By Kenneth E. Kovacs
Love is the non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.
“Love is the non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.” This is how James E. Loder (1931-2001) characterized the nature, movement, and purpose of love. This definition is one of the best I know.
Loder’s life was shaped by two life-changing religious experiences where he encountered the transforming love of God. He went on to develop a way to talk about the life of faith as the intimate relationality of the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. As a professor of practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary for decades, Loder, who had a background in theology and psychology, wrote much about what it means to be human and fully alive.
A gifted counselor, Loder often made time for students, including me. Looking back on our weekly sessions, I am unsure how to describe them. They were a combination of deep listening, psychotherapy, serious dream work, and spiritual direction. Jim embodied his definition of love and invited me to step boldly into my life.
Thirty years later, in addition to being a parish minister, I am also a Jungian analyst-in-training. In my work, both as a pastor and now working with clients, I often return to Loder’s definition of love. His vision informs how I relate to both parishioners and clients. I believe Jim’s understanding of love has much to offer those who struggle with the meaning and nature of the Christian life.
What does it mean to say that love is non-possessive?
Loder believes this is describing the unique stance of the one who loves another. There is no desire to possess or “own” the other, whomever the other might be. Loving this way means never seeking to control, manage, or deny the otherness of the other. “Where love reigns,” C.G. Jung (1875-1961) wisely said, “there is no will to power; and where the will to power is paramount love is lacking.”
Love has nothing to do with coercive power. Instead, love empowers the other to be other. One sees the other as other and does not try to pull the other into one’s orbit or “use” the other for self-interest. It is a love that consciously and intentionally strives to preserve the otherness of the other because the other is not an extension of one’s ego, selfish desires, fears, or anxieties.
When power games are set aside, love takes delight and joy in the full particularity of the other. Love rejoices in the uniqueness of the one who stands before you in all their glory and goodness, beauty, oddness, pain, brokenness, and fears—all that makes them who they are, the totality of their being, their past, present, all that you know and all that you don’t know about the other.
Delight paves the way for radical acceptance. Delighting in one’s particularity requires genuinely seeing the other. It requires attention. And love requires intention, which means we must bring something of ourselves into the exchange. You bring yourself fully to the moment, to the person before you, and you strive to really see the other. Poet Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) once said, “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see a thing at all.” There’s so much truth contained in that statement.
Love is the light that illuminates the darkness. It is what allows us to see. Without love, our vision is distorted. We might think we see or know someone, but unless our gaze is mediated through love, then s/he remains invisible to us. Without intentional love, we only see what we project onto people, what we fantasize them to be, and what we want them to be. Or we project our fears, even our hate, upon them and prevent them from being who they are authentically. Through love, an individual comes into focus and becomes visible before our eyes—and this kind of love, directed toward God, brings God into focus, as it were, shaping one’s image of God.
A radical shift occurred in my heart when it struck me that Loder’s definition of love can also inform how I imagine God’s love for me. What if God relates to me with a non-possessive delight in my particularity? While God’s love is a “love that will not let me go,” as the old hymn says, it is a love that holds me loosely, non-possessively, a love that grants me freedom to be other before God, free to be who I am in all my particularity. Such a love liberates me and invites me to discover who I am, taking delight in how I grow and mature. This love creates a space for me to develop and thrive but also fail, again and again, still in the wide embrace of God’s presence. This kind of love empowers and enables me to enter my life, embrace my full humanity and become more authentically human more fully. Irenaeus (b. 130) was correct: “The glory of God is the human being [or becoming] fully alive.”
The Christian life is inherently relational, sustained, and empowered by a love that fosters human growth and transformation that summons one to life. The therapeutic dimensions of such a perspective are considerable. I have found that such a view is almost always received with amazement and disbelief—”You mean I am free to be myself?”—followed by extraordinary gratitude. Sadly, too many Christians and non-Christians believe that to be a person of faith, one must become someone other than the person one knows oneself to be.
Instead, God’s love moves in a still more excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31). “The grace of God,” Walter Brueggemann said, “is that the creature whom [God] has caused to be, [God] now lets be.” God creates by “letting-be.” And in “letting be,” we are free to make, form, and create in our own way. We are free to grow, flourish, and bear fruit. In “letting-be,” God forms and then lets us go in order for the creation to fulfill its purpose, to evolve and change, blossom and grow, yield and bear fruit—as well as make terrible, tragic mistakes. Without controlling or micromanaging us, God gives us space to grow. God risks freedom and trusts us to grow, watching and patiently waiting for the unfolding of our lives.
As a therapist, I strive to work with all this in mind. The therapeutic relationship creates a “container” or space for something new to emerge in the client’s life. I’m concerned less with the presenting pathology (although I listen for it) than I am with what is trying to come to life in an individual.
In love, I endeavor to create a non-possessive, non-controlling “frame” or space and work hard not to fill it with my projections. Instead, I “hold” the space and then step back, as it were. I consciously invite the client to step in, to show up, and, by grace, step more fully into their own life in all its particularity. With radical respect for them, I trust the process and wait for something new to unfold.
I believe God does not wish to be God without us. I’ve come to believe that God has radical respect for us and values us, and therefore God wants us to grow into our humanity, step into our lives, listen to our hearts, and participate more fully in the world as individuals. And I have come to believe that one way God gets us to grow is by intentionally stepping back and inviting us to step in. This is a notion found in Jewish mysticism, in the Kabbalah, and I have come to see its value, wisdom, and truth. It’s known as zimzum, meaning “contraction.” It’s most associated with Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), who said God created the universe by “contracting” or “withdrawing” a part of God’s self to create a space, a void, to make room for the creation of the world. Creation, humanity, truth, reality, and freedom emerge when, in love, God withdraws, contracts, and pulls back, inviting something new to emerge within that space. I have a hunch that God continues to create this way.
God’s desire to be in relationship with humanity entails contraction and stepping back, and in the vacated space something new is invited to step, to come into being, something other than Godself, in whom God takes great delight. Remarkably, God doesn’t seek to control creation but trusts the goodness of creation and frees it to evolve and emerge. God gives creation—gives us—the freedom to be, to flourish, yes, to fail, but ultimately to grow. All of it is given in love.
Kenneth E. Kovacs, Ph.D., is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, MD, and an analyst-in-training at the C.G. Jung Institute-Küsnacht, Switzerland. A graduate of Rutgers University and Princeton Theological Seminary, he received his doctorate in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. Ken is the author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York/Bern: Peter Lang, 2009) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch Press, 2016).
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love