occur within a social millieu, and within that milieu general statements about the fact that all are sinful are not likely to be productive even if strictly true.”

    Disagree. Because what I’m trying to do is actually turn _down_ the volume on sin. It isn’t meant to make people feel worse about themselves. If I mean to do anything, it is to untie ego response to the reality of our sin. To create a social mileu where we can be both more open with each other and with ourselves. Where we can say, yeah, my sins are probably the biggest thing keeping me from experiencing a full spiritual life. In fact, they are the definition of me not experiencing a full spiritual life. :)

    Anyway, this is mostly playing with words. I appreciated your post, and, mostly, don’t want to disassociate the definition of love from the various feelings that accompany it.

  14. Thanks for your post, Sam. It reminded me of a book I enjoyed several years ago, written by three therapists, called “Love Is A Choice”.

  15. Nathan E. Rasmussen says:


    (I swear I’m not actually trying to write a book here.)

    Our incredibly frail memory and our inability to really attend to more than one thing at a time are also parts of the fallen state that separate us from a divine nature. So is our present ignorance of how to heal blindness with spittle and clay, to cause grass to grow, or to raise the dead into immortality (ignorance, and, in the latter two cases, lack of authority or keys). So is our susceptibility to physical death. We are deficient of godliness in all of these ways.

    All of these deficiencies will be corrected in due course, in the faithful and diligent soul. I concur tha the process that corrects them is all of a piece with the one that corrects culpable sin; we view it from various aspects and give its parts such labels as ‘repentance’, ‘discipleship’, ‘sanctification’, and ‘the great Plan of Happiness’, but in practice they attach to one another as organically and necessarily as flesh attaches to bone, and the operation of the whole is to invest us with every form of godliness.

    Nevertheless! Some of these deficiencies are partly our responsibility, and some are solely God’s. Mortal life has been arranged to concentrate us on the ones that spring from our own ungodly will — the ones where we choose to violate the eternal laws of happiness, and we experience some of the consequences. We are allowed to draw upon the Atonement to repair the damage and confine the consequences to time, with the aim of educating our will until it aligns with those laws. Thus far I will apply the words ‘sin’ and ‘repentance’. But no further.

    We need not repent of being mortal. We need not repent of having minds equipped with only one attentional focus. We need not repent of the difficulty with which our bodies move through the world and cosmos. We need not repent of fatigue, loneliness, diabetes, grief, stuttering, angst, blisters, or colorblindness. We need not repent of temptation; Christ was tempted, and yet without sin. And to extend the label ‘sin’ to any of these is to muddy the issue.

    We may regret these things, but we need feel no godly sorrow over them. They are trials common to man, made available in order to create the conditions wherein we will sin, and learn, and repent. We need not confess them as errors, only acknowledge them as true facts. We need not make restitution for them; God will free us from what He imposed that binds and blinds us, and will reinvest us with the glories and abilities we laid aside to come here. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive, without further requirement on our part. Deficiencies from godhood though these things are, they contain no inherent moral wrong. Permit me to call them weaknesses.

    (I trust that even temptation is one of these. If temptation arises “through the temporal organization” of the body as Brigham Young said (JD 2:256), and through God’s suffering the Devil to present it to us, then it too is a removable temporal affliction, and not an eternal burden.)

    True it is that both sin and weakness are ever with us in life. True that both make us unlike God. True that both cause us to stumble into both suffering and sin; each can be cause and consequence of itself and the other. Both even make it difficult to learn the very things we are here for, and we may appropriately strive to remedy both for the sake of our better progress. But to ignore the distinction is to be diverted from obedience. We are commanded to repent our way toward emulating the Son, who was free from sin but still subject to weakness. We are not commanded, nor able, to perform the work of the Father in getting us the rest of the way to godhood, and to spend our limited awareness, memory, and imagination trying to do so is to delay and defeat our own work.

    “Whenever we are not godly, there is an element of sin, since ultimately the law says be like God.” This is exactly the way of looking at it that led a friend of mine to the horrible misery of trying to save himself by his own works. Believe it if you will, but I hope you will find my dissenting view of ungodliness and sin worth at least considering.

    Peace go with you, Thomas.

  16. Thomas Parkin says:

    “We need not repent of being mortal.”

    Disagree. This is precisely the thing we need to repent of.
    The rest follows.

    ““Whenever we are not godly, there is an element of sin, since ultimately the law says be like God.” This is exactly the way of looking at it that led a friend of mine to the horrible misery of trying to save himself by his own works”

    Then you haven’t understood me. We can no more save ourselves by our own works than we can repent of being mortal, and yet that is exactly what is required. We are, on our own, powerless in the face of such things. We are to perfect ourselves, which we can never do. In that tension, we discover the process of sanctification, which augments as well as heals us, or we go on being fallen man without end. World without end, indeed.

    Thanks, Nathan, for giving me a good chance to speculate with this. I’m not the the least sure if I’m right about anything. I accept that I’m partly right and partly wrong, like always, and prefer holding myself in the tension between me and the truth than the tension between me and my brother.

    Groovy. *wink* ~

  17. Or in other words, weaknesses ≠ sins, yet if we choose to love God, the atonement can help us with both.

  18. Nathan E. Rasmussen says:

    #13: “mostly playing with words”

    Dang it, should have previewed somehow. I thought something like that might be coming.

    On the one hand, yes, I think we’re all largely in agreement about ungodliness, the correction thereof, and the very vital need (which I’m glad you brought up!) to defuse the ego’s reactions of shame and flight and blame — “Adam, where art thou?” “Oh, just trying to hide from an omniscient being behind some foliage.” “Mm hmm? Whose bright idea was that? … Whatever. Come unto me and I will heal you.” Silly Adam. Silly us.

    On the other hand, a disagreement about words, about signifiers, is one thing, and a disagreement about the things they signify is another. You can solve a math problem just as correctly in an awkward notation as in an elegant one. But the elegant notation makes it easier to see what problem you’re solving and how to tackle it, and the bigger the problem is, the more important a good notation becomes. The question is not, “Can we extend the term ‘sin’ to cover every un-God-like quality?” Yes, we can. The question is, “Are there important differences between un-God-like qualities, that should affect how we approach them?” To which I say yes. The terminology is just the icing on the cake.

  19. Nathan E. Rasmussen says:

    I do not mean “being mortal” metonymically, as a shorthand for “being all the things that we mortals are.” I mean it literally: Being subject to physical death. And if there is one thing that we do *not* need to repent of, one thing that it is sure that God covers for us, that is it.

    That being said, thanks, Thomas, for your clarification about ideals of perfection and tension that leads to sanctification. In that, I believe I do understand you; and it tastes like good doctrine.

    Zefram, thank you for saying in one line what took me scores of them.

  20. Sam,

    When I saw this in the blogroll I thought it would be a post about cheese and ice cream. :)

  21. Those are the third and fourth loves, bbell.

  22. Hooray to this post and the reason(s) for writing it. You nailed it, Sam. Excellent! As one who deals with depression, I feel this fits well within the turmoil of a troubled soul. I like that duty is something separate like a goal, and the two loves are the fuel. Like a hybrid car – the love you feel is the effortless electricity and the love you choose is the gas, in reserves – working together to sail through or sludge through our duty… to God, to spouse, to children, or through a hard day without whacking onesself.

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