Years ago I heard a presentation by a well-respected OBGYN physician here in Birmingham, Alabama. He had delivered many babies over the years. He shared an idea that I have never forgotten. He started by asking the question, “Do you know why mothers have such a great love for their children?” His response was, “Because they sacrifice so much for them.”
He then explained there is a principle at work here. He said, “The more you serve someone, the more you sacrifice your life for their well-being, the more you will love them.”
C.S. Lewis clearly recognized this when he said, “You can change your heart over the long haul through your actions.” He put it this way in his popular book, Mere Christianity:
“Though natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings … The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less … whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more, or, at least, to dislike it less … The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them: the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning….“
Lewis then used an illustration that had great potency, particularly at that time:
“This same spiritual law works terribly in the opposite direction. The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them: afterwards they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them. The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become—and so on in a vicious circle forever.”
The way you act towards someone over time will impact your feelings towards them. We know feelings are real, but they are not reliable. Feelings are not consistent and are tied to a number of complex factors, waxing and waning. Dr. Tim Keller has made this insightful observation, “Our emotions are not always under control, but our actions are.”
I know of a counselor who strongly believes that feelings of love will follow acts of love. When he counsels those who are struggling in their marriage, he lays out a challenge for them, asking for a four-week commitment. Every day for the next four weeks, they are to do five things each day that someone in love would do. The first thing each morning, they are to make a list of five specific things to do for the other person to express love.
The results? Invariably, over that four-week period, couples begin to see real progress. Unfortunately, most spouses refuse to accept this challenge because they do not think that they are responsible for their marital problems. In reality, they are too lazy to put forth the effort to love their spouse, seeing divorce as an easier alternative.
Essentially, to love someone, you cannot be lazy. Love requires commitment and work. It requires effort, regardless how you feel.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.