On the Possibility of Saying “I Love You, But I Don’t Like You”

The Opinion, v10 n2, pp. 5-7

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

In the fall of 1967 when winter was about to make its entry into northern Illinois I received a revelation that “Love is not liking.” The prophet was Joseph Fletcher, the medium was Situation Ethics, and the words—I remember how they came with all their self-authenticating power: “Love is not something we have or are, it is something we do.

But that was three years ago. And self-authenticating revelations have a way of petering out on you. In fact I have decided that this revelation was not from heaven, and that its self-authenticating power was directly proportional to the number of people I disliked. In short, I have come to disagree with the statement, “Love is not liking.” There is a valid distinction here in that we should act lovingly toward those we dislike, and this is possible up to a point. But I no longer believe that the biblical command to love stops short of the command to like. (By “liking” I mean feeling a positive disposition toward another person in which you find it natural and enjoyable to treat him lovingly.) There are two reasons why I now reject Mr. Fletcher’s dictum; one is theological, the other is practical.

First we may look at the reason Fletcher thinks it is true that “Love is not liking.” His argument may be put in a simple syllogism.

  • Premise: Feelings cannot be commanded. He quotes Buber for support: “One cannot command that one feel love for a person, but only that one deal lovingly with him” (p. 109).
  • Premise: Love is a command.
  • Conclusion: Therefore love does not include feelings.

I totally disagree with the initial premise. The reasoning behind this premise is that our feelings cannot be determined by our will; but commandments appeal to the will; therefore, feelings cannot be commanded.

There are two problems with this reasoning. On the one hand it overlooks the real connection there is between willing and feeling. If we will something consistently enough we can change our feelings positively or negatively. Thus with concentrated effort one can develop a deep appreciation and liking for classical music by willing to learn something about it and practicing listening.

On the other hand, this reasoning ignores the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to change our most basic feelings, even below the level of consciousness. In other words, Fletcher bypasses the theological truth that God commands of man what only he by his Spirit can accomplish (e.g., Faith, Ephesians 2:8). With man perhaps it is impossible to change some of his dislikes, but with God nothing is impossible. Therefore an impossible command to love may be given to cause us to fall back hard on the sanctifying grace of God.

The second reason I have changed my mind about Fletcher’s dictum, “Love is not liking,” is this: you cannot love consistently unless you like. If we could consciously consider every one of your actions and words and gestures and glances before doing them, we might conceivably be able to will the loving thing at every given moment. But that is not the way we live. Most of the time the way we are responding to other people is not at all present to our consciousness. If it were we would go crazy with self-concern.

But this means that our response to others flows mainly from the heart (or, as our psychologists say, from the “feeling level”). If we dislike another person it will be impossible to consistently will the loving thing for that person. Sometimes we will simply forget to restrain our feelings and other times when we think we have willed the loving thing, our dislike will have sneaked in through a patronizing tone of voice or a depreciating glance. We cannot love consistently if we do not like.

In the light of this, if we say that the biblical command to love has only to do with the will and not the feelings, we make it a very narrow and somewhat insipid command since it has little, then, to do with the usual way of relating to other people. I think, rather, that the command to love is a call to the deepest and most thoroughgoing sanctification. The call is not merely to the will but to the stuff which fills the unconscious. It is a call for a transformation which only God himself can accomplish. And it is not accomplished overnight. We move from one degree of glory to another. But we should not try to squirm out of the totality of the call because we fail so badly. That is part of the process: our failure is to throw us back onto the only one who can accomplish our salvation now and in the future.