by Jennifer Winton, Founder and Executive Director of U!Shine
As we wrap up February, a month full of red hearts, stomachache inducing amounts of chocolate, and kitschy valentine’s cards, I can’t help but think on the word LOVE. Love is a word with so many meanings, and -- at times — so little meaning. So my curiosity caused me to do some digging into how love and mental health are connected.
I started with the basic definition of love, and wasn’t satisfied:
“a quality or feeling of strong or constant affection for and dedication to another,”
I reached out to some theologians who work closely with students, and asked, “What impact does love and positive social interaction have on mental and emotional health?”
What impact does love have on mental health?
Jim Dvorak (M.Div., Ph.D.) works for Oklahoma Christian University's College of Biblical Studies and said, “Love cannot just be an individualistic thing based on feelings of affection. Feelings of affection are fickle, esp. in an individualistic society.” Ultimately, love is a verb and is not based on our feelings or even agreements with another person.
Further, John J. Pilch and Bruce J. Malina, editors of the Handbook of Biblical Social Values, speak of the Western culture idea of love having an individualistic focus, rather than the idea of love as “group attachment,” which is more similar to the idea of love presented in I Corinthians 13:
“In this culture, individuals join groups but only on the basis of an implied contract. One remains with the group only as long as it meets personal interests. When that fails, it is time to leave the group. No stronger attachment than this is established between the individual and the group.”
This shallow view of love does not lend itself to “sticking it out” in relationships when things get messy, when people are hurting, or when we are needed the most.
This shallow view of love does not lend itself to "sticking it out" in relationships when things get messy, when people are hurting, or when we are needed the most.
I also visited with Chris Rosser (M.Div.), who works closely with university student groups who are at higher risk of suffering from mental and emotional health concerns. These are the beautiful thoughts he had to share:
“When thinking about the impact of love and positive social interaction on mental and emotional health, 1 Peter 4:7-11 offers one source of inspiration and direction from the biblical witness:
‘The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.’
Chris goes on to say, “In its context, these words offer both a message of hope and an ethic for living for people in a situation of persecution and suffering. The phrase ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ resonates with Proverbs 10:12, which says that, ‘Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.’ The intent here is vague: What ‘multitude of sins’ are covered? Does love cover the many sins we commit? Does love cover a multitude of sins committed against us?
Like cloudy nebulae condensing to become a star, the vagueness here swirls around a vibrant, central concern: commitment to love, hospitable action, charitable words, and faithful service to one another. The ground for love, forgiveness, and loyalty is offered as a reminder of the future: the end of all things is near. Again, vagueness: Is the end of ‘all things’ a future to be feared? Or are we presented with hope that ‘all things’ find their end in all-encompassing love? Is love’s covering of sin a depiction of the end of ‘all things’? If so, then we participate in and enact that future reality in our here-and- now when we experience love, forgiveness, and loyalty as both given and received. Because we can imagine a bright future, we brighten our here-and- now, and the dust, cloudiness, and vague uncertainty of our current moments condense to become that vibrant star, the birth of bright hope finally realized. These words offer an ethic for here-and- now living grounded in hope for the ‘end of all things,’ including both the sin we do and the multitude of sins done against us.”
Because we can imagine a bright future, we brighten our here-and- now, and the dust, cloudiness, and vague uncertainty of our current moments condense to become that vibrant star, the birth of bright hope finally realized.
Chris shares that additional help can be found in "the Apostle Paul’s triad of faith, hope, and love (cf. 1 Cor. 13). Faith offers a person to believe in, someone willing and able to save; hope offers a future to believe in, an imagined horizon toward which we strive; love is how we enact that imagined future in our here-and- now by giving and receiving love in the name of Jesus. These three—faith, hope, and love—remain vital and vibrant for mental and emotional health. Love turns out to be the ‘greatest of these’ not because it is more important but because it actualizes the others in our here-and- now experiences with the neighbors we encounter. May that hope encourage us to love and to be loved in our current moments, our current encounters—our here- and-now experiences infused with the brightness of an imagined future. I imagine that love experienced in such hope is generative of positive social interaction and increased mental and emotional health.”
This writing has made me stop and ponder how much I have to learn about loving others as Jesus did; and how many times my love looks more like lip service than action. I pray that we all can embrace the humility it takes to truly make love a doing word in our lives so that we can reach out and help the hurting, the vulnerable, and the marginalized in practical, everyday ways.
Love and Peace,