Part 4: True Love, or Not True Love? That Is the Question

True love, or not true love? That is the question. 

In my last few blog posts, we explored some of the aspects of pure love, noting that “true love” neither demands nor obligates reciprocation.  

Let’s build on that foundation: The risk of love is a choice made with little regard for self-preservation.  

This is the concept of vulnerability. It is the choice to love another, while understanding there is cost to self, for the sake of relationship. 

Herein lies the dilemma:  

If true love is giving (in various forms such as time, energy, materials, labor, thoughts, and prayers) without obliging the receiver to reciprocate, won’t we eventually be spent from loving?  

I’m sure you have known someone who has sacrificed great portions of their lives giving and giving and giving without any return until they become depleted, spent, worn out, and in many cases, so embittered that they turn away from the cause they were once so enamored with.  

There are volumes of cases of clergy and laypeople who embark on a journey of sacrifice (a term I would like to explore more in depth later) thinking their mission is to give with no reciprocation, until one day they find themselves totally spent, exhausted, and used up. Sometimes they take a sabbatical to replenish their own needs, but all too often they turn away entirely from the very mission or purpose that invigorated them to begin with.  

This phenomenon isn’t reserved just for the religious -- we all have experienced it or seen it play out in numerous organizations like PTA volunteers, Scout leaders, community service groups, business organizations, and even families and marriages.  

When giving becomes depleted, a martyr complex often ensues (“I’ve been giving and giving and no one seems to appreciate me. Woe is me!”). And, as we can readily see, once the martyr complex takes over, the love which motivated the giver often turns to self-centeredness.  

The opposite motivation is just as destructive. Giving purely for attention or recognition begins from a place devoid of love. Those who give out of a desire for adulation and adoration, as Jesus said about the hypocrites in Matthew 6:1-4: “They have their reward.”  

This kind of giving is not from love and it is not from God.  

We can see this readily in many public figures -- from sports stars to actors, performers to politicians -- where their actions are carefully calculated to generate adoration and attention, and “they already have their reward.” It is shallow and fleeting and lasts only until something more interesting flits by. And those who crave the adoration usually recognize the shallow falsehood of it, totally lacking genuine connection, feeling used even while trying to convince themselves that this is love. 

Indeed, we are all prone to asking the question: Is the sacrifice I am making (time, energy, money, labor, effort, thoughts) worth the return?  

A better question is: What is the value of the return I expect? 

While at first look these questions might seem to be the same, that turn of thought makes all the difference in the world. You see, the first question dwells on the self first -- the sacrifice I am making -- whereas the second question dwells first on the value from the receiver. 

Look at it this way:  

Love is given without the obligation of being returned. Obligation entails control. And we have already established that control or conditional love is not from God.  

But here is another fine line that makes all the difference: The concepts of obligation and expectation are worlds apart. 

Obligation is a debt. It is based on control, with a subtext of fear of some form of retribution if not carried out.  

Expectation, however, is founded in hope.  

God took the first risk of creating us with free will. He then loved us so much He gave us everything, with the expectation that we would choose to love Him back, but without the obligation that we do so.  

See the difference?  

Expectation is evaluating the character and integrity of the parties involved, and agreeing to pursue a course of action with the understanding of return based on that integrity. It is like the old way of doing business with a handshake, confident in the expectation of return.  

In God’s case, He loved us so much that even though He knew we would sell our integrity for a cheap thrill, break His heart, and deny His love again and again, He still gives -- and gives -- and gives. 

So, if true love gives and gives with the expectation (hope) of being returned but not the obligation (requirement) of being returned, can the love become shallow if there is no return of love to “recharge its battery?” 

Consider it this way:  

In communication (“comm” = with, “unication” = to unify, or to unify with another), the idea is to get the thoughts of the transmitter across to the receiver. So if I think something, form it into words, and say it out loud, I have transmitted the message.  

The other person is the receiver. When I transmit my message (by speaking, in this example), there could be barriers to the communication process. I might speak too softly for the receiver to hear. There could be a wall or an obstruction blocking my speech. There may be language barriers between me and the receiver that I haven’t considered. But if I overcome these barriers to communication and transmit the message to the receiver clearly -- it has gone out from the transmitter towards the receiver. The first step of communication has occurred. 

The second step is reception. Let's say the transmission has overcome all the potential barriers to the reception (physiological, psychological, physical, mental, spiritual, etc.) and arrived at the receiver. But what many of us may not understand -- especially in this age of technology, where we can send messages out into seemingly infinite cyberspace and call it communication -- is that we assume our message has been received rather than understanding that communication is not complete without the third step: acknowledgement.  

The feedback loop is not complete without acknowledgement from the receiver back to the transmitter. In military terms, this is the concept of “HUA” (Heard, Understood, Acknowledged). In aviation, the term is simply, “Roger,” meaning “I heard what you said, I understand what you said, and I am acknowledging what you said.” 

So, how does this translate back to love?  

It goes like this:  

Imagine you are the lover. You have made an inner choice to love. You then emanate love in whatever outer expression of it you choose -- doing something for someone, saying something to someone, praying for someone, thinking about them for their benefit, etc. That is the first step, that you choose to love, and you choose to express that love by giving a part of yourself (time, energy, materials, thoughts) to benefit another.  

Just as “God so loved the world that He gave…” 

You must be on the right track. 

Now, we’ve established that there should be no obligation of the receiver to reciprocate our love, but there should be an expectation of return. Giving love is not conditional on return, but has every expectation of return.  

So now to the ultimate question: What is the return?  

This is the “AHA” moment brought to us by the communication analogy. The long-awaited (expected) return is not an obligation (control). It is not a like-kind gesture -- after all, we each have varied resources and often cannot and should not try to match someone else’s expression of love, or it becomes mere one-upsmanship. 


The feedback loop of love is completed by the receiver’s acknowledgement of -- cue the drum roll -- relationship.  

Anybody from any social standing, economic background, physical, mental, or spiritual state can reciprocate relationship. It is the return, the recharge, the completion that makes love meaningful and gives life purpose. 

Genuine relationship is caring and sharing life. It is something you cannot quantify with the amount of time spent, although that is an indicator. It can happen in a moment shared in a smile, or it can be a life-long journey together. It is -- sorry to disappoint those who need a recipe -- one of those things you just know when it occurs. It is sometimes called "chemistry, " though that is usually reserved for a romantic relationship. It is best described simply as making a connection with another being that is neither coerced nor controlled. It flows easily, and brings joy in spite of the surrounding chaos of this world. I use the term connection intentionally to underscore the fact that relationship is the completion of the love loop. If love is merely emanated in one direction and never returned through genuine relationship,  it is no wonder that burnout occurs -- there is no feedback loop to re-energize  the circuit!  

We have seen some of the aspects of what love is, and what it is not. For those of you, like myself, who see things more clearly when it is drawn out for them, I invite you to try this:  

  • Take a piece of paper. On one side of the paper, write the word GOD. On the other side, write the word SATAN. Draw a line from one to the other. In the middle, write the word HUMANITY. 
  • Now, below the word GOD, write LOVE then TRUE and PURE. Below SATAN write EVIL and BROKEN. Along the line from GOD to HUMANITY, write GIVES and UNCONDITIONAL. Along the line from SATAN to HUMANITY, write OBLIGATION and CONTROL.  
  • Draw a looping arrow back from HUMANITY to GOD. Label this line RELATIONSHIP.  
  • Draw a looping arrow back from HUMANITY to SATAN. Label this line ENSLAVEMENT.  

And there you have it. A simple, visual reminder that will help you discern the health of your encounters and relationships. If you need to, when checking your relationships, simply write your name well below the side GOD is on, write your loved ones’ name below HUMANITY, and check the loop. If the loop seems uncomfortable, or the interaction is better characterized by control, fear, or conditions, well -- you can see where the influence originates. 


  • God is love
  • You were created by love, for the purpose of relationship

We were created to love. It is our legacy, nourished by relationship. No matter how difficult or distant our circumstances may seem, relationship keeps us alive by renewing our love again and again -- into eternity.