When “Love” Is Not Love

In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare claims: 

Love is not love 

Which alters when it alteration finds.

As generations of my students can attest, I scoff at “refrigerator magnet Shakespeare”—quotes taken out of context because they are pretty or sound wise, and that usually have a more complex meaning than will be evident from the quote. And I realize I am in danger of doing the exact same thing here.

But let me tell you what catches my attention about this quote. It’s the break at the end of the line, leaving the phrase “Love is not love” just hanging there. 

How can love be not love? If it’s love, isn’t it, well . . . love? 

Shakespeare tells us that what seems to be love isn’t love if it changes, even if the beloved is going through his or her own changes. And even out of context, I think the speaker of the poem has a point. 

Love is love.

And love looks like love.

One of the things that makes me both sad and angry is to see people who claim that their Christian faith is what compels them to do things in the name of “love” that look more like control, or disgust, or even hatred. They seem to feel that they have the right to tell other people how they should or shouldn’t live their lives—friends, family, even perfect strangers.

How is this love?

They will say that it is loving to speak the truth. That it is not loving to allow other people to tread down a dangerous path. That real love involves having the hard conversations, and doing the hard things.

And they are not wrong about this. When someone that I love is doing something I suspect will lead to later pain, just turning a blind eye and letting them damage themselves and others is not loving. 

But some people who claim Christian faith have taken this principle and used it to justify what are obviously very unloving words and actions. 

Telling people God hates them? Calling people names like “abomination”? Claiming that some sins are unforgivable? Casting someone out of your family because you don’t like some things about them or some of their choices? 

Love looks like love. And none of those things looks like love. 

When my sons were little, we used to play a little game. Now, my family has always had a rather dark sense of humor, so like so many of our games, it would often take a turn for the gruesome. 

Here’s how it would go. I would tell them that I love them very much, and that I would always love them no matter what. The boys would then begin to counter with things that they would do that might make me stop loving them. Usually the first suggestions were innocuous—go mess up my room. Stop doing my homework. But then, as these things go, the suggestions would, well, become more creative.

Would you still love me if I kicked the dog?

I would make you stop kicking the dog, because it is not ok to hurt another creature, but I would still love you.

Would you still love me if I killed the dog?

I would be very sad and angry because you killed something loving and innocent, but I would still love you.

Would you still love me if I hit my brother?

I would be very, very sad and angry, and I would punish you, but I would still love you.

Would you still love me if I killed my brother and chopped him into pieces?(If you’re reading this, no, my children weren’t psychopaths. They were just . . . boys with active imaginations.)

I would make sure that you went to jail for murder, because it isn’t ok to murder other people. But I would visit you in jail, and I would still love you. 

And around this point in the game, I would strongly suggest that we play something else. 

Besides my family’s penchant for dark comedy, there is obviously something else going on here. The deep question at the heart of this game is just this—if I somehow lose control of myself and do something that is horrible and unforgivable, would that mean that I am not worth being loved? 

The answer is, and was, and always will be: No. No matter what you do, you are ALWAYS worthy of love. And you will always have my love. No matter what.

Because, after all, this is how God treats us. There is nothing we can even imagine doing that can separate us from God’s love. 

Love is Love.

And Love looks like Love. 

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