Love. We use the word a lot; we kind of have to if we want to be biblical. Love is at the heart of Christian teaching, and it is one of few words used to describe God’s essence. It is easy to curl the tongue to the teeth and then bring the lower lips to those same incisors to form the word “love”, but what does the word really mean?
It seems that when Satan hates a truth he tries to employ one of two strategies. First, he tries to prevent people from talking or thinking about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But if that doesn’t work his next strategy is to get people to talk about it a lot, but then subtly change the meaning of the words so that what is being said sounds like the truth, but is actually very different. I think this is what Satan has done with the word “love.” We hear it all the time. God loves you. Love one another. But what is true love? What do you think of when you hear the word love? More importantly, what does God mean by the word love? A quick look at the Bible will show how vital it is that we understand what love is supposed to be.
When the Creator of the universe, the One who defines right and wrong, the One we will all stand before on judgement day, walked among us, He was asked what the most important commandment was. This is what he said: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
The Apostle John goes so far as to say that if we do not love, we are not of God and we “abide in death.” (1 John 3:10,14) He adds that “everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7b-8) We like to evaluate our level of spirituality based on our knowledge of correct doctrine or how well we are abstaining from certain things that other worldly Christians are participating in. But God says the distinction that matters is this: do we love Him and love others?
According to these and many other verses, if we get love wrong, either by not loving or by misunderstanding what love really is, we have gotten our whole life wrong.
How do you know if you are loving?
I read passages like those above and they shake me. They force me to ask myself, “Do I love God? Do I love others?” I’m in love with my wife and I feel pretty overwhelmed by how precious my kids are. Does this make me “loving?” When our culture uses the word love, it predominantly refers to a feeling of fondness or desire for something. It’s easy for me to absorb that definition and it colors my self-examination when those verses convict me.
Do I love God? “Let me see. Not right now. But He did give me a beautiful wife, and a comfortable house, and pretty decent looks. Yeah, that was nice of him. I think I’m starting to feel love for God again.” Is that the thought exercise that Jesus meant was the greatest commandment?
Do I love other people? I won’t go through my evaluation process here because it’s too sordid and full of petty resentment, but it rarely ends with me feeling like, “Yep, I’m acing this loving-others thing.” Sure, when we are in church and singing the three-part round “Love the Lord Your God” and we sound pretty cool, I look around and think, “Man, I love you guys.” But later that week when I’m smoldering over a comment someone made about me, I sure don’t feel like I love them – at all.
Is love a feeling? Do you go back and forth between “abiding in death,” and “being of God” with the petulant swings of your mood? I hope not. Bossing my feelings around is not my strong point.
When we are told God loves us, does this just mean He has fond feelings for us? He looks down at us beheading children, and cursing, raping, and stealing, and He just sighs romantically?
Thankfully, God has given us more than Justin Bieber and the Hallmark channel to define the kind of love God has for us and the love He commands us to have for Him and others.
God’s word on Love
I want to list some verses on love, but we are about to encounter a communication difficulty. What is familiar can become uninteresting. The brain is always on the look out for what is new and exciting. It doesn’t want to waste time on something it already knows. The verses I want to look at are not new; they are some of the most familiar phrases in the Bible, and there lies the danger: the brain is convinced it already understands them.
But there is a huge difference between being able to put words in a correct order and grasping the meaning behind the words, something the brain forgets. Because of this, quoting familiar passages can have the same spiritual impact as counting to a hundred.
We know a lot about love. We know the four Greek words. We can speak poetry on love with the “tongues of angels.” We can recite every passage on love, but if we don’t have love, we are nothing. We abide in death.
The problem here is not that we already know all about love, it is that we think we do, but have fallen victim to Satan’s word-twisting. The very foundation of true faith has been corrupted. Learning what true love is is worth the effort. You can’t afford to get this wrong.
We are given two examples for the way we are to love others. The first is the love of God in Jesus for us. We are commanded to love the way Jesus loves us (John 13:34-35). How does Jesus love us? With a passionate desire for us to be reconciled to him. He has pursued us to the point of laying down his life on the cross. He put our eternal good ahead of his own pleasure and comfort. Jesus loves us with unyielding determination. He set his face like flint on the way to the cross. His actions were not motivated by the fleeting infatuation of a schoolboy, but rather by the all-knowing, all-consuming love of the Creator for his creation.
The second example of love we are to look to is more cloudy but still helpful. Jesus said we must love others as we love ourselves. Mostly we seem to twist the message of this verse to mean we need to feel better about ourselves. (This whole “love is a feeling” thing really messes us up.) I don’t think Jesus is commanding us to love ourselves, as much as he is pointing out that our survival instincts cause us to naturally pursue what we believe will be best for us – what will maximize our long-term pleasure. We get deceived about what is really best for us, but we still habitually seek to do what we believe is best for us.
So true love, then, is treating others with the same tenacious desire for their good as we desire for ourselves. It is about our actions of giving, not our feelings of fondness.
The most specific definition of love in the Bible illustrates this type of love. It is found in 1 Corinthians 13. With the examples of Jesus’ love for us and our love for ourselves in mind, let’s break it down phrase by phrase.
4 Love is patient,
When you make a mistake on the job, and you are frustrated that you just can’t get it right, you hope your boss will be understanding. You want him to come along and say, “Hey it took me awhile to get it, I know how hard it is.” Jesus knows just how hard this life can be, how vulnerable we are to deception, and how potent Satan’s spells can be. God knows we are but dust and He shows us grace. Just like we want others to be patient with us while we grow, we must extend the same grace to others.
love is kind.
When you have a canker sore or a twisted ankle, you are tremendously considerate to that part of your body. You chew carefully, or you limp gently. You also like to lavish good food on your taste buds, and pamper your ears with your favourite music. In your actions it is easy to be kind to yourself. That’s the type of consideration God commands us to give others.
It does not envy,
The foot does not get jealous watching the tongue bathe in exotic fruit juice. The foot rejoices for the tongue, because it knows that the tongue’s pleasure will result in energy for the foot. The tongue does not resent the massage the foot receives or envy the bulging muscles of the thigh. Each part of the body is content to fulfill the role it has been given, and delights to see each part of the body rewarded.
it does not boast,
Can you imagine the feet bragging to the rest of the body about running a marathon? The heart and lungs, not to mention the thighs and calves, would just roll their eyes and say, “yep, Mr. Golden Toes, it was all you!” When we brag, we show a wilful blindness to all those who enabled our achievement. Anything we accomplish is a group effort, with God as the primary giver who should receive the primary glory. True love is always acknowledging with gratitude the contribution of others.
it is not proud.
Every breath we take is pure gift. We have no rights apart from the God who grants them to us. God does not owe us one of the thousands of gifts He daily gives us. Every talent and skill we have is a gift from God. When we grasp this, we will stop comparing or worrying about who is noticing us.
5 It does not dishonour others,
It’s deeply painful when others gossip about us behind our back and run us down. To hear snippets of these venomous barbs is excruciating. We quickly are filled with rage. Yet, somehow it is a very different feeling on the tongue to repeat painful gossip about others. True love is always asking, “How would I feel if others were talking about me this way? Would I word it this way if this person were right here?”
it is not self-seeking,
We obsess about recognition and glory. I care way too much about whether or not someone likes me. But Jesus demonstrated the exact opposite. The one who could righteously demand attention and glory put it all aside and took the form of a lowly servant, and submitted to the most shameful kind of death imaginable – all for love.
The thought that continues to set me free from the slavery of self-seeking is this, “My goal is not to make you love me, but to make sure you know that I love you.” This is exactly how Jesus lived his life.
it is not easily angered,
Love is always seeking to understand ahead of worrying about being understood. We see the outward actions of others but we have to guess at the hidden motivation. How we interpret the motivation will dictate how angry we get. A friend posts an article about the dangers of timewasting. You can be personally insulted that they were making a point about how much time you waste or maybe that friend wasn’t thinking of you at all, but was convicted for himself. When Satan tempts us to assume hurtful motivations, ask yourself, “is there another possible reason this person did this?” Give the benefit of the doubt, just like you want others to do for you.
it keeps no record of wrongs.
This one is nearly impossible on our own strength (okay, they all are, actually). Our minds are happy to discard a lot of memories but the ones where we have been hurt, well, our brain loves to hang to those and keep polishing and embellishing the offenses. They are so hard to let go of. If we could devote more attention to the ways we have wronged God and dwelt on the ways we have hurt others, I think we would be much quicker to let go of bitterness.
6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
I must confess how twisted my soul is. When I hear of a spiritual downfall or the moral failure of another Christian leader, part of me feels a perverse sense of delight. I almost have to hide a smirk. It’s terrible, I know. But I think what is happening is this: I often have a nagging feeling that I am not doing enough, that I am a failure, and hearing about the failures of others is a soothing balm that I am better than that person. This is why we love to hear about scandals and exposed hypocrisy; it makes us feel good about ourselves. However, after a little time trembling in God’s holy presence, the sins of others become the farthest thing from my mind.
7 It always protects,
True love makes a diligent effort to protect those around us. A very practical way we can protect is by standing up for others when gossip floats around. Commit by God’s grace to making your words weapons of defence rather than flames of death.
Love recognizes God’s sovereign ability to use the mistakes and sinful actions of people to work a greater good in our life. Trusting others then, is not faith in humanity; it is faith in God’s goodness.
Love also realizes that God is the author of people’s faith. We give up on people and say they will never change, but all we have done is lost sight of God’s power and the fact that He operates on His timetable not ours. True love has a God-filled vision of the world around us. It rests in the promises of final victory.
Christ-like love is not empowered by human willpower, or positive thinking. It is found only in God. The strength to choose love is not available until we have the Holy Spirit living within us. Love is the first fruit of the Spirit. Love never fails, because God never fails.
On a cool sunny spring day, we can feel overwhelmed with love for God, and in that moment we may feel very spiritual. But the Scriptures are clear that we do not love God if we do not also love our fellow man. This love is so much more than a feeling. It is a will that is dead-set on pursuing what is best for the person before us and is empowered by the One who spoke and the Universe leapt into existence.