Love. Everyone wants it, and everyone hates to lose it once they have it. Love is the primary virtue praised by our culture today, mentioned ubiquitously in movies, songs, books, and magazines. Is there anyone who seriously doubts the importance of love? But for all of the attention and “love” that love receives, how many people really understand what love is? To steal a line from rom-coms and DTR’s (that’s a “defining the relationship” talk, for you old fogeys): Are we really in love with love, or just the idea of love? Maybe we don’t understand love so well as we thought.
So what is love? A good place to start learning about love is “The Love Chapter” of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Do you notice how love is described not in terms of feelings, but in terms of actions? If we are to take 1 Corinthians 13 seriously, love is as love does.
Let’s see what else scripture can tell us about love. In 1 John 4 we read “God is love,” so maybe we should look at God’s example; how did God demonstrate his love for us? If you do a quick word search to find where the words “Christ,” “Jesus,” or “God” appear in proximity to the word “love” in the Bible and then select the verses that define or illustrate how God loves us, here is what you’ll find:
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 2 Corinthians 5:14
The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:2
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…. Ephesians 5:25
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 1 John 3:16
In short, everywhere that the love of God is described, it is always defined by his self-sacrifice for humanity. The only passage I left out of this list was the extended passage of Philippians 2:1-9, a beautiful picture of how the church is to follow Jesus’ example in love. Although a little too long to quote directly here, it also directly connects Jesus’ love for us with the sacrifices he made on our behalf.
So if God loves us by giving himself sacrificially on our behalf, how should we love him back? Is it by praying all the time, or singing songs about our feelings towards him in church? Well, no doubt those are ways of expressing love for God, but to what extent are they actually loving him? Scripture again provides the answer. Jesus makes it clear five times in John 14 alone that loving God means obeying him. In John 15 Jesus repeats this point, and adds that the way to remain in His love is to obey His commands, while 1 John reiterates that loving God means obeying Him, and explains that obedience to God is the sign of God’s love. To the extent that we are obeying God we are loving him, and that includes obeying his commands to “pray without ceasing” and to sing to God “with gratitude in your hearts.” In other words, much of what we think of as loving God really is loving God, but not necessarily merely because we view it as loving or feel loving when we do it. (To be clear, expressing love towards God is always good!)
We are beginning to gain a more complete understanding now: God loves us by sacrificing himself for us, and we are called to love God in return. But loving God requires us to obey him, and one of God’s commands is to love others. That means that we are required to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others.
There is a concept riding just beneath the surface of scripture and our discussion so far, and that is the idea that love is not essentially subjective, but rather objective. If it were otherwise, how could we say that love is “obeying God” or “sacrificially doing good for others,” since obedience implies an objective command, and doing good implies a standard by which “good” is measured? If being loving is an objective trait, then that means love is also intimately connected to the truth. Just as the truth must be spoken in love, so love should be “spoken” (or rather shown) in truth. Any actions based on love must also be equally based on truth.
Why? Because if love is just a feeling felt by the person doing the loving then there is no need for truth. But if there is more to love than just feelings then we must ask, “what actions are loving?” or “what benefits another person?” etc. We must also face the possibility that certain actions really are loving even though they are perceived as unloving, and that certain actions are unloving even though they are perceived as loving! All of these questions depend on more than just mere opinion; they require that there actually is a truth to the matter. Some actions really are loving because they really do benefit others, and some actions really are unloving because they really do cause others undue harm, independent of human opinion.
So here is the primary thing I want to communicate to you: love is not a feeling. Love may sometimes motivate feelings, but love also sometimes motivates thoughts. Conversely, feelings sometimes motivate love, and thoughts sometimes motivate love – but love is not just a feeling any more than it is just a thought. Love is principally about actions and motivates actions because to love someone is to act lovingly toward them.
If love is selflessness towards others for their good, and if we claim to love others, then we must know (at least generally) what is good for them. That means love is dependent on the way things are – which is to say, dependent on the truth. Love and truth work together, mutually reinforcing and galvanizing one another into action – the only outlet fully capable of giving them voice.