What Is the Meaning of Love?

There is a powerful scene in the movie Forrest Gump. Forrest, who is mildly retarded, has been in love since childhood with Jenny, whose abuse by her father has left her psychologically damaged. At one point Forrest tells her he loves her and she quickly responds, “You don’t know what love is.” In her mind, his low intelligence makes him incapable of truly understanding love. Later in the story, Forrest asks her if she will marry him. When it’s clear she is not going to say yes, he says, “Why don’t you love me, Jenny? I’m not a smart man. But I know what love is.” By the time the movie is over, you realize that, more than most of us, he does know what love is.

What exactly is love?

Read Glossary Definition of Love here.

Love is one…It is like itself, unchanged throughout. (W-pI.127.1:3, 5)

One of the most well known lines in A Course in Miracles is from the introduction: “The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught” (T-In.1:6). Most of us take that line to mean that the Course does not offer a verbal definition of love, for its real meaning is beyond words. Yet to really understand that line, we need to interpret it in light of related discussions in the Course. As it turns out, we are not lacking for related discussions. The meaning of love is a theme that runs throughout the entire Course, being discussed or mentioned in thirty-six paragraphs (this includes one in the Psychotherapy supplement).

When we look at all these references, one thing becomes perfectly clear. The phrase “the meaning of love” does not refer to a verbal definition of love. It refers to understanding what love really is. Thus, when the Course says, “You do not know the meaning of love” (T-12.VII.7:1), it means that you don’t understand love. To reverse Forrest Gump’s statement, you don’t know what love is.

Indeed, the Course echoes Jenny’s statement about Forrest. It not only says we don’t know what love is, but it then connects that with a mental disability. First it says, “You have learning handicaps in a very literal sense” (T-12.VII.5:2). I assume “learning handicaps” is what we today call “learning disabilities,” which doesn’t refer to low intelligence but rather to specific difficulties in learning (like dyslexia). Then it says, “You do not know the meaning of love, and that is your handicap” (T-12.VII.7:1).

Translated: You don’t know what love is, and in the grand scheme of things, that is a profound mental handicap.

To say you don’t know what love is, of course, is a far weightier accusation than saying you are unable to compose a good dictionary definition of love. In the plainest possible language, the Course is saying you don’t know how to love. Who wants to accept that? Imagine how you would feel if one day you realized, “I don’t know how to love. I don’t know what love is.” Would anyone enjoy that realization?

Why the Course says we don’t know what love is.

And then, once we have learned what love is not, we will be in an excellent position to understand what it is.

Our love is special; it attaches itself only to certain people and thus excludes others.

Perhaps the most basic characteristic of human love is that we reserve our love for certain people. Our love is, to use the Course’s term, special love. We love a particular person due to characteristics special to that person. We decide—automatically or through great deliberation—which person is able to meet our needs best, and to that person goes our love. This characteristic of love is not something we generally question. In our eyes, it is simply the nature of love.

Yet in the Course’s eyes, this is decidedly not the nature of love. Indeed, the fact that our love is directed at particular people is the Course’s main problem with what we call love. This is why a third of the paragraphs that discuss the meaning of love appear in the special relationship chapters—Chapters 15 and 16 of the Text. As a result, we could largely boil this whole topic down to one short statement: The meaning of love is that love is not special.

You cannot love parts of reality [particular people] and understand what love means. If you would love unlike to God, Who knows no special love, how can you understand it? (T-15.V.3:3-4)

Why is special love not really love?

One answer, seen in the above passage, is that that is not how God loves, and, as the Course says, “Love has no meaning except as its Creator defined it by His Will” (T-16.VI.1:7). Yet there is another answer that is perhaps more accessible, which is that special love combines love with elements that contradict love. We can see that in these two passages:

To believe that special relationships, with special love, can offer you salvation is the belief that separation is salvation. (T-15.V.3:5)

In Heaven, where the meaning of love is known, love is the same as union. Here, where the illusion of love is accepted in its place, love is perceived as separation and exclusion. (T-16.V.4:4)

Both these passages say that special love is “separation,” with the second one adding that it is also “exclusion.” What this means is not exactly a mystery. Special love says, “I want to join with you, but I want to be separate from them. I want to include you but exclude them.”

We don’t see a contradiction here. We think, “I love this particularly lovable person but not that clearly unlovable person. What could be more natural?” But the Course sees it subtly differently. Its perspective is not just that we both love and hate, but that our love both loves and hates. Our love for the one person simultaneously says, “You others, stay away, you’re not welcome. You are rejected.”

Our love beckons with one hand and pushes away with the other.

This means that our love has become an internal contradiction.

It has become a strange mixture of hate and love. As the Course puts it, it has become a hateful love. “The demand for specialness, and the perception of the giving of specialness as an act of love, would make love hateful” (T-16.V.10:3). Being an internal contradiction, our love has actually become a patch of nonsense: “Who can understand a double concept, such as…’hateful love’?” (T-27.IV.1:9). This is why we do not know what love means—we think that a hate-filled love can still be love.

As students of the Course and seekers of God, we probably think, “I do love, but my love is too limited. I need to expand it to include more people, so that it will someday include everyone.” The Course would agree with the basic sentiment here, but register one crucial disagreement: We do not love, not yet. Love that includes everyone is the only thing worthy of the name. Limited love is not love. As the Course says,”Its total lack of limit is its meaning” (T-18.VIII.8:2).

Our love attacks even the one we “love”

At this point, we might think, “Well, yes, my love does include a kind of hate, or at least rejection, toward people other than my loved ones. But at least my love is truly loving toward those loved ones.” Here again the Course would differ. It points out a number of ways in which our loves attacks even the ones we love.

First, our love is about gaining specialness, and specialness is competitive and cannot share:

Specialness can never share, for it depends on goals that you alone can reach. And he must never reach them, or your goal is jeopardized. Can love have meaning where the goal is triumph? (T-24.I.6:5-7)

In the end, human love is generally a quest to feel special. Isn’t that the high we are all seeking? Yet specialness is about being above others. As such, it is inherently competitive; it is inherently about triumph. And when it comes down to it, we want that triumph for ourselves alone. We try to tell ourselves otherwise—that we can share this goal with our partner, that together we can be above others, together we can triumph. But can we really keep this competitiveness from entering into our relationship? Can we really resist turning on our partner the weapon of triumph that we have aimed at others? And can love be real where competition has entered in?

Second, our love is primarily about taking; it demands sacrifice from the other:

They come together, each to complete himself and rob the other. They stay until they think that there is nothing left to steal, and then move on. (T-22.In.2:6-7)

I think we all recognize the truth in this rather blunt passage, although we can perhaps see it more clearly when we are on the receiving end. We may think our own mode is one of constant giving, yet it is quite clear to us that our partner is frequently taking. Even when we recognize our own taking, however, we often count it as part of love. Why shouldn’t I require you to give to me? Why shouldn’t I demand that you sacrifice for me? Isn’t that the proof you love me? Not surprisingly, the Course calls this out for the contradiction it is. Yet despite the obvious contradiction of a demanding love, the Course says this idea has profound influence, being the very heart of the ego: “Each form [the ego takes is] but a cover for the one idea that hides behind them all; that love demands sacrifice, and is therefore inseparable from attack and fear” (T-15.X.6:7).

Third, our love views giving as a sacrifice, and thus gives only conditionally, only to guilt the receiver into giving back:

He is not in love with the other at all. He merely believes he is in love with sacrifice. And for this sacrifice, which he demands of himself, he demands that the other accept the guilt and sacrifice himself as well. (T-15.VII.7:4-6)

Let’s be honest: We do usually experience giving as a sacrifice. This is shown by the fact that we constantly count the cost to see if we can afford it. And we constantly gauge the likely outcome, to see if our costs will be recovered. In the Course’s eyes, this is the surface evidence of a darker underlying program: We sacrifice for another person to induce guilt in that person, so that in order to pay off that guilt, he or she will sacrifice for us in return. The Course makes the obvious point: “No one could interpret direct attack as love. Yet to make guilty [by ‘giving’ in this sense] is direct attack” (T-15.VII.6:4-5). Can we really make sense of an “attacking love”?

I could continue to add other categories onto this list. For example, the Course says that we equate love with bondage, with chaining another to us through guilt. “What makes another guilty and holds him through guilt is ‘good'” (T-15.VII.8:8). It says that we see love as empathizing with suffering, yet this reinforces that which is capable of suffering in the other, which therefore weakens that person, “and to weaken is always to attack” (T-16.I.2:5). It says that our love relationships are not so much ends in themselves, but just our attempt to find an island of refuge from all the hate in our lives, to find “a haven in the storm of guilt” (T-16.IV.3:1). It says those same relationships are expressions of vengeance on past partners and even on our current partner (T-16.VII.2-5), which means we are acting out a vengeful love.

But I suspect you get the point without me having to multiply examples.

The point is that even toward our beloved, our “love” is fatally fused with elements of hate.

We have equated love with triumph, non-sharing, taking, demanding, conditional giving, making guilty, bondage, weakening, attack, and vengeance.

Can anyone call that love?

What can we conclude but that we don’t know what love is?

Does this mean we are so incapable of love that we only hate, period?

Jesus actually addressed this with Helen and Bill, in a way that affirmed the love they did have for each other, while retaining his central point: You do not know what love means.

You have no idea of the intensity of your wish to get rid of each other. This does not mean that you are not strongly impelled toward each other, but it does mean that love is not the only emotion. Because your love has become more in awareness, the conflict [in you between love and fear] can no longer be “settled” by your previous attempts to minimize the fear….

You do not realize how much you hate each other. You will not get rid of this until you do realize it, for until then, you will think you want to get rid of each other and keep the hatred. Yet if you are each other’s salvation, what can this mean except that you prefer attack to salvation?…You do hate and fear each other, and your love, which is very real, is totally obscured by it. How can you know the meaning of love unless it is total? (Absence from Felicity, p. 309)

When “love is not the only emotion,” when our love is mingled with fear and hate, we cannot “know the meaning of love.” The love we feel becomes a feeble echo of the real love that lies deep in our nature, the real love that has become “totally obscured” by the fear and hate.

What is love?

We are almost in a position to answer the title question: What is the meaning of love?

Workbook Lesson 127, “There is no love but God’s,” holds the key. Interestingly, this is an entire lesson about the meaning of love. It mentions “love’s meaning” or “what love means” eight times. Further, it is “the largest single step this course requests in your advance towards its established goal” (W-pI.126.6:5). Surely the combination of these two features is not an accident.

If we pay attention, this lesson tells us exactly what love really is.

Here are the opening two paragraphs of that lesson:

Perhaps you think that different kinds of love are possible. Perhaps you think there is a kind of love for this, a kind for that; a way of loving one, another way of loving still another. Love is one. It has no separate parts and no degrees; no kinds nor levels, no divergencies and no distinctions. It is like itself, unchanged throughout. It never alters with a person or a circumstance. It is the Heart of God, and also of His Son.

Love’s meaning is obscure to anyone who thinks that love can change. He does not see that changing love must be impossible. And thus he thinks that he can love at times, and hate at other times. He also thinks that love can be bestowed on one, and yet remain itself although it is withheld from others. To believe these things of love is not to understand it. If it could make such distinctions, it would have to judge between the righteous and the sinner, and perceive the Son of God in separate parts. (W-pI.127.1-2)

Notice all the things here that love is not.

I see five different categories of what love seems to be but isn’t:
1. Love has no different kinds; you cannot love one person one way and another person another way.
2. Love does not change with changing circumstance; you cannot love at times and hate at other times.
3. Love has no degrees, no varying amounts of intensity.
4. Love has no levels; it does not range from lowest love to highest love.
5. Love has no separate parts; it does not make distinctions between people, giving itself to one person while withholding itself from another.

What do all of these categories have in common? They all see differences within love. Isn’t this essentially the problem we have seen all along? Throughout, we have seen love mixed with something different, with hate, separation, exclusion, attack, bondage, etc. That, too, is undoubtedly the problem with the above five categories. In other words, the differences within love exist only because love has been combined with something different. That is quite clear with a couple of the categories—the second and fifth—which are openly about combining love with an opposite. But it is almost certainly true with the other categories as well. For instance, you only get degrees of love (#3) when there is a spectrum stretching from the most intense love to the most weak and mild love, such that at the mild end is a love so relatively indifferent that it isn’t all that loving. Similarly, you only get levels of love (#4) when there is a spectrum stretching from highest love to lowest love, such that at the low end is a love that is so selfish and animal that it too isn’t all that loving. Again, you only get differences within love when you inject into it unloving elements.

The reason I’ve spent so much time on what’s wrong with our love is that once we understand what love is not, that automatically tells us what love is.

What is wrong with our love?

It combines love with elements of hate.

It makes the opposite of love part of love.

Our love thereby becomes a hateful love, an attacking love, an exclusionary love, a selfish love, a fickle love, a demanding love.

Our love becomes a walking contradiction.

What, then, is real love?

It is, quite simply, an unmixed love. It is a love not combined with anything else. It is pure love. Lesson 127 says it as plainly as possible:

Love is one…It is like itself, unchanged throughout. (W-pI.127.1:3, 5)

Here is the key to the meaning of love:

“It is like itself.” Everything in it is love. It contains nothing else. It is absolutely homogeneous. It is the same throughout. Every part of it is like every other part. It is only love. It contains no elements of hate, for love is not like hate. It is like itself.

This, of course, is how God loves. To distinguish God’s Love from our “love,” the Course says that there are no gaps in God’s Love. It says that “the least and littlest gap…in His eternal Love is quite impossible. For it would mean His Love could harbor just a hint of hate, His gentleness turn sometimes to attack, and His eternal patience sometimes fail” (T-29.I.1:4-5). Here is the exact same notion, that real love does not contain any unlike elements. “It is like itself.” That is the meaning of love.

This sounds ridiculously simple, and on a conceptual level, it is simple. But on a practical level, it is revolutionary. Let’s look at what is implied by the simple notion that love “is like itself.”

Real love is completely impartial and without exception

When we know the meaning of love, our love will not embrace one and reject another. Rather, we will love everyone to the same degree. “You cannot enter into real relationships with any of God’s Sons unless you love them all and equally” (T-13.X.11:1). This means that our love is impersonal, in the sense that it is not based on attributes that are specific to a particular person. It is a response to something universal in each person. But this love is also personal, in the sense that it is not remote or aloof. It really does love each person deeply. The Course often speaks of this love using the words “dear” and “tender.” For instance, a Course prayer has us say, “I am he on whom You smile in love and tenderness so dear and deep and still…” (W-pII.341.1:2). Amazingly, another prayer describes God’s Love as having a “tenderness I cannot comprehend” (W-pII.233.1:7).

It loves everyone in the same way

We, of course, are used to loving each person differently—as a friend, or a lover, or a child, or a parent, etc. The emotion of love actually differs depending on that person’s place in our lives. To put this another way, our love differs depending on the person’s degree and kind of proximity to us. Real love, however, has a different premise. It assumes total proximity. It is based on the fact that others are literally one with us. Always being a reflection of this total proximity, real love doesn’t take different emotional forms. Rather, the same emotion is merely expressed in different physical forms. You love your spouse in the same way as your friend or as your child, which is the same way you love a complete stranger. You just express that love in different ways.

Real love is constant

Each day we watch our love rise and fall with changing circumstances, like a boat on a restless sea. The same person we love intensely in one moment we may be angry or bored with in the next. Our love includes alternations with unloving emotions, which makes it a contradiction. Being only love, real love is perfectly constant, no matter what the outer circumstance. It forever floats serene and untouched above the restless seas of life. As Lesson 127 says, “It never alters with a person or a circumstance” (W-pI.127.1:6)

Real love has limitless intensity.

It is natural to us that love comes in different strengths, different degrees of intensity. Yet as we saw earlier, that assumes a love that has been diluted with something else, a love that has been mixed with an opposite. The only way to avoid diluted love is to have a love of limitless intensity. Even the slightest lessening of intensity means that it has been watered down. Unless it is unlimited, something else has been stirred in. The Course therefore describes the love of our true Self this way: “Its love is limitless, with an intensity that holds all things within it, in the calm of quiet certainty. Its strength comes not from burning impulses which move the world, but from the boundless Love of God Himself” (W-pII.252.1:3-4). Real love has limitless intensity, boundless strength.

Real love only gives, gives itself wholly, and only gains thereby

Human love is a constantly changing patchwork of giving and taking. Sometimes it makes demands on our loved ones and sometimes it gives. But its gifts are carefully measured and almost always conditional. They are more bargains than gifts. In contrast, real love “makes no bargains” (T-8.I.1:5; 21.III.9:3) and makes no demands: “Those who see themselves as whole make no demands” (37.2:7). Rather, it sets others free, for “Love is freedom” (T-16.VI.2:1). And it only gives, holding nothing back in the process. “With love in you, you have no need except to extend it” (T-15.V.11:3). In a state of real love, you give all of yourself to each person. This is not a sacrifice meant to obligate that person to give back. Paradoxically, by giving all of yourself away, you are filled up. As the Course puts it, “Like [God], you can give yourself completely, wholly without loss and only with gain” (T-15.VI.4:6). In case we find this giving so extreme as to be unnatural, the Course adds shortly afterwards, “And this is love, for this alone is natural under the laws of God” (T-15.VI.5:7).

Real love, once embraced, becomes our only emotion

For our love to not be combined with unloving elements, it has to become the only emotion in us. Remember Jesus’ assessment of Helen and Bill’s relationship? He said, “love is not the only emotion.” Clearly, he was implying that love must become the only emotion. Otherwise, he said, they would not know what love is: “How can you know the meaning of love unless it is total?” Can you imagine a state in which the only emotion ever in your mind is the kind of love described here? Of course, joy and peace would also be in you, for they are an inherent part of love. But negative emotions would never appear in the temple of your mind, would never cross its holy space. If, as the Bible says and the Course quotes, “perfect love casts out fear,” then a mind filled with perfect love would literally have no room for fear, or any other negative emotion.

The love described in the above points seems unimaginably extreme, beyond comprehension. Yet it is the simple result of cleaning love of contamination by its opposite. That is all it is. It is a love that is “like itself.” And what else deserves the name of love? At one point, the Course speaks of power that has been diluted by its opposite: weakness. It says that “weakened power” is a contradiction in terms, and then concludes, “Power is unopposed, to be itself” (T-27.III.1:5). The exact same thing is true of love. Love is unopposed, to be itself.

How do we attain real love?

What are your reactions to the love I have just described? Since I don’t know your reactions, I will share mine, which are three. My first reaction is that, if this is love, then I really don’t understand love, for my love is a mixed bag. It is partial, exclusive, limited, and changing, which means it has been thoroughly sullied and diluted by its opposite. What Jenny said about Forrest applies to me: I don’t know what love is.

My second reaction, though, is that something deep in me responds to this concept of love. Something in me is ignited by it. I want this love; I want to receive it and I want to give it. Okay, it is a little scary. Will I be swallowed up by it? Once it comes, will anything be left of me? Yet despite these fears, I think this love answers a universal longing in us. Something deep in our hearts recognizes this love and, upon encountering it, stirs to life.

My third reaction is that it seems unreachable. How on earth can I ever get there? From a certain standpoint, such doubts make sense, for loving this way is not the norm in this world, with us as the stingy exceptions. Rather, the Course teaches that the entire world, including all its laws and principles, was actually designed to obscure the real meaning of love:

No law the world obeys can help you grasp love’s meaning. What the world believes was made to hide love’s meaning, and to keep it dark and secret. There is not one principle the world upholds but violates the truth of what love is, and what you are as well. (W-pI.127.5:1-3)

Further, if I am thinking of teaching myself this love, then I should experience hopelessness. Remember, when it comes to love, I am learning handicapped. And do you ask the learning disabled to design the curriculum by which they overcome their disability?

You do not know the meaning of love, and that is your handicap. Do not attempt to teach yourself what you do not understand, and do not try to set up curriculum goals where yours have clearly failed. (T-12.V.6:1-2)

The Course affirms, however, that we can be taught love’s meaning, as long as our Teacher is not ourselves.

True, the introduction says the meaning of love “is beyond what can be taught” (T-In.1:6). Yet later, the Course speaks in more nuanced terms of a two-step process, whereby first the Holy Spirit teaches us an earthly reflection of love, and then we awaken beyond this earth to the full knowledge of love.

For that first step, we need two things.

First, we need a special curriculum, designed for us, not by us: “The learning situation in which you placed yourself is impossible, and in this situation you clearly require a special Teacher and a special curriculum” (T-12.V.5:4). For us students of A Course in Miracles, that curriculum is the Course itself. It is a curriculum carefully designed to get through all of our denseness and resistance and actually teach us the meaning of love. Indeed, the Text tells us “this is a course on love” (T-13.IV.1:1).

Second, we need holy instants, instants in which we step out of our normal state of mind. It is in those instants that the Holy Spirit can most fully teach us the meaning of love. The Text tells us, “The holy instant is the Holy Spirit’s most useful learning device for teaching you love’s meaning” (T-15.V.1:1). And the Workbook is full of lessons that provide practical instruction in how to experience such holy instants. Lesson 127, in fact, is one such lesson. It asks us to take two practice periods of fifteen minutes each, in which we open our minds, withdraw the value we have placed on the world’s “meager offerings and senseless gifts” (W-pI.127.8:4), and call to God, asking His Voice to teach us the meaning of love. And God will respond, it says:

He will shine through your idle thoughts today, and help you understand the truth of love. In loving gentleness He will abide with you, as you allow His Voice to teach love’s meaning to your clean and open mind. (W-pI.127.9:4-5)

However incapable of love you seem right now, the Course promises that if you follow its special curriculum and special Teacher, “you will become an excellent learner and an excellent teacher” (T-12.V.8:6).

You will actually learn how to love, and learn it so well that you can teach others.

To be more precise, you will learn to give unconditional forgiveness, which is “an earthly form of love” (W-pI.186.14:2). “In this form,” the Course says, “you can fulfill your function even here, although what love will mean to you when formlessness has been restored to you is greater still” (W-pI.186.14:4).

When you have perfectly learned the earthly reflection of love, says the Course, then you will return to heavenly knowledge. All that you learned about love will have prepared you to really know, and in that knowledge, your learning will disappear:

Learning is useless in the Presence of your Creator, Whose acknowledgment of you and yours of Him so far transcend all learning that everything you learned is meaningless, replaced forever by the knowledge of love and its one meaning. (T-18.IX.12:6)

This is what you will at last know: your Creator’s “acknowledgment of you and yours of Him.”

Right now you cannot comprehend that limitless acknowledgment, but that is what love is.

Yet, of course, this knowledge of love will not be something truly new. It will be the remembrance of something we knew from before the foundations of the world. The Course says that we have always known the meaning of love: “there never was a time in which you knew it not” (T-18.IX.12:5). How could it be otherwise? Love is not something we have, but something we are. “No course whose purpose is to teach you to remember what you really are could fail to emphasize that there can never be a difference in what you really are and what love is. Love’s meaning is your own” (W-pI.127.4:1-2).

If love’s meaning is our meaning, then loving in the way described here will never become second nature. Rather, one day we will remember it is first nature; indeed, our only nature. And that has implications for now. It means that despite our learning handicaps, and despite the length of time we have spent in a handicapped state, somewhere inside, even now, we do know what love is.

If you or someone you know is in need of some love, we would be honored to pray for you.

Go to our prayer ministry page here and submit a request. Our trained team, stationed around the world, will pray for you without judgement in complete confidentiality.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]