THE BLOG
08/28/2015 02:08 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2016

Behind the Marriage Controversy, a Massive Confusion About Love

Earlier this summer, one of the Episcopal Church's more conservative bishops wrote a pastoral letter to oppose the Church's approval of measures to support marriage equality. Before explaining his position, he wrote, "I pray that regardless of which side of the issue you find yourself on, you will know that I truly love and respect each of you as brothers and sisters in Christ."

Many Episcopalians who are LGBTQI or A have questioned that assertion. How can you respect someone, they ask, and not embrace who he is? How can you love someone and yet not hear her story without judgment or condemnation? Many conservatives would respond to these questions with some variation of "hate the sin, love the sinner": even God, they would say, loves everyone without necessarily approving of their actions.

We have all heard similar debates, of course. This time round, for whatever reason, it called to my mind a much deeper and more disturbing trend: a massive confusion in U.S. culture over the word love.

The truth is, we toss the word around in many different ways. Most of them are unhelpful. Some are downright destructive.

The prevailing culture is filled with messages about love, and many of them seem to coalesce around one idea: love is ephemeral--something that lives in our emotions. Like other emotions, it depends on neurochemicals, and it tends to wax and wane. So our magazines run articles on how to "keep love alive," or on celebrity couples who have "fallen out of love." We know we are in love when we feel something, when there's "chemistry." Sustaining this kind of love seems well-nigh impossible.

Many people of faith would spurn this idea of love as ephemeral. But prevailing culture shapes us even when we don't realize it. The sheer ubiquity of the word love makes its casual use easy for us, even toward those whom we do love. That kind of casual use robs words of their power. Every now and then, it's good to stop and reflect what the word really means.

So what can we say about this word?

Like God, love is too massive a concept to nail down completely. It looks vastly different in different circumstances. But maybe we can describe it in part.

My part looks like this: Love is not a feeling, or an accidental state to fall in or out of, or even a synonym for affection or camaraderie. Narrowly speaking, love is not even a noun.

Love is something we do.

Do what? We can take our cues from the giants of spirituality. Jesus, according to the Christian scriptures, emptied himself--giving freely of his time, his energy, his wisdom, and ultimately his life--to make human lives better. Bodhisattvas, in Mahayana Buddhist tradition, postpone their own entrance into nirvana to help others achieve enlightenment.

In other words, love sets itself aside, in concrete terms, for the good of the other.

This kind of love goes hand in hand with listening: not listening while checking our phones or formulating our next response, but listening with full attention and an open, curious heart. When we set ourselves aside to listen, we can hear the beloved as she is, not how we might like her to be; we are free to offer whatever will help her become her best and highest self.

Contrary to popular opinion, love may not mean a complete acceptance of all the beloved's thoughts and actions. Here is where "hate the sin, love the sinner" might actually apply. Who wouldn't care deeply for an addicted friend and loathe the heroin that is destroying his life?

The trouble begins when we apply "hate the sin, love the sinner" to more complex situations, such as those touching on our deepest identity. With beloveds who are LGBTQI or A, it does not help to call their core sense of self--which they have spent years, often decades, struggling to embrace--a sin, even if you think it is.

Here "hate the sin, love the sinner" not only oversimplifies, but dismisses the beloved where she is at this moment. It is, in short, not love.

A more contemporary giant of spirituality recently summarized what love is. At the climax of last season's Doctor Who finale, the Twelfth Doctor proclaimed that "love, it's not an emotion. Love is a promise." It is a promise to keep doing love, come what may: to listen, welcome, accept even when it's a challenge, set oneself aside, do whatever is good for the beloved.

If we saw love this way, it would become both more difficult and more liberating. Difficult because a life of self-denial and patient listening and welcoming is hard, demanding work. Liberating because we no longer remain slaves to our own ephemera, obsessing whether we're falling out of love or still in love or what have you.

We just take the other as she is and love. As a verb. One loving act at a time.