The Difference Between Love & Desire

Love is one of the most important things in life but one that’s difficult to define.  What do we mean when we say, “I love you,” to a family member, best friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife…?  Are we saying, “I want you,” “I have to have you,” “I can’t live without you,” “I need you,” or “You fulfill my dreams”?  While this meaning can feel endearing, it’s not quite the same as meaning, “I care for your good”, “I want what’s best for you (even if that best may not be me)”, “I desire to see you shine,” “I honor you,” or “I would sacrifice my good for your benefit.”  I think it’s easy to confuse mere desire for love.  They can look a lot alike because we can be very emotionally passionate about our desires, which can appear as love.  But there is one key, distinguishing factor for love that separates it from mere desire: it’s the otherness factor.  Genuine love has to be about someone other than you.  Otherness is about the other person; it’s about wanting something good that is not for you but for the other; it’s about getting outside of yourself in order to consider the other; it’s about valuing the other more than yourself.  The famous 1 Corinthians 13 passage in the Bible on the definition of love lists traits that are all about otherness.  Love is patient, love is kind, it is not proud, it is not self-seeking… The powerful impact love has on us is it teaches us the lesson that we are not at the center of the universe.  That’s why love has to involve humility – without humility, otherness cannot emerge.  Self-centeredness is the antagonist to otherness.  Desire is about self, what I want for me, for my gratification and for my good. Human nature is generally and automatically self-centered and not other-centered.  Learning to truly and genuinely love others in varying degrees, including romantic love, is a redeeming aspect of our humanity.  One of the greatest redeeming qualities of our humanity is to learn that there can be a good that is greater than my own which I hold true to.

This is why love can define desire but desire cannot define love.  Since desire by itself is about self, it leaves out otherness.  But desire framed in love that is about otherness redeems that desire so that our desires are not ultimately about pleasing ourselves.  Desire without love will inevitably and unavoidably use people for ones own gain and gratification.  Many who think they love their spouses or boy/girlfriends but merely have a desire unknowingly use the other person.  When someone feels like “a million bucks” as a result of you loving him/her, it is because your otherness-love attributes value to the other person and validates the person’s worth.  Love honors worth; desire takes worth when it uses the other person.  Love gives to the good of the other person; desire gives to the good of self at the expense of the other person.

It can be a scary thing to mistaken desire for love, whether we think we love someone or we think someone loves us.  You might say that under this otherness principle it’s easy for the one who is truly loving to be used by others.  True.  But wisdom in life is not only finding those we would truly love but finding those who would truly love us.  When otherness-love (the 1 Cor. 13-agape kind) is mutually exercised, the two people lift each other up in life in redeeming ways that they could never have done by themselves and in doing so, they beautify one another as human beings of worth.

2 thoughts on “The Difference Between Love & Desire

  1. Great post and a worthwhile delineation between two commonly mistaken emotions. However, one difficulty I am having is imagining an expression of “romantic love” that is not merely desirous and self-serving. How could this aspect be redeemed?

    1. Thanks for your response and question. I echo the difficulty you express about romantic love especially since our cultural media has in many ways portrayed romantic love as being primarily about fulfilling ones desires and dreams, so our own expectations of what romantic love is is socially influenced. First off, I should clarify that romantic love can and should include ones desires – that’s part of the blessings and pleasures of being in a romantic relationship. But romantic desires absent of genuine love is selfish and dangerously abusive. How could romantic love then be redeemed? I think there are three things I could say. One is developing a value for the other person above your own. When you begin to value the other person’s good above yours, your desires begin to reshift from being self-centered to other-centered. One way to look at this is to ask yourself, “What do you hope to get out of this relationship?” Do you ultimately want to see your good and benefits met? Or do you even more so want to see the other person’s good and benefits met? The second I recommend is to take the 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 passage and use that as a developmental checklist for yourself. Genuine, unselfish love will bear certain characteristics that both define and exercise that love. I think this Biblical passage nails it. If you are able to develop these characteristics in the way you love someone, your love for that person becomes increasingly about the other. The third advice I have is that love is foundationally learned not from textbooks or how-to manuals but from being loved. A person who has been loved selflessly knows best how to love others in the same way. This is because love is not just something that’s done but also something that’s given. So a person best gives something that they have already received. This is why ones family relations have a big influence in developing a persons capacity or inhibitions to love well. With that said, I believe the penultimate relationship for people is their relationship with God, their Creator and heavenly Father. Knowing, receiving and experiencing God’s love for you not only teaches you the ultimate meaning of love but also fills you with the capacity to love selflessly. God’s love is the ideal expression of love because he fully expressed that love in the most selfless act of surrendering his Son to die for us when we neither deserved it nor asked for it in order to create a means to form a relationship with us if only we would offer him our trust. This in itself – unwarranted sacrifice and trust as being the only requirement – defines selfless love. The last caveat I’ll include is this. After considering these three suggestions, if thinking about offering someone selfless love in a romantic relationship seems farfetched and may even stir up internal wrestlings within your own spirit, I think it can also be wise to wait. Wait on having the romantic relationship in order to make room for yourself to personally grow. Sometimes our attempt to love selflessly surfaces all sorts of skeletons we didn’t realize were there that hinders us from loving others well. Sometimes we need that space to grow as a person before attempting to bring someone else into our lives along for the journey. A wise mentor once said to me: “Lust can never wait to get, but love can always wait to give.” It never an unwise thing to learn to be a good lover before trying to put yourself into a position that requires you to be one. Hope this helps, my friend.

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