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Question: How do Latter-day Saints understand the concept of love?
Question: How do Latter-day Saints understand the concept of love?
Introduction to Question
Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been confused about the meaning of love from a Gospel point of view. This article seeks to outline principles of love that will affect the attitudes and behavior of the Saints towards commandments, their views about their identity, and so on.
This reflects the best efforts of the author to define love from the scriptural canon of the Church. Others are free to disagree with this if they have better scriptural exegesis and/or better philosophical considerations. The author has tried to follow the principles and procedures for reading and interpreting scripture outlined in this article.
Response to Question
Definition of Love
The scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contain many mentions of love. In fact, there are over 600 occurrences of the words “charity,” “charitable,” “love,” “loved,” “loves,” “lovest,” “loving,” “loving kindness,” and “loving kindnesses” in the entire canon. Readers are encouraged to either search out these words on the Gospel Library app or purchase concordances for the scriptures and explore each use.
Love is the cardinal virtue one can master as a Latter-day Saint. The prophet Alma compares those that don't possess it to the worthlessness of the dross of metal. The prophet Moroni likewise says we are nothing without charity. The Savior bases his entire ethic on the law of love.
After the author’s own review of the scriptures, the following definition of love can be derived:
- Freely, rationally, selflessly, and non-grudgingly acting without the expectation of reciprocity (and even in the absence of reciprocity) so as to recognize and respect the intrinsic, absolute worth of all humans and introduce, reinforce, ensure, and/or restore telic flourishing, survival, comfort, and/or happiness—both temporal and spiritual—to all creatures (including God) so that ultimately all exist in a relationship marked by unity of both heart and mind.
As can be seen immediately, Latter-day Saint scripture makes love a concept pregnant with meaning. As will be demonstrated, that’s the point.
Let’s break down each part.
A person must act freely when entering a loving relationship. Love can neither be coerced nor determined. This necessitates that there exist some ability in humans for genuinely free action. The locus classicus for the Latter-day Saint belief in free action is found in 2 Nephi 2:27:
- 27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
It requires a rational enough mind to give the moral law content. A person who has significant enough mental impairments cannot construct if/then statements like are required for morality. Some are not capable of thinking something like “if I murder a person, then I’m doing something wrong." Thus, one needs to have a rational enough mind to formulate moral sentences and evaluate their truthfulness.
Those who can’t form moral sentences rationally such as infants and the cognitively impaired are not of any less worth than others. All humans, as will be explained below, are of infinite, intrinsic moral worth.
Love is an act that seeks the good of the Other (the Other being everyone). It is not one that seeks the good of oneself. As The Book of Mormon tells us, “charity...seeketh not her own." The Savior taught us that "[h]e that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." He also taught that we should love our neighbors and God with all we have: heart, might, mind, and strength. However, selflessness counterintuitively doesn’t imply that we are completely bereft of self love and don’t seek to help ourselves at least on occasion. It is important to love ourselves since, if we don’t, we won’t be able to love others. We can’t love others if we’re emaciated from hunger and thus too tired to help others. We can’t help others when facing crippling depression. Sometimes other people can’t be there to love us and help us and we need to provide things for ourselves. Thus, we should love ourselves. King Benjamin taught us that "it is not requisite that a man [or woman] run faster than he [or she] has strength." We should seek to love ourselves not as an end in and of itself, but always as a means to the end of loving others.
We shouldn’t be hesitant with our love. Love should also not be given out of duty. If given out of duty, then it is not love. Moroni tells us that we shouldn’t give gifts grudgingly. The Lord told the Saints that they should be equal in temporal things, "and this not grudgingly, otherwise the abundance of the manifestations of the Spirit shall be withheld."
As the late Baptist minister and professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary George Ladd wrote in his seminal work on New Testament theology, on the New Testament's view "[l]ove is a matter of will and action." Love is not merely being. You can say that you love someone until you’re blue in the face but it doesn’t mean anything until you actually do something to show it. The Lord told us that “if ye love me, keep my commandments." The author of 1 John tells us to "not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth." To really be loving, you have to do things.
This is a crucial point that many don’t understand. In protest to certain Church standards, people will often say that we should just “focus on the heart” and “not judge others” by certain standards. The point deemphasizes the fact that love is and always will be a principle of action and God reserves the right to judge people by how well they act in accordance with Church standards.
Without the Expectation of Reciprocity
Love should be given without the expectation of reciprocity. To give care to someone's needs with the expectation of reciprocity is to treat someone of merely instrumental and not intrinsic worth. Love is when we care for someone's needs because of their intrinsic worth. An action can be called loving merely by someone not having the expectation that the other will care for their own needs. It does not necessarily need to be the case that there is no chance for reciprocity when trying to act lovingly towards others.
And Even in the Absence of Reciprocity
Love is not something that is given only when the Other cares about us. It is something that we give even when the Other doesn’t care for us in return. It is given even when the Other maligns us, tries our patience, abuses us, and makes us uncomfortable.
The Sermon on the Mount records the Savior’s teachings that support this.
[R]esist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain…Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven…For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
So as to Recognize and Respect the Intrinsic, Absolute Value of all Humans
Latter-day Saint theology holds that all human beings are of infinite, intrinsic (and not merely instrumental) worth. This because it is believed that they have 1) always existed and 2) with human like intelligence. All humans are believed to be sons or daughters of Heavenly Parents and thus have a potential to become divinized like them and hold dominion over the universe. Thus, along with being of infinite, intrinsic worth, humans are also believed to always of absolute worth. Nothing conditions their worth because they are, inherently, of the highest worth being gods in embryo. Humans are also the only creatures capable of having dominion over the earth and replenishing it. They have the power to access other ecosystems and bring balance to them. A human can enter an ocean and bring balance to the habitat of fishes. A fish can't enter the habitat of a human and bring balance to it. They don't (and indeed can't without some form of miraculous technological intervention perhaps) have that type of intelligence.
Humans should thus never be treated as mere means to an end. They are persons and should never be treated as anything less than a person. Such would dehumanize them. If we love human beings, then we will never treat them as merely a means to an end.
The recognition of a person as having infinite, intrinsic, and absolute value should accompany every act we perform in relation to another. It will be demonstrated by both the attentiveness and tenderness we lend to people’s wants and needs.
And Provide Survival
It’s intuitive that love should have particular effects. The effects are what we use to discern what we value so much about love. Of course, whether or not your act actually produces these effects does not necessarily determine whether or not your act can be considered loving. Most important is that you intend to produce these effects and that you make efforts to produce them. Your intentions are subjective but they are reflected in your objective speech and action and in the effects that those actions produce. There is also a way in which we need to inflict pain in order to bring about a greater good. Getting a shot and the pain of working out are moral goods that involve pain but bring about a greater good. The scriptures themselves teach that God scourges and chastens his children in order to bring about their future, greater happiness. Love can involve the infliction of pain.
Among these effects that we want to provide, making people feel that they have absolute value (as discussed above) is a good effect. Survival is also a good effect. We are commanded to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and administer to the relief of the sick. We are commanded to not kill (in the sense of murdering someone. Not killing in self-defense, for example) nor do anything like unto it in the Doctrine & Covenants.
Telic flourishing is also a good effect. A telos is a particular purpose or design that a thing has. The philosopher Aristotle posited that a thing flourishes when it acts or is used in accordance with its design. A basketball flourishes when it is bounced, passed, and shot through a hoop. Latter-day Saint theology teaches something similar. One thing that Latter-day Saint theology explicitly indicates is part of the human design is that of being united sexually after marriage. A man is designed to be united with a woman and a woman is designed to be with a man. Thus, homosexual behavior (including same-sex marriage), pornography, most cases of masturbation, adultery, and other sexual behavior outside the confines of marriage, since they can and do lead men and women away from fulfilling their telos, are not acceptable under Latter-day Saint moral standards.
Another human telos that Latter-day Saint scripture recognizes is “keep[ing God’s] commandments and glorify[ing] him forever.” All commandments help us to love God and love our neighbor as ourself according to Jesus. Thus, part of the human telos is to love. One reason to adhere to this telos is that others flourish. Doing anything that would prevent others from adhering to this telos would be immoral.
Latter-day Saints who have gone through and done initiatory ordinances in the temple may, from a blessing they receive during those ordinances, know the telos of many parts of the human body.
An understanding of the human telos will not only ground a Latter-day Saint sexual ethic, but it may also ground a Latter-day Saint understanding of health. Latter-day Saint scientists and other medical professionals might look at the way we understand the telos of the human body given what we know from the temple and scriptures and ask "how can I restore this body to its original order?" They can recognize how the body has fallen from its original order—thus becoming disordered—and seek to restore that order to the body. We typically define health in terms of presence of comfort and happiness, absence of pain, parity with like creatures, and longevity. Latter-day Saints and others who believe in the concept of a telos—a certain purpose created in the mind of a creator and reflected in the design of the creation—can understand health in terms of restoring the body to that order.
An understanding of the human telos may also ground gender roles for Latter-day Saints. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that men's primary role in the family is to preside over, provide for, and protect his family. A woman's primary role is to nurture her children. A Latter-day Saint can have an understanding of self-love that includes making decisions that help one adhere to their telos. How can a man better prepare to protect his family? Could that include building his body or purchasing a firearm and understanding its use? How can a woman better prepare to nurture her children? These may be good questions to ask and in a spirit of prayer.
Another thing that is likely a part of the human telos for Latter-day Saints is joy. We find our greatest joy in committed, loving relationships. This is part of why the Savior commands that we love. Joy comes as we survive, flourish according to our telos, and have other things helped. For instance, a person with bad eyesight is loved by helping them regain it. True enough that a person with poor eyesight can be happy, but there are times when providing eyesight back can make them more joyful. We all want joy. Love given in this way can bring it. There is also a difference between temporal joy and spiritual joy. Temporal joy is getting a cool treat at the store from your parents. Spiritual joy is more enduring and primarily comes when we are acting in accordance with the thing that will bring us the most lasting joy like cultivating an abiding, intimate relationship with God. Temporal joy isn't necessarily bad, it's just not as valuable as spiritual joy. This may be why we're commanded to be "spiritually minded."
Some may wonder here why we have separated these effects. The reason is that it's the author's belief that a person can have one or two of these things provided to them without the others. One can survive without being comfortable or happy. One can survive and be comfortable without being happy or experiencing telic flourishing.
To All Creatures
These effects should be brought to all creatures and not just humans. All creatures want to survive, to flourish according to their telos, and to be happy. Latter-day Saint scripture tells us that animals have spirits. They also apparently have a telos. Doctrine & Covenants 59:16-19 explains this telos of animals and plants:
- 16 Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;
- 17 Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;
- 18 Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;
- 19 Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.
However, verse 20 of the same section provides this injunction:
- 20 And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.
This same caution against the use of animals in excess is repeated in Doctrine & Covenants 49:21. Another revelation in the Doctrine & Covenants clarifies that the Lord ordained the consumption of animals for times of winter, cold, famine, and excess of hunger.
Love is not just a virtue that should be shown towards other animals and other humans. It should also be shown towards God. Jesus teaches that the first great commandment is to love God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength by keeping his commandments.
There are commandments in scripture that clearly show God trying to get us to be in a totally unified, loving relationship with him (or, at least, can be interpreted as such). For instance, God commands us that we set aside the entire day of Sunday as a day to rest from labors and pay our devotions to him. We spend most of our weeks not thinking about God. Isn't it intuitive that God would ask for one day for himself? Additionally, God expressly condemns witchcraft, sorceries, soothsayers, and idolatry since these types of people/behaviors can lead us to believe in other powers besides his. Engaging in these things becomes an affront to his omnipotence and total majesty. Idolatry is linked to adultery throughout scripture and God is depicted as the betrayed lover.
Jesus sets up a perfect triangle of love distribution between us, others, and God in Matthew 22:33–40. He commands us to love both God and our neighbor. The purpose of this life is to discern how to create a totally unified, loving relationship between God, us, the rest of the human family, and all of God's creation.
So that Ultimately All Exist in a Relationship Marked by Unity of Both Heart and Mind
Love ultimately brings about unity. This unity should be a unity of both heart and mind. Love is the "bond of perfectness." The Doctrine & Covenants exhorts us to be clothed in the bond of charity and calls it a bond of perfectness and peace.
Unity of heart is being 1) willing to continue providing for the needs of the person you are in a relationship with and 2) having trust that they feel the same for you. What should our universal purpose be as creatures? Love. Particularly, loving in the right way at the right time. By loving in the right way at the right time, we all grow into understanding of the principle of love.
Unity of mind is being agreed in and knowing all things including purpose, morality, science, and so forth. Unity of mind can thus happen now, but it can also grow further into the eternities. Scripture tells us to "be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind."
At the very root of the Latter-day Saint hope for the world is to create a relationship "of one heart and one mind" with everyone dwelling in righteousness and no poor among us. It is by this relationship that Latter-day Saints and indeed the entire human family can take on the very nature of God and become love personified.
If everyone were to face their attention outward and focus on the needs of others, eventually, no one's needs would need to be met. This is why the Savior wants us to lose our lives and begin to love others: so that we can eventually save ours and everyone else's life. If everyone is loving someone, no one will need love. If everyone has love, then we will all experience the greatest amount of joy that is possible to experience. This is the concept of Zion elucidated by Latter-day Saint scripture.
Thus, the Latter-day Saint philosophy of love would be something of a synthesis of the union, robust concern, appraisal, and emotion complex models in the philosophy of love. Love, for Latter-day Saints, is both an attitudinal and active virtue.
Continued reflection may yield additional understanding on this vital theme. Readers are encouraged to seek it.
Appendix: Bible Project Word Studies - Love
The Bible Project has produced two excellent videos exploring the meaning of the word "love" in both the Old and New Testaments exegetically. These videos are on YouTube and are linked here for a scholarly but accessible way of understanding love from a scriptural perspective.
- See for instance Strong's Concordance of the King James Bible and/or the concordances of the triple combination done by Gary Shapiro and Eldin Ricks.
- Alma 34:29
- Moroni 7:44
- Matthew 22:34–40
- See also Moses 4:3.
- Moroni 7:45
- Matthew 16:26
- Matthew 22:34–40
- Mosiah 4:27
- Moroni 7:8
- Doctrine & Covenants 70:14
- George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 131.
- John 14:15
- 1 John 3:18
- Matthew 5:38-48
- Abraham 3:18
- Doctrine & Covenants 132:19–20
- Genesis 1:26, 28; Moses 2:26–28; Abraham 4:26–28
- Proverbs 3:11–12; Hebrews 12:5–6; Helaman 15:3
- Mosiah 4:26
- Doctrine & Covenants 59:6
- Genesis 2:21–24; Matthew 19:3–9; Doctrine & Covenants 49:15–17; Moses 3:21–24; Abraham 5:14–18.There is controversy among biblical scholars as to whether or not the scriptures prohibit homosexual behavior. Interpretations of scripture that allow homosexual behavior are in the minority. For the dominant exegesis of scripture that prohibits it, see Robert A. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002); Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 379–406 online at https://www.heartlandchurch.org/d/The_Moral_Vision_of_the_New_Testament_excerpt.pdf. For another source accessible online that gives faithful and accurate perspectives, see Justin W. Starr, "Biblical Condemnations of Homosexual Conduct," FAIR Papers, November 2011, https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/starr-justin-BiblicalHomosexuality.pdf.
- Jacob 2:21
- 2 Nephi 2:25
- Romans 8:6,7
- Doctrine & Covenants 77:1–4
- Doctrine & Covenants 89:15
- Matthew 22:37; John 14:15
- Doctrine & Covenants 59:9–13
- Colossians 3:14
- Doctrine & Covenants 88:125
- Philippians 2:2
- Moses 7:18
- 1 John 4:8
- Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24
- Bennet Helm, "Love", in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/love/.