This is a gentle pushback on a popular slogan.
There is truth in saying, “love is a choice” or “love is a decision.” It is true that if you don’t feel like doing good to your neighbor love will incline you to “choose” to do it anyway. If you feel like getting a divorce, love will incline you to “choose” to stay married and work it out.
If you shrink back from the pain of nails being driven through your hands, love will incline you to say, “Not my will but yours be done.” That’s the truth I hear in the statements: “Love is a choice,” or “Love is a decision.”
But I don’t prefer to use these statements. Too many people hear three tendencies in them that those who use the statements may not intend.
Saying “love is a choice” sounds like the tendency to believe love is in our power to perform, even when we don’t feel like it.
Saying “love is a choice” sounds like the tendency to make the will, with its decisions, the decisive moral agent rather than the heart, with its affections.
Saying “love is a choice” sounds like the tendency to set the bar too low: If you can will to treat someone well, you have done all you should.
I disagree with all three of these tendencies.
In their place I would say:
Both at the level of desiring to do good, and the level of willing the good we don’t desire, we are totally dependent on the decisive grace of God. All that honors Christ — both affections and choices — are gifts to fallen sinners (1 Corinthians 4:7; Galatians 5:22).
Beneath the will, with its decisions, there is the heart, which produces our preferences, and these preferences guide the will. “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
If our love is only a choice, it is not yet what it ought to be.
Here are some of the verses from Scripture that cause me to shrink back from the statement, “Love is a choice,” or “love is a decision.”
God’s love for his people is more than a decision.
“The Lᴏʀᴅ will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
“I [the Lᴏʀᴅ] will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jeremiah 32:41).
“As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5).
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?. . . My compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8).
Our love for God is more than a decision.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
“There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness . . . for all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). (That is we long for Jesus to be here; we desire him.)
Our love for fellow believers is more than a decision.
“Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10).
“Love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22).
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31–32). (These affectional dimensions are what it means to “walk in love” according to Ephesians 5:2.)
“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
“Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant . . . It is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).
Our love for our enemies is more than a decision.
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). (A prayer for our enemy to be blessed without a heartfelt desire that he be blessed is hypocrisy.)
It is important to hear me say, “more than a decision.” I am not denying there are crucial choices and decisions to be made in a life of love. I am not denying that those choices and decisions are part of what love is. So I am not saying the statements “love is a choice” or “love is a decision,” are false.
But I am jealous that the richness and depth (and human impossibility) of what love is in the Bible not be lost. Hence this little pushback.
Recent posts from John Piper: