Love. When people think of the word, many different ideas about it seem to pop up. From the mushy romance movie to the seemingly endless love of an elderly couple to the adorable love between a child and a puppy or kitten. Perhaps love in the sense of one’s parents, siblings, or close friends. Or yet again, perhaps something much shallower first comes to mind, such as the love of a kind of food or material object. Love of an abstracted concept also exists, such as the love for justice, beauty, or innocence. Is any of that love? Or do those things merely give us a remarkably small taste of this thing we named love?
What is Love?
With the many ideas and philosophies regarding love, could we even begin to comprehend this complex abstract? For the Christian, Scripture should be the first place to examine when analyzing such an important attribute. 1 Corinthians 13, often referred to as the “Love Chapter,” gives some insight. Starting in verse 4 and ending in verse 13, the actions of love become evident.
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophecy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
We see now that love consists of many things, not just an emotion here and there, lightly sprinkled with some choices, and obligation to grace the top. Love encompasses an entire realm of virtues. Patience, endurance, wisdom, truth, hope, kindness, humility, trust, and the list might go on infinitely. The integration between such virtues must be the aspect of goodness, as each of these things maintains a positive influence. This directly connects with God’s attribute of being love, as God essentially is good. If God is essentially good, then love is good.
No one can define these virtues as being separated from love; for example, a “loving” parent behaves kindly and gently with a child. If a parent acts patiently and kindly, then he or she demonstrates the inward love towards the child. This love has not reached the perfection of God’s love, since most parents at one time or another snap at their children and hurt them in one way or another. God, on the other hand, never acts without love even though His discipline may feel unloving at times.
Romantic “Love” Stories
The kind of love that many people enjoy reading about or observing does not hold to the biblical definition of love. Most of the “love” stories we hear or read about reject the definition of love as it is fickle and prone to stray often. If a man falls in love with a woman after meeting, marries her, but then 10 years down the road decides he does not love her anymore and seeks a divorce. This is not the virtue of love, but rather just a mere romance likely due to chemicals in the brain. Or, if it was love, it was overcome with sin so much that one could no longer see it. True love never dies.
A romantic and actual love story would be something more along the lines of a couple celebrating 60 years of marriage, and still demonstrating patience, kindness, gentleness, and the other virtues to each other. Their love would be evidenced by the long term commitment towards each other, the ability to overlook each other’s annoying habits, and godly forgiveness when due.
Love Must Always Be Shown through Actions
How many times has a child selfishly declared he or she is not loved because of the parents refusing to purchase a gift or do something? Or perhaps the stories of a spouse being upset because the other did not purchase an expensive gift seems equally relatable. Even demanding constant attention from a friend or spouse has been mistaken for love. Many times, we think we understand love, but our selfishness blinds us to the truth about it. While there is nothing wrong with demonstrating our love towards others in terms of gifts, the action itself is not the virtue of love; it is merely the outward expression of something inside.
Regarding our relationship with God, sometimes we believe that we must be constantly doing something for Him to show our “love” for Him. We become so busy “doing” that we forget what it means to “be.” We scurry off to church service, then we help at the homeless shelter, then off we run to church again to assist with the children’s programs. We follow a long list of “do’s and don’ts” as we try to try to live our imaginary perfect life. While outward acts of service and obedience certainly are necessary, just being with God demonstrates love towards Him. We don’t need to constantly be in the rush of a whirlwind to find God, but rather find that still small voice that calls out to us from the storm. Simply being in God’s presence through prayer and quiet meditation is love.
Directing Others to God
If we love others, we want what is best for them. God is the best for all people therefore we must use our actions and speech to point people to God. Living our lives in obedience, integrity, righteousness, and following the other virtues demonstrates a shadow of God’s attributes, guiding them in the right direction.
When others mistreat and abuse us, how do we respond? If we react with negativity, revenge, bitterness, or even depression then we are not truly loving God or others. To love others, we must first love God. Without God, it is impossible to love another person on the deepest level possible for humanity. When we love God, we reflect His attributes and thus demonstrate them to others. Like a couple in love, they gradually become more and more like each other, thinking similar thoughts, doing similar things, and so forth as they get to know each other, and their relationship deepens. A relationship with God causes one to gradually become more and more like God in means of growing in righteousness and character.
A major flaw that can be seen in many Christian circles is the constant criticism and condemnation of others. Sometimes when one presents the gospel, the obsession on depravity becomes so entrenched that it never moves on to the hope of the Resurrection. It leaves those who have not heard the Gospel before more hopeless than when they were ignorant of the law, perhaps turning them more to sin and rebellion. Another equally toxic trait would be preaching a half gospel, such as only saying of the hope in Jesus without explaining the context of why one needs such hope. An example would be the “sinner’s prayer;” one merely must say certain words to obtain salvation instead of repentance followed by obedience to God alone.
Love is not something that one holds at a distance and objectively studies its elements. Instead, it must be. When one puts off the old self and becomes a Christian, he or she must essentially take on a new existence in Christ. Namely, that Christ puts off the sinful nature that humans possess and causes us to take on a new nature according to the attributes of God. Love, therefore, is something that is essentially part of our existence and not just an “add-on” to our character.
Love must be from our inward selves, not just a mere action. The difference is obvious between a man who brings his wife flowers because of his love for her and the man who brings his wife flowers because that is expected of him. She knows when he brings her something out of duty, or when he does it because he wishes to express his heartfelt emotion towards her. When we act out of love towards our fellow humans, it shows. Likewise, if we act out of duty towards them, it equally shows.
God is Love
The Entire Realm of Virtues
As stated earlier, love is an entire realm of virtues. It cannot be separated from any virtue or be distinct from each other. Because God is love, He cannot be separated from any individual virtue. Simultaneously, God is just and merciful, gracious and righteous, and so forth. He cannot change from one virtue to another because of the direct correlation between them, essentially causing Him to be the entire realm.
No one possesses the ability to completely know God. This will forever be impossible, as the mystery of God remains too great for our finite human minds. For many, this causes it to be a major stumbling block and “reason” to reject the faith since so many live under the claim that “seeing is believing.”
As we cannot know God in the complete sense, we, therefore, are unable to know love in the complete sense. Humanity is, however, able to comprehend some aspects of it. We understand the basic principles of kindness, gentleness, peace, and so forth. By grace, we might live out what we do comprehend and live a loving life. Because only God carries the potential to know all things, only He could understand these abstracts to their fullest essence. In other words, the only one to know God and love is God Himself.
A Three-Part Relationship
In loving another person, God must always be between the two participants in any relationship. One illustration demonstrated it as a triangle, each person on either of the bottom points, with the top point being God. The lines symbolize the interactions between the parties. Each person not only must directly relate to each other but also God. If God is not at the point, then the entire thing collapses. Such can be demonstrated when divorce happens because a couple “falls out of love,” when in reality, they stopped loving God together or never had God as their point.
To add on to this illustration, the stronger the relation each individual has to God, the stronger the relation they will have to the other human. Since God is love, when we love God more, then logically we ought to develop a deeper love inside of us as we grow more like Him. We will never fall out of love with our spouse when we keep God as the center because then love would be the center.
When observed from those on the outside, the two people ought to point others and each other back to God, just as the points in the triangle. The love for each other should be noticed by those on the outside and give the world a taste of what love to God must be like.
Willing the Good of Others
The greatest law given in Scripture can be found in theme nearly in every book, but perhaps the clearest statement is when Jesus declared it in Matthew 22:37-40, “ Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your soul, with all your heart, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’”
We must love others and will their good to obey God, which also is to love Him. If we live in hate and bitterness towards others, then we don’t love them as ourselves nor will their wellbeing. Sometimes we must give ourselves up to pain and suffering that we might love another person; sometimes physical pain such as rescuing someone from a burning building, or mental pain as we support another through their struggles.
True Love Only Through Grace
If we refuse to accept God’s reforming grace, we can never really love anyone, including ourselves or God. We will be forever trapped in sin and unable to escape. Since we could not love without grace, God loved us first so that we can love also. Romans 5:8 states “But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Also, in 1 John 4:19 “We love Him because He first loved us.”
Refusal to accept God’s gift of redemption and reconciliation means the refusal to love and be loved. Trying to do things on our own with our power will always end up in failure. Only in Christ’s ultimate sacrifice will we gain love and the ability to truly love.
In conclusion, love proves to be much more complex and deeper than first meets the eye. The profoundness causes understanding it to be impossible except on a smaller scale. What we understand of it remains but a shadow of its true essence. Love, by itself, is an adventure.