Soren Kierkegaard made an interesting distinction between two types of love.
First, there is preferential love. As the name suggests, this kind of love is based on preference. Preferential love is the love we feel towards those we find attractive. It’s the love we feel for those who care for us and love us. It is love towards the lovable.
Obviously, this is a great kind of love to have. We love God because he is lovable (1 John 4:19). We love our friends, family, and lovers. To refrain from loving someone simply because they are lovable would be ridiculous.
Our culture rightly prizes this kind of love. This is the love that most of our songs and movies glorify. There is often a hedonistic and even lustful bent to this kind of love, but the point is, preferential love is directed toward those to whom we feel attraction for whatever reason.
But Kierkegaard contrasts preferential love with what he calls commanded love. This is love of the will. It is love that is directed toward anyone and perhaps everyone. Commanded love looks at a person, and even when there is no attraction or affection, it genuinely wishes that person well.
Obviously, commanded love is the more difficult of the two. Preferential love comes and goes, but commanded love rests on no circumstance. There is no reason why commanded love cannot be directed toward both our dearest friends and our bitterest enemies. If preference and lovability are not determining factors, we may choose to direct the love that wills another’s well-being toward any person at all.
Kierkegaard ties commanded love to one of the biblical words for love—agape. It is an unconditional, un-circumstantial kind of love. Commanded love—agape love—is the kind of love that God showed when he died for us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8).
The point is not to rid ourselves of preferential love. We couldn’t even if we tried. Rather, the point is to command love for every person we encounter. Kierkegaard exhorts us to love our neighbor. By neighbor, he does not necessarily mean the near-person, like our next-door neighbor. Instead, he means the next-person, as in the next person to cross our path. If we will love the next person with commanded love, then we are not differentiating between people based on our tastes and feelings. We are instead loving people as people, valuing them as those made in the image of God and therefore as worthy objects of our love.
A good gauge of how well you are loving your friends and family is how well you are loving your enemies. You have no preferential love for your enemies, or for the outcasts of society. If you find yourself loving them—genuinely wishing them well—then you love them with commanded love. And if you find no commanded love for your enemies, then your love for your friends is likely nothing more than preferential love, subject to change with the whims of your feelings.
As our culture celebrates love this Valentine’s Day, ask yourself which type of love you will be celebrating.