A Christian Hedonist Looks at “Love Within Limits”

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

This article first appeared in The Reformed Journal 29, (August, 1979), pp. 9-13. It is reprinted here by permission of Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

I gave Lewis Smedes' Love Within Limits (Eerdmans, 1978) to my father on his birthday, because I think its 135 pages are packed with profound and practical insight into 1 Corinthians 13.

The virtues of Smedes' book are easy to celebrate. First of all, it gets an A+ for style. The sentences are lean and lucid. The fog of ambiguity has no time to gather before it is blown away by a clear definition, but these definitions are never pedantic. Like the whole book, they are shot through with metaphor ("irritability is the emotional launching pad for anger"). Yet the language is through-and-through down to earth: "suffering is having to endure what we want very much not to endure." Nothing fancy about that, nevertheless, bull's-eye! There must be a hundred choice turns-of-phrase that make the mind wake up to reality.

As for content, Love Within Limits gives more insight into the reality talked about in 1 Corinthians 13 than ten technical commentaries combined. With all its happy simplicity of style it is powerful and profound because it penetrates to the heart of the complexities of real life. It is practical because the reality the reader sees is his own life. The illustrations do not come from books. They happened yesterday and next door. There is no fluff, no superficiality. If there were, I would not be writing this critical essay.

My main purpose here is to take issue with one of the dominant features of love as developed in this book. Let me first state briefly the other three "fundamental features of divine love" which emerge from Smedes' treatment of 1 Corinthians 13. First, and most important to grasp, is the truth that "love is effective as a law only when it first works as a power." To be sure, love is a "Christian obligation," but "the good news is that love is a power. Love enables us to do what love obligates us to do" (p. 130). Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13 must be read as a promise of divine power before it is read as a command.

Second, "the promise of love's power is received only in an astounding act of faith." And "faith in love comes only after a soul's journey to Christ's cross, where God's love breaks through for what it is" (p. 131). The only way to keep love alive "is to come back to the cross of Christ, where divine power healed the world by becoming weak within the world" (p. 16). "This power is the love of God for us in the form of crucified love, the love we discover when we see Christ's cross as God's entrance into our lives with a love that forgives all" (p. 135).

Third, the agapic love Paul speaks of "works within the limits [hence the book's title] of human life" (p. 132). There are two reasons for this. One is "our human weakness, which is a combination of our finitude and our sinfulness" (p. 132). The other is that "we must live by powers and demands alongside of and different from agape. Two of these [are] … erotic love and justice" (p. 133). Precisely on this point—where agape is related to the other demands and longings of life—Smedes turns up some of his most practical insights. But also at this point—in relation of agape and eros—he becomes vulnerable.

There is a link between the third and fourth features of agapic love. The third feature says: "Agapic love must do its work within the limits created by eros" (p. 133). The fourth defines agapic love precisely so as to distinguish it from eros. Agapic love is "the power that moves us to respond to a neighbor's need with no expectation of reward. … It is not interested in the odds of getting some self-satisfaction in return for its efforts" (p. 126). Its unique character is giving "without demand of any return" (p. 128). "All other loves are different from agape in one crucial way: They all arise from a need and a desire for love's reward. This single ingredient unites all human loves as variations of the one natural love we have been calling eros."

"Erotic love is born of need" (p. 20). "It is personal power generated by personal need" (p. 57), and thus "drives us towards satisfaction" (p. 3). "But eros dies precisely because it is a power born of need. When need is satisfied, eros dies" (p. 121). Agapic love, on the other hand, "is not a seeking, grasping, holding love, but a giving love, a love that lets go. It is not the love of need but the love of power. It is the power to move us toward another person with no expectation of reward" (p. 21). "Love gives, knowing that it will never come to a time when it can finally ask something for itself" (p. 128).

Nevertheless Smedes rejects "the extreme Protestantism that praises agape in order to make eros look ungodly" (p. 129). "Eros is a good love, not an evil one. It is a gift of God built into our creaturely incompleteness, driving us to seek what is good and true and beautiful, and to create communion with others." Romance, friendship, family love, and love for God are all eros. Even "God loves erotically in the finest sense of that word. He loved his only Son with a love that brought him great pleasure" (p. 131). Also his creation: "Moved by love's need he created that which he could love with pleasure" (p. 93). Indeed even now "he loves with genuine desire for his loved ones and the pleasure they give him in fellowship and praise" (p. 132). Eros is a very happy love; it enjoys the satisfaction of loving. "It is the creative power in all that lives and grows, all that brings color, vigor, and explosive joy to human life" (p. 129). Eros is good.

But in spite of these accolades for eros, the burden of Smedes' book throughout is to keep agapic love completely distinct from eros. Agapic love is an urge to fulfill the neighbor's need, not its own, and it is not interested in satisfaction that may come from its work. It expects absolutely no reward ever. Smedes' great concern is this: "We must see agape in this pure form, or we will dissolve into need-love and eventually lose it altogether" (p. 128).

The thesis of my critique is, negatively, that agapic love as Smedes defines it has never existed and will never exist in God or man; and, positively, that all love resolves into eros in such a way that bad eros seeks satisfaction in bad ways and good eros seeks satisfaction in good ways. Smedes' repeated insistence that agapic love never expects any return and is never interested in its own satisfaction results, I think, from an incomplete analysis of the psychodynamics of the agapic "impulse" and from a neglect or misunderstanding of a dominant biblical motif of motivation. To show this I will look at what Smedes has to say about God's love first, then about human love.

I agree that in Paul's discussion of love, "his model was God in loving action toward us" (pp. 14, 126, 131). Therefore, it is of utmost importance to see, as clearly as our weakness will allow, the interrelatedness of agape and eros in God's activity. The most crucial words on this in Love Within Limits are the following:

We do not know what it is like to be God and we do not know the precise psychic dynamics in God's heart and mind when he loves. We may be sure that God loves erotically without the desperate needs of human eros. But we may suppose that he loves with genuine desire for his loved ones and the pleasure they give him in fellowship and praise.

On the other hand, it would be false to picture God as loving on two separate tracks. God has only one love, for he is the ultimately integrated and whole self. But his love for us has to take on the nature of a sacrificial love because in our sin we lost our original attractiveness. This love is God's power to transcend the needs of eros. It is God's self moving outward by the power of his own being, to seek the salvation of his sinful creatures without demand for the pleasure of a great return on his sacrifice (p. 132).

These sentences are brimming with theological perceptions. Yes, God does love erotically, desiring his loved ones and delighting in their fellowship and praise. And insofar as we can speak of needs in God (which Smedes does on p. 93), they are, as he says, not "desperate needs," but rather needs that flow from fulness. For "God is self-generating power" (p. 14) and his love is a power that is self-generating (p. 119).

Smedes is also right—and this is supremely important—that God does not love on two separate tracks. "God has only one love, for he is the ultimately integrated and whole self." If only Smedes had spelled out the implications of this unity more fully, not only for God but also for persons who have God as their model! But instead, he did just the opposite: the dominant theme of his book is that eros is one of the legitimate "powers alongside of and different from agape" (p. 133, my italics), so that we "cannot live by agapic love alone," but agapic love must do its work within the limits created by eros": hence, Love Within Limits.

Perhaps Smedes treats love as a duality of agape and eros in humans because our finitude and sinfulness have so disintegrated our hearts that we can only experience love as a mutually limiting duality. But I do not think this is his basic reason. For even in the "ultimately integrated" self of God, Smedes is unable to see eros and agape as a unity. He describes God's sacrificial agape love for sinners as "God's power to transcend the needs of eros." I see no way to maintain that God has only one love if the exercise of eros is so distinct from agape that agape must transcend eros in order to be effective. I can only conclude that while Smedes would like to believe that God is "the ultimately integrated self" and "has only one love," he is unwilling to recognize that, in fact, agape and eros are one. God's agape does not "transcend" his eros, but expresses it.

Smedes' own insight leads us to the conclusion that what he calls God's agapic love is an expression of his eros. To maintain his strict and limited definition of agape Smedes says that it is the power by which God seeks "the salvation of his sinful creatures without demand for the pleasure of a great return on his sacrifice" (pp. 132, 117). Since Smedes had just described God's eros as his "desire for his loved ones and the pleasure they give him in fellowship and praise," I infer that the "return" which agape is not allowed to demand is precisely the pleasure of a redeemed, praising people. For then agape would "dissolve" into eros.

Apparently we are to imagine that God's heart yearns with an infinitely pure and powerful erotic longing for the reconciliation of his rebellious people, but, when he undertakes to achieve this happy reconciliation, this almighty erotic longing must be transcended by some other motive that expects no return on its investment! Is it not incredible that the God who is glad when his creatures become what they should be and who "desires … the pleasure they give him in fellowship and praise" (p. 132) is not interested in "getting some self-satisfaction in return for his [redeeming] efforts" (p. 126)?

I find it not only incredible, but out of tune with Scripture. God's redeeming, sacrificial love for his sinful people (what Smedes calls agapic love) is described by Hosea in the most erotic terms: "How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger … for I am God and not man" (11:8, 9). Later God says through Jeremiah concerning his exiled people who had sinned so grievously, "I will rejoice over them to do good to them and I will truly plant them in this land with all my heart and with all my soul" (32:41).

The divine motive of self-satisfying joy is also seen in Jesus' own ministry. When he was called to give an account of why he lowered himself to eat with tax collectors and sinners his answer was: "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:1, 2, 7). And finally, we are told in Hebrews 12:2 by what power Jesus endured suffering: "for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Should we not infer that in the painful work of redeeming love God is very interested in the satisfaction that comes from his efforts and that he does "demand … the pleasure of a great return on his sacrifice?"

Perhaps Smedes would respond that God does take satisfaction in the redemptive fruit of his sacrifice, but he does not demand a return. But this does not seem to square with the parables of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-43), the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) or the Marriage Feast (Matthew 22:1-14). Maybe Smedes' own exegesis provides the best rebuttal. Concerning the sinners of Romans 1:24-32 he says, "God had to suffer their contempt while he did them good, and finally he refused to suffer any longer. He withdrew his creative mercies" (p. 5), and gave them up to self-willed corruption and death. From this exegesis we may infer rightly that God does demand a return on his investment, namely that men "glorify him and give him thanks" (Romans 1:21). If instead they offer him contempt, he will (after much longsuffering) withdraw his creative mercies.

But perhaps Smedes would respond again: "Erotic love … has no power for longsuffering" (p. 3). But this is simply contrary to experience. How many wives of Vietnam POWs suffered long in all faithfulness for love's sake—for the joy that was set before them! The greater the erotic passion, the more self-denial and long postponement one is willing to endure to attain fulfillment. "So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her" (Genesis 29:20).

Is God then an unfulfilled and deficient God, whose motives are always to fill up some lack in himself? No, there is a sense in which God has no need for creation at all (Acts 17:25). He is profoundly fulfilled and happy in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity. Yet there is in joy an urge to increase, by expanding itself to others, who, if necessary, must first be created and redeemed. This divine urge is God's desire for the compounded joy that comes from having others share the very joy that he has in himself.

It becomes evident, therefore, that one should not ask, “Does God seek his own happiness as a means to the happiness of his people, or does he seek their happiness as a means to his own?” For there is no either/or. They are one. This is what distinguishes a holy, divine eros from a fallen, human one: God's eros longs for and delights in the eternal and holy joy of his people. The most profound and wonderful (and hedonistic) sentence in Smedes' book sums up my view of God's single (erotic) love. This sentence alone can account for all God's creative and redemptive activity. It reads: "Even God enjoys letting us in on his glory so that he can enjoy us while we enjoy praising him" (p. 29).

Since God's love is the model for human love it may be that for humans, too, agape is not strictly distinct from and "limited" by eros. Since God has only one love in the way described, could it not be that our loves, too, are one in a similar sense? My own view is that the parallel between God's loving and our loving is very close. That God is the "ultimately integrated and whole self" while we are disintegrated and fragmented does not necessarily mean that we now love on two mutually limiting tracks—one agapic and one erotic. It may just as easily mean that we are torn by wildly competing erotic desires. Is this not the picture of the Christian in Galatians 5:17: "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other to prevent you from doing what you would?" I want to argue that some of Smedes' own insights lead to the conclusion that agapic love as he defines it does not and should not exist in humans and that all our loves are erotic.

Recall that agapic love expects no reward and "is not interested in 'self-satisfaction in return for its efforts'" (p. 126). Now if all Smedes meant by "reward" were money or human acclaim or worldly convenience, then, of course, there would be no argument. The Christian hedonist also counts such things as mere rubbish in comparison with the surpassing value of sharing the life of Christ. But I take it that when Smedes says agape "gives without demand of any return" (p. 128, his italics) he means this absolutely, since he offers no qualification to exclude the rewards used as motives in Scripture and since he usually puts love which desires the satisfaction of life's best things in the category of eros.

I do not think that such disinterested love exists. I suggest another paradigm for human love: God does not cause the believer to transcend the desire of eros, but rather redirects those desires to new objects. What may be called divine love is our longing for and rejoicing in the act of extending God's love to others in every possible way. This love is passionately interested in reward and self-satisfaction—the blessed joy of giving itself and the organically related reward in the age to come.

Smedes points in this same direction when he says that "agapic love … is the power to turn the direction of our desire towards the needs of other people" (p. 63). If our desires were flowing in one direction (erotically) and then by grace the flow was diverted to another object, is it not still the same stream—the stream of erotic desire? But Smedes will not follow through on this implication, for on the next page he says that agape so functions in our lives that "satisfying our own deepest desires is less than our ultimate goal." It seems to me that on the one hand he is saying agape works to make us deeply desire to meet the needs of others, but on the other hand he is saying that agape frees us from making the satisfaction of that deep desire our ultimate goal. Is this not an inconsistency?

The same thing happens again on page 133. First he says agapic love "adds [to erotic love] an unselfish desire for the good of the loved one" (my italics). But then he goes further and says that "it makes eros even more restless, but with a restlessness born not only of our unfulfilled needs, but also of our loved ones' unfulfilled needs." If we take this last sentence seriously, it says quite plainly that eros itself can be "unselfish" and drive us toward our needy neighbor. There is no reason to say that this comes about through the influence of a second and different kind of love called agape. It is far simpler and more accurate to say that it comes about through the Holy Spirit.

But if all human love resolves into eros—either a holy eros which seeks the joy of giving and yearns for the final reward, or an evil eros which seeks only the pleasures of money and fame and sex—then what does Paul's statement mean, "Love seeks not its own?" The closest verbal parallel to this phrase in Paul's writing is in Philippians 2:21, where Paul laments that all his associates but Timothy are "seeking their own and not the things of Jesus Christ." Here "their own" refers not to their own joy but to their own worldly affairs which exclude the things of Christ. They are like Demas, who, "in love with this present world, has deserted" (2 Timothy 4:10).

Jonathan Edwards is most perceptive in saying that the error 1 Corinthians 13:5 opposes

is not in the degree in which [a person] loves his own happiness, but in his placing his happiness where he ought not, and in limiting and confining his love. Some, although they love their own happiness, do not place that happiness in their own confined good, or in that good which is limited to themselves, but more in the common good—in that which is the good of others, or in the good to be enjoyed in and by others.... And when it is said that Charity seeketh not her own, we are to understand it of her own private good—good limited to herself. (Charity and its Fruits, p. 164)

This, in general, is how I think all similar texts in the New Testament are to be understood (Romans 15:1, 2; 1 Corinthians 10:24, 33; Philippians 2:4; 2 Timothy 3:2).

Alongside "love seeks not its own," we must put "love hopes all things." If hope involves an earnest expectation of the fulfillment of a present desire (p. 102) and if "love hopes all things," it is hard for me to agree that love moves us toward our neighbor "with no expectation of reward." It is a deep and beautiful insight when Smedes says, "To be hopeful is to face the future with some gladness, some thankfulness, some sense that the present is worth living because we expect the future to bring what we deeply desire" (p. 102). The power to bear the burden of love in the present comes from a glad confidence that this very act is bringing and will bring the satisfaction of my deepest longings. And this is the power of a godly eros, not a disinterested agape.

What then becomes of Jesus' teaching on self-denial (Mark 8:34). C. S. Lewis gives a fine answer:

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire (The Weight of Glory, p. 1).

The writer of Hebrews presents Moses as a model of self-denial because he "chose rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeing pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward" (Hebrews 11:25-26).

It seems to me that the many biblical texts which motivate love with reward can only be a threat to agape if we follow Smedes' strict distinction between eros and agape. What would I feel, for example, if I read, "Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called in order that you may inherit a blessing" (1 Peter 3:9)? Smedes' way of defining agapic love creates an attitude which tends to view such biblical motivation as sub-ethical and thus diminishes its transforming power in our lives. Therefore I have tried to argue that such agapic love does not and should not exist either in God or man. The divineness of our love does not depend on whether we are seeking the reward of our own joy, but on whether we seek our joy in sharing God's love with others.