William Vanstone wrote a book, now out of print, that included an interesting chapter called “The Phenomenology of Love.” All human beings, he says—even people who from childhood were deprived of love—know the difference between false and true love, fake and authentic love.
Here’s the difference, Vanstone says. In false love your aim is to use the other person to fulfill your happiness. Your love is conditional: You give it only as long as the person is affirming you and meeting your needs. And it’s nonvulnerable: You hold back so that you can cut your losses if necessary.
But in true love, your aim is to spend yourself and use yourself for the happiness of the other, because your greatest joy is that person’s joy. Therefore your affection is unconditional: You give it regardless of whether your loved one is meeting your needs. And it’s radically vulnerable: You spend everything, hold nothing back, give it all away.
Then Vanstone says, surprisingly, that our real problem is that nobody is actually fully capable of giving true love. We want it desperately, but we can’t give it. He doesn’t say we can’t give any kind of real love at all, but he’s saying that nobody is fully capable of true love.
All of our love is somewhat fake. How so? Because we need to be loved like we need air and water. We can’t live without love. That means there’s a certain mercenary quality to our relationships. We look for people whose love would really affirm us. We invest our love only where we know we’ll get a good return. Of course when we do that, our love is conditional and nonvulnerable, because we’re not loving the person simply for himself or herself; we’re loving the person partly for the love we’re getting.
Obviously there are healthy people and unhealthy people; some are more able to love than others. But at the core Vanstone is right: Nobody can give anyone else the kind or amount of love they’re starved for. In the end we’re all alike, groping for true love and incapable of fully giving it. What we need is someone to love us who doesn’t need us at all. Someone who loves us radically, unconditionally, vulnerably.
Someone who loves us just for our sake. If we received that kind of love, that would so assure us of our value, it would so fill us up, that maybe we could start to give love like that too. Who can give love with no need? Jesus.
Keller, Timothy. Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God (pp. 106-107). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.