How to Love When You Don’t Feel It

Recently, I attended a book club discussion on C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Several weeks into the study, the otherwise-docile Lewis enthusiasts suddenly seemed to switch from waving palm branches to crying, “Crucify him!”

The coup was sparked by the following principle found in his chapter on charity (Christian love):

The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.

“Blasphemy!” a few cried, as one man attempted to rip his Ralph Lauren polo. “This,” their self-appointed leader asserted, “reeks of a ‘fake-it-til-you-make-it’ mentality — one which cannot be tolerated within the Christian conception of love.”

“Inauthentic love is not love!”
“If you don’t feel it, you can’t do it.”
“My rule is to keep it 100!”

The Shakespearian mob grew louder and louder, one complaint feeding another.

Be More Than the True You

As the Christian villagers grabbed their pitchforks, it became more and more apparent that, in their eyes, Lewis had transgressed the law of self-actualization: the law of being the true you. Psychology has indoctrinated our generation to think that self-expression is the highest good. If you don’t feel it, it isn’t authentic, and thus not real. This, combined with the definition that love is almost exclusively a warm feeling found deep within us, makes the notion that one should act loving despite not feeling it to be oppressive and a contaminate of love.

“What should we do in situations when we don’t feel like loving? Fake it till he makes it.”

The main problem with a “wait until you feel it” love is that it comes more from Hollywood than the Bible. It fundamentally undermines the two greatest commandments Jesus gave. The command to love God with everything, and others as ourselves, often assaults this kind of love, oppresses our natural cravings, and inconveniences our self-actualization:

  • Love your neighbor as yourself regardless if they have wronged you.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself no matter how unpopular they are.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself notwithstanding the fact that they embody every pet peeve that you didn’t even realize you had until you met them.

Or, more importantly:

  • Love God with everything no matter how busy you are.
  • Love God with everything no matter how angry with him you may be.
  • Love God with everything no matter how sick, tired, or confused you are.

No footnotes, asterisks, or qualifications nuance these two commands. “Not feeling it” is the problem to overcome, not an excuse to disobey.

Fake It Till He Makes It

These men and women who felt tension in Lewis’s principle rightfully chafed at it because our affections should ideally precede our actions to love God and others. But unless I’m alone, they often do not. Our affections are juvenile — given to pouting and screaming, and giving the silent treatment. And sadly, they often scowl at those we love most.

So, given the reality that our fallen affections are not perfectly redeemed, what should we do in situations when we don’t feel like loving? I propose the following: Fake it till he makes it.

The dissenters were correct in bucking up against fake-it-till-you-make-it love because we don’t make anything that lasts. We can conjure up temporary sympathy and compassion for people, but deep heart-change towards others (that honors God and truly loves them) flows from God himself (Galatians 5:22–23). Indeed, this is only possible after God gives us a new heart.

Acting in Faith

So, we must act.

Instead of waiting for your inner affections to muster the appropriate love for someone, ask the Lewisian question: What would I do, if I did have appropriate feelings towards them? Would I get off the couch and apologize to my wife? Would I call my family member I haven’t spoken to for years? Would I ask my neighbor over for dinner?

“Love is a gift from God often given when we act before we feel.”

Use your God-given imagination to picture what loving looks like, and then do it.

And pray as you act.

We do not want to live in the discrepancy between acting and feeling forever — and praise God that we won’t. But as we wait to be more perfectly like him (1 John 3:2), we expectantly pray for God to enlarge our redeemed, but too often Grinch-sized hearts. We prayerfully act as if we felt. We put the cart before the horse and beg for God to make the horse gallop to the front. We respond gently to that coworker’s remarks as if we loved them, asking for God to give us genuine love for them.

Another word for this kind of love is simply faith. We do not grit our teeth and “fake it” in the traditional sense. We “fake it” looking to Christ and waiting upon his Spirit to complete what he has started within us (Philippians 1:6). Without faith in our acting, we behave as Pharisees and do not please God (Hebrews 11:6).

Great Secret

Amazingly, God often provides the affections we need in moments when we act before we feel. I’ve experienced the reality that Lewis wonderfully describes in the following sentence:

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 them more.

It’s true that your actions often flow from your affections, but it is likewise true that your affections also flow from your actions. A lack of action, in the name of “authentic love” actually dams a torrent of affection that might have otherwise flowed, if you had acted.

I have good friends whom I could not stand at first. But as God worked on me, he allowed me to act as if I loved them before I did — and real love soon followed. The more I invested my energy, time, and thought into these individuals, the more my heart was convinced that I actually loved them.

Love is a gift from God often given when we act before we feel.

He Has Already Made It

The more I seek to implement this principle in my life, the more applicability I have found with it.

“As Christians, we play pretend in our loving not to escape reality, but to live more fully within it.”
  • Are you tempted to fear man? How would you act if you didn’t have this ungodly fear? Act, asking for God to give you a liberating fear of him instead of man (Isaiah 8:12–13).
  • Are you tempted with anxiety? What would it look like if you trusted God with all your heart in that situation (Proverbs 3:5)? Act, and ask God to give you his peace (John 14:27).
  • Are you tempted with lust? What would it look like to honor God in relation to that girl, guy, or computer screen? Act, asking God to kill the lusts that still grow in your heart.

At the end of the day, we fake it until he makes it because, ultimately, he already has. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We do not fake being what we are not; we put on what we already are when we feel least like it (Colossians 3:1–17).

As Christians, we play pretend in our loving not to escape reality, but to live more fully within it.

is a content strategist for desiringGod.org and M.Div. student at Bethlehem College & Seminary.