We speak of love in many ways, but there are a few metaphors which are quite common, and they are usually passive. The primary active version, love as labor, is perhaps even more problematic.
The Western poetic tradition has long observed love as sickness or madness. “I’m madly in love,” “lovesick,” “head over heals,” “I fell for her,” “I just can’t control myself,” “butterflies in the stomach,” etc., all paint love as something beyond our control, something we can only find ourselves in. Love happens to us and we’re just going along for the ride.
It is true that there is a component of love beyond our control (primarily attraction) but the response to it is what makes us human, what separates love from animal lust (though it should be noted that the passive emotions play a part in this as well). A man enters into his own romance, chooses to pursue his interest in the woman (or not pursue his interest). It is this component of the will that allows a man or woman to endure in a marriage (or celibate vocation) when they fall in love with someone else.
There has been an equally grand tradition of love as labor, stretching back at least as far as Ovid. The dangers of a pure passivity found in sickness or madness are overcome, with the man (or woman) working to develop and sustain love. (Ovid considered there to be three labors of the lover: finding a love, winning a love, and sustaining the love.)
Despite the definite improvement of an active component to love, this metaphor includes a highly problematic component, summed up nicely by a scriptural quote borrowed by medieval amorous poets: “The laborer deserves his wages.” And the wages of love is sex.
When a man performs labor for the sake of love (various acts of wooing, doing good for the beloved, etc.) he is looking for payment. And this payment does not regard anything more than that the lover labored; the abovementioned phrase was regularly used to coerce the female character into bed with the male (its effectiveness outside of poetry is uncertain). A man labors at love so that he may get some.
In observing these three problematic metaphors we are not left without a viable option: namely love as service. This is most perfectly presented to us in the Last Supper discourse of John, wherein the love of Jesus is indistinguishable from his service. This close correlation (and in fact overlap) will be the subject of a later post. For now I just want to point out that it does away with the problems of the other three metaphors.
Service is active. I do not sit around and let service happen; I must rise, take off my outer garment, and act. But unlike labor, it is not self-seeking. When I serve I give of myself with no expectation of a reward or wages. I do not fall into love, I enter into it, willingly embracing the physical and emotional responses and transforming them into service for my beloved. There are no debts, only love.