The three faces of love

Perhaps the longest and simplest love letter ever written was composed in 1875 by Marcel de Leclure, a French painter. His work of love contained one phrase: I love you! 1,875,000 times. But this figure represents only a small portion of the actual times I love you! was spoken or written during the production of this unusual letter. Marcel did not actually write this letter himself, but hired a scribe to do it for him. According to scribal tradition, Marcel dictated the letter—word for word. The scribe then repeated each phrase back to him as he wrote it down on paper. The phrase I love you! was actually spoken or written 5,625,000 times during the composition of this lengthy love letter. Marcel was in love and wanted his sweetheart to know it!

All of us want to be loved. Our need for love is so great we are often frustrated and insecure when our love needs are not met. But what is love? I suggest there are at least three faces of love, as it matures in life: the “if” face, the “because” face, the “in spite of” face. These faces show up, depending on our needs, wants, desires, and motivation.

The “if” face

The “if” face is the easiest one to spot. Most of us have seen this face of love many times in our lives. It is a manipulative one at best and a destructive one at worst.

Wendy was 18.* She sat across the table from me with her two-year-old daughter on her lap. She told me her sad story of “if” love. Her boyfriend had manipulated her into having sex. He kept pleading, “If you really love me, it is all right.” She eventually gave in. Wendy became pregnant, and the boy’s parents forced him to marry her. Now he was running around with other women. She had become nothing more than his housekeeper and babysitter. “I’ve missed out on all my teen years!” she sobbed, burying her face in her hands.

Wendy deeply resents her husband for what he had done to her. She feels cheated and cheap. She feels she was forced into becoming a parent. Her self-esteem is low; her life is miserable. She recognized too late the deceptive “if” face of love.

Many marriages are founded on this kind of love. The “if” love can exert such an overwhelming power and urge that some fail to recognize its deception. The primary target of this love is not the other person, but self. “If” love is interested only in satisfying one’s own needs and desires. Many young people get caught up in this selfish drive toward fulfillment and realize too late that they have been deceived.

Tragically, far too many parents offer only the “if” face of love to their children. Harry committed suicide because he failed his medical entrance exam. His father’s “if” love fuelled his depression. Harry knew how much his father wanted him to be a doctor. He was convinced that if he did not succeed in doing so, his father would reject him. Rather than witness the withdrawal of his father’s love, the young man took his own life.

The “because” face

The “because” face of love operates on a more pleasant level than “if” love. This face places value on and is considerate of the other person. It says, “I love you because you are sexy; because you are a ‘hunk’; because you write romantic poetry; because you bring strength and security into my life; because you are a great conversationalist; because you drive a classy automobile; and so on.” Whatever reason “because” love chooses to take a second look, it places value on the recipient of its glances. It offers positive strokes to the one being loved.

However, the “because” face tends to foster competition and insecurity. Those who receive “because” love feel they must continually prove that they are lovable. They are afraid of losing the quality that makes them loved. A young woman is loved because she is beautiful. A young man is loved because he is athletic and good looking. In some cases, the fear of future rejection can even prevent them from enjoying the “because” face of love in the present. Scripture reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).** Fear and love cannot exist in the same relationship. A love that creates fear of failure is not true love.

Judy was young and beautiful. She had won many beauty contests in high school and was one of the most popular girls on the college campus. She was engaged to a handsome young man. But one day tragedy struck. As she was working in her father’s dry-cleaning facility, the flammable dry-cleaning fluid exploded and burned her face, chest, and arms. She was so disfigured that she would not allow the bandages to be removed except in the presence of her doctor. She was horribly disfigured.

Soon after the accident, her fiance broke off the engagement. Her parents could not face their disfigured “beauty queen” and rarely visited her in the hospital. Even though they spoke to her over the telephone, it was not the same. In a few months Judy died, never having left her hospital room. Not from complications. She simply gave up her will to live, because the reason she was loved had been taken away from her. Her beauty was gone.

The “in spite of” face

This kind of love simply loves. Unlike the “if” face, it is not based upon selfish motivation. It expects nothing in return. Unlike the “because” face, it does not depend upon the attractiveness of the other person. It looks past both the good and bad qualities and gazes into the soul. It is able to love even when rejected. It finds beauty in the ugly. It finds infinite value in a finite being. It looks lovingly on all who fall within its gaze.

Where do we find such a lovely face? The ultimate expression of that love is Jesus. He came to love humanity “in spite of” them. He came to introduce a face of love that had been missing since the Garden of Eden. He brought to this earth a love without conditions, fears, or selfish motivation.

Jesus did not bring a face of love that demands, “I will love you if you are a good moral person. I will love you if you worship me. I will love you if you pay a faithful tithe.” Nor did He bring a face of love that reasons, “I love you because you pray each day. I love you because you attend church each week.” These are all measures of our love for God, but they do not measure God’s love for us.

God did not place conditions upon His love. In fact, “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God doesn’t wait until we deserve to be loved. There are no “ifs” or “becauses” in God’s love. He simply loves! He is love! And that love continues in spite of whether or not we deserve it.

Jesus demonstrated the power of “in spite of” love when He wept over the death of Lazarus. Those who saw Him weeping said, “‘See how he loved him!’” (John 11:36). That was love in spite of who Lazarus was. Lazarus did not merit the resurrection, but Jesus loved him enough to call him from the grave.

Which face is your face?

Which face of love do you prefer? The “if” face with its manipulative nature? The “because” face that must be earned anew every day? Or the “in spite of” face that continues to love you even when you appear unlovable?

It would be hard to imagine a young man proposing to his girlfriend in this manner, “Honey, I want you to know that I love you in spite of your many faults. I love you in spite of your crooked teeth. I love you in spite of your angry disposition. I love you in spite of.…” It wouldn’t take very many “in spite of” statements before that relationship would reach a traumatic ending. Few indeed really want to be loved “in spite of.” We would much rather be loved “because of.”

However, hidden behind the face of “because” love is the root of all religious legalism. Many want God to love them “because” rather than “in spite of.” Surely our good works must count for something! Surely these works will at least get us an apartment with a view on the main thoroughfare in heaven. It is difficult for us to admit that we bring nothing to the relationship except our need. It is difficult for us to understand that God has no reason to love us, but He does! It is difficult for us to comprehend that any changes this new relationship brings into our lives is a direct result of His “in spite of” love and not the cause of His love. It means recognizing that nothing we can do will make God love us any more than He already does. God is love!

Jesus pleads with us, “Love one another; even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). This is actually a command empowered by “in spite of” love. Only that enabling could make such a bold request and expect obedience. Learning to relax in God’s love does not mean to be lax in upholding His standards. Rather, it means having confidence that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39).

The meaning of love

What does having and giving “in spite of” love mean? It means you can let Christ remodel your life without the worry and insecurity that someday Christ will abandon His remodeling project! It removes insecurity and fear of failure. It takes away the anxiety of rejection. It means we no longer have to compete fiercely in order to feel loved. It does not discredit another in order to add credibility to one’s own account. It does not play games with God in an attempt to gain His love. It recognizes that God has already seen us at our worst—and still loves us. It means not being under constant tension or demanding our rights from others because of our insecurity. It means we can begin to share “in spite of” love with our family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow church members—and even with that special someone in our lives.

Tammy was a beautiful young wife. She always had a cheerful smile. Now, she lay on her hospital bed, after a surgery for a cancerous tumor on her cheek. The surgery had turned her face into a grotesque form, with her cheerful smile forever gone. The surgeon had done his best, carefully following the curve of her jawbone to hide the scar, but the tumor had been too large and the incision too deep. His scalpel had severed the nerves on the right side of her face. The operation had left the right side of her mouth pulled up into a half-open smile that never moved.

The young woman and her husband looked deep into each other’s eyes as they discussed the future. When the surgeon came in, Tammy asked, “Will my mouth be always like this?”

“Yes,” replied the doctor, “I am afraid it will. In order to remove the tumor I had to cut the nerves. They may never grow back. I’m sorry.”

Nodding, Tammy looked toward the ceiling. A tear welled up in her eye and dropped silently on her pillow. Her husband reached out and grasped her hand in his. Their eyes met, searching and questioning. Smiling broadly, he lovingly assured her, “Honey, I actually like your new smile. It’s kind of cute.”

Isn’t it great to know God still loves us in spite of our crooked smile?

Len McMillan (Ph. D., Ephraim Moore University) is family life director at the Pacific Health Education Center; 5300 California Avenue, Suite 200; Bakersfield, California 93309; U.S.A.

*Names in this article are fictitious to protect the privacy of the persons concerned.

**All Scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.