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.