I remember a few years ago there was this discussion in Christian circles about exactly what the opposite of love could be, because there needs to be an explanation for all the terrible things people do to each other. If they’re not loving, what are they doing instead? What do they need to stop doing so they can be loving, as God is loving? What are the things that stop Christians, and those who are not Christians, from loving their neighbours, and anyone else in their world, for that matter? What is this key that could help Christians carry out 1 John 4:7 (Let us love one another) potentially stop wars, cure poverty and just generally make people get along with each other?
We’d all been assuming for ages that the opposite of love was hate. But then someone pointed out that you can hate someone and love someone at the same time, and that you can demonstrate hating behaviours directly towards someone you profess love for and vice versa. And we knew it was in fact possible to hold onto ones hate for someone or something and give all the outward appearances of love, or even to love just one sort of person and hate another sort for quite arbitrary reasons, if there were sufficient incentive to do so. So we stopped saying love and hate were opposites anymore, and resolved to just accept that in certain circumstances sometimes hating was unavoidable, and love impossible.
So after that, they said the opposite of love must be fear, because we only hate what we are afraid of, and once we know all about something and don’t fear it any more we are able to love it. For example, Christians were encouraged to learn about and understand varying religious practices and sexual expressions in the hope that this would lead to greater capacity to love the people engaged in them. But unfortunately, ‘others’ remained ‘others’ despite everything we knew about them, the only difference being that Christians now knew more about the people they hated and could object to them in more personal and informed ways than ever was previously possible. Fear, it seemed, could not be eradicated by love, but fear could be useful in helping us work out who God’s enemies were.
But then someone else said, no, it’s not fear that’s the opposite of love, it’s is actually indifference. And we all went “yeah…”, because we could all relate to being on the receiving end of someone else’s total lack of positive regard, or any regard whatsoever, be it positive or negative. We appreciated that what people aren’t aware of, they can’t have any feelings toward – they can’t love what they don’t acknowledge. Christians understood indifference – we experienced it when we tried to tell the world they were all dying in their sin and going to hell, and then refused to come to church or know and appreciate our Lord and Saviour. We were also well versed ourselves in demonstrating indifference toward people or issues we had no vested interest in changing or improving, or where we could effect no change favourable to our cause. We all agreed indifference had to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from love. The absence of any feeling or sentiment, empathy or interest in the other, whether feigned or inadvertent, surely had to be the opposite of what Jesus had in mind, except in the cases where one deliberately maintained one’s innocence, ignorance or naivety for reasons of maintaining good mental health or physical safety. We couldn’t be held responsible for loving those we went out of our way to avoid ever coming across in the first place.
Time has passed. The world is changing. Love in all it’s forms is needed now more than ever before. The older I get, the more I understand that the world, and by the world I mean the earth and all the people on it, has some fairly significant problems, and that I am one of them. I can tell you what I hate and what I’m afraid of, even though I know Christ teaches me to love, and tells me that love comes from God. I think about the pressing social issues in my part of the world and wonder at my own capacity for indifference when it comes to solving these issues, or even being part of the solution. I search for smiles. I stare into the blank expressions of the people around me in the street, and I think, surely, we are all as capable of love, even small expressions of it, small acts of kindness, as we are of indifference, of fear, of hate?
We are. But we don’t.
There is no opposite of love. There is love, and you do, or you do not. It’s within us to do it, all the time, to everyone. It’s how we were made. When it comes to how we were made to love, the gears work only in one direction, but at various speeds, including not at all if we so choose. They don’t go backwards. There’s no opposite to love. Hate, fear and indifference are different sets of gears, and let’s face it, running all your gears at once is exhausting; no wonder we pick only the ones that require least resistance. Hate and fear pull from their own momentum but move quickly once they get going, they feed off each other. Indifference gets busy and greases those gears. But love needs someone out front to throw the propellor before it can even get off the ground. With love, you’re the mechanic, the pilot the navigator and the passenger. Love is harder work, but takes you much further, and the view is better.
Why do we overcomplicate things? Does it help us in actually practicing love to think love has opposites? Or does it merely justify our own reasons for not doing it, or provide the ammunition to aim at someone else we think should be? I have been the recipient of an act of love perpetrated by someone who lacks the capacity to tie their own shoes, directed at me for no other reason than I was present in the room. Love is not quantum physics.
If fear, hate and indifference are anywhere in the equation, its perhaps only to demonstrate what poor excuses they make. The propensity for fear might not indicate a lack of love on our own part, but perhaps where there is a lack of being loved on someone else’s. If the fearful person were properly loved, would they be so afraid? Our tendency to hate stems less from our incapacity to extend regard than it does from our wish to keep the unknown far away from us. If a hateful person were properly loved, might they be less threatened by the society of others? Indifference comes not from inadvertent ignorance, but from deliberate self-centredness. If an indifferent person were properly loved, might they be more willing to see the world through others eyes, on purpose?
Love, therefore, is not so much the opposite of fear, hate and indifference as it is the cure for it. People who are properly loved will not be afraid, hateful or naive, and it’s our mission as Christians to love one another, because love comes from God. When we have learned how to be loved properly by God ourselves, through Christ, we will release love’s alternatives, and seek to practice it at every opportunity. Our mission surely then as professors and disciples of Christ is to do what He did. Love people. And do it properly.