Love is More than Desire or Devotion

June 1st, 2022 / No Comments

In various publications and recently in Pluriform Love, I define love. My definition says love acts intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.

Perhaps the most common alternative to my definition says love is desire. We find theologians and philosophers from the past and present defining love as desire. In Pluriform Love, I devote an entire chapter to criticizing Augustine’s view on this issue and others.

In some ways, defining love as desire is understandable. After all, “desire” is closely related to “acting intentionally,” which is part of my love definition. If we intentionally do something, we desire to do it. And our desires are aimed at something we perceive as valuable. If desire is simply acting intentionally, desires are present in all acts of love.

But I believe love is more than acting intentionally and, therefore, more than desire. And it’s more than aiming for what we think is valuable.

The Desire Tradition

A tradition as far as Plato thinks of love as desire. This tradition greatly influenced Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Augustine says we love something or someone if we desire them. “Love is a kind of craving,” he explains,[3] or what some call “acquisitive desire.”[4] Augustine uses words like “cling” and “obtain” as synonyms for love. To love someone or something is to be inclined toward it, yearn for it, or seek satisfaction in it.

Aquinas says “every agent, whatever it be, does every action from love of some kind.”[1] In this, he’s assuming love is a desire.

Ponder, for a moment, what Aquinas’s words entail.

If we accept his understanding, every act of rape is in some sense an act of love. Every murder and theft, every act of torture and child slavery, every worship of dictators or destruction of ecosystems… every act, according to Aquinas, comes from love.[2]

This way of understanding love goes against common practice and against the meaning of love in most scripture.

Modifying Desire/Love

Defining love as desire requires adding a modifier to provide clarity. So understood, love can be proper or improper, appropriate or inappropriate, ordinate or inordinate, and so on. If the action is positive, the actor loves properly. If the action is negative, the love is improper.

Theologians who think of love as desire should use adjectives to preface love. Those include “genuine,” “sincere,” “pure,” and more. We can have pure desires or impure desires. For instance, Augustine says a miser can love gold “with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly when inordinately.”[5]

“Evil love?” Does that make good sense? I don’t think so.

If we define love as I do, we don’t need those modifiers. As I define it, love cannot be insincere, disingenuous, or impure. Those adjectives suggest bad motives. Love, by my definition, always has good motives. To put it another way, according to my definition and as typically used in scripture, love cannot be immoral.

“Evil love” is an oxymoron.

Disadvantages of Love as Desire

Defining love as desire has many disadvantages. For instance, it reinforces the popular view that sex and romance, which involve desires, are always expressions of love.[6] But we know sexual desire does not always promote well-being. According to the desire view, logically even harmful sexual desires would be expressions of love.

Love defined as aiming for well-being says harmful sex is not loving. The harmful desires for power, fame, or fortune are also not expressions of love. Acting to destroy the planet is not a way to love it.

Those who define love as desire should always use modifiers like “proper” or “improper.” But they often fail to do so. They might say we should “love one another” and mean something positive, but they should say we should “properly love one another.”

Confusion reigns.

Wanting Well-Being Doesn’t Mean Promoting It

Another problem with thinking that love is simply desire becomes clear when we think about wanting something but not doing anything about that want. I might desire to help the homeless but never lift a finger. I might want a healthy body but not love myself by exercising and eating well. Simply desiring good is not an act of love.

In more than 90% of instances, biblical writers use “love” as something positive. When we understand love as action that aims to promote well-being, we make sense of biblical commands to love enemies, friends, strangers, family, other creatures, and oneself.

Love aims to do good.

Love as Devotion?

Closely related to defining love as desire is defining it as devotion. To love God, say some, is to be committed to or worship God. God should be our top priority, and worshiping anything else is to idolize.[7]

Significant problems arise when we define love as worship or devotion. The oft-repeated biblical command to love one another, for instance, makes little sense if this means we should worship each other. The meaning of “devotion” is strained to its breaking point when equated with Jesus’ command to love enemies. God does not call us to worship enemies.

In Pluriform Love, I argue that we should be devoted to God. But loving God, as Jesus commands, means promoting God’s well-being. Our love for God “blesses” God, to use the language of the Psalms. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Augustine’s view of love as desire and God as impassible means it makes no sense for him to say God loves us or that we can bless God.

The Apostle Paul’s injunction to “be devoted to one another in love” helps to clarify the relationship between devotion to people and loving them. Paul commends commitment in bonds of community, but “in love” clarifies that this commitment involves doing good. We could imagine people being “devoted to one another in abuse,” for instance, which would not be loving.

Love is more than and sometimes opposes devotion.


Desire, devotion, worship, and similar activities may accompany love. They may be part of intentional responses, in relation to God and others, to promote overall well-being. But they may not. Therefore, we should not define love simply as desire, devotion, or worship.

It makes more sense to say love acts intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. And let the words “desire,” “devotion,” or “worship” stand for something else.

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1981), Part I-II, Q. 28, Art. 6. Aquinas offers various distinctions in his discussion of love. Love can be amicitia, amor, caritas, or dilectio. Each love type involves action; their goals or aims differ. By defining love as desire, Aquinas paints himself into a corner where he can be easily misunderstood in a way that leads to moral confusion or absurdity.

[2] Aquinas sometimes (and confusingly) uses “love” for those actions that promote well-being. See, for instance, Aquinas’s treatise on charity (Summa Theologica, IIA IIAE, Q.23. Craig A. Boyd, trans. In The Altruism Reader: Selections from Love, Religion, and Science, Thomas Jay Oord, ed. (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation, 2008).

[3] Augustine, Eighty-Three Different Questions, 35, 2.

[4] See, for instance, Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), 122. See also Paul Avis, Eros and the Sacred (Harrisburg, Penn.: Morehouse, 1989).

[5] Augustine, City of God, Book 15, chapter 22

[6] Meredith F. Small equates sex and love in What’s Love God to Do with it? The Evolution of Human Mating (New York: Anchor, 1995).

[7] I could cite many theologians for this practice, but see James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2016), and Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2009). I address Smith’s work briefly in Pluriform Love.

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