TURN ON THE RADIO at any time of the day or night, and there is every chance you’ll hear a song about—you guessed it—love. More than any other aspect of human experience, love is crooned about, reflected upon, sought after, and sighed over. Love elevates us to plateaus of joy, inspires us to create, impels us to suffer and even to die, brings out our best and our worst, dares us to risk everything, breaks and mends our heart, and fills us with meaning and hope. Love makes our world go round. Love is everything.
From before we were born, love has been vital to our holistic wellbeing. We need to be loved by significant others, and we need those people to seek and value our love. That need is as urgent and fundamental in our lives today as it ever was. The heart was made to be filled with love; this is surely why we feel such pain when we are empty. We are fully alive only when we have love.
God is love
What, then, is love? How are we to define it? Many songs of popular culture portray love as a feel-good emotion. Certainly, love involves some powerful feelings. We feel great affection for our nearest and dearest—pangs of the heart that easily engulf us. Behind those three familiar words, ‘I love you,’ is a world of emotion that we will die trying to express.
But are our feelings the final measure of our love? In the Bible, we encounter a love that isn’t determined by the whims and fancies of emotion. It certainly gives rise to emotion, but it stands on a foundation that is altogether more solid. It isn’t something that we humans invented for our own benefit. Rather, it was the driving force behind God’s choice to invent us. We may like to think we know what love is, but God wants us to know the love that chose us and then created us. If we are willing to humble ourselves and look to the Source of all love, we will see what love is.
The name ‘God’ (with a big ‘G’) implies that he is not one of many; he is a one-off: ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ Yet Christian doctrine holds that God is not relationally alone. He is a tri-union, or Trinity—a loving kinship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.1 God is a Community whose Members are so mutually devoted to each other that they are One in fullness of love. As such, God is love.
Included in God’s love
The good news is that God hasn’t kept his love to himself. He created human beings so that he might share himself with us and enjoy our love in return. Tragically, though, we refused to live in his love: we rebelled against him and fell into sin. And how did he respond? He launched a love-impelled mission to save us from sin and death, and bring us back into his love forever. That rescue plan culminated in the greatest outpouring of love the world has ever seen: God’s gracious giving of his beloved Son so that we might become his eternal children. ‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!’
Jesus is the tangible evidence of God’s love for us. He left his blissful heavenly abode and plunged into the dust, stench, blood, sweat and tears of this dysfunctional planet for one reason: love. He accepted the hardships of poverty, rejection, abandonment and sorrow for one reason: love. After instructing his disciples in the way of love—‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’—he gave them a practical lesson: he endured the torture of the cross and laid down his life for all humanity. In so doing, he fulfilled the law perfectly on our behalf: ‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Love at its purest
So, how does the feel-good love of our popular culture stack up against the love-in-action of Jesus Christ? There were undoubtedly many occasions during Jesus’ earthly walk when he laughed and smiled and felt good as a result of loving his Father, his disciples, and the various people who came to him for help.2 But these happy moments weren’t anything like the temporal, schmaltzy sensation that passes for ‘love’ in today’s popular culture, and they weren’t about the fulfilment of an emotional need. No, they were anchored in the eternal reality of God’s love, which was present and active among his people on earth.
Jesus didn’t only feel pleasant emotions as a consequence of his love; he also felt unpleasant emotions such as anger, distress and grief (to name just a few). This might not have been the case if he had been pursuing happiness and comfort for himself, but he was being driven by love, which attends to the needs of others as a first priority. The night before Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross for you and me, he was deeply troubled by what love was requiring him to do. But against his natural feelings, he surrendered to his Father—‘Not as I will, but as you will’—and made the payment that love demanded.
In Christ’s sacrifice, we see love at its purest: it came from a place of fullness and freedom rather than neediness; it was motivated by a desire for God’s glory and for the benefit of others; it was given freely to those who had no ability to pay the giver back; and it cost the giver everything. ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.’
Love one another
Jesus told his disciples what they were to do after he was gone. His words were explicit and authoritative:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Significantly, he also told them, ‘If you love me, keep my commands.’
The implication for us is clear. We who claim to love Jesus must do for one another what Jesus has done for us. The apostle John expresses it this way:
We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
When the apostle Paul was confronted with a church whose members had little or no love for one another, he wrote them a letter. Deep in the heart of that letter, he penned a poetic exposition of love that is still quoted today, most often at weddings. He began simply: ‘I will show you the most excellent way.’ Then he waxed lyrical:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour 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. Love never fails.
Love as Jesus loved
Do you and I love like this? If we base our love on how we are feeling in any given moment, or if we only love when there is an expected emotional pay-off, we will surely fail. Our sentiment for the people we love tends to rise and fall according to how they (and others) are treating us, how life is going for us generally, and how we are faring within ourselves. This is an understandable part of being imperfectly human—a matter of repentance, not self-condemnation—but as a basis for a love that is steadfast and true, it just won’t do. True love is more solid and enduring than our feelings, which are ever-changing.
If, however, we present ourselves to God on a consistent basis, listen to his voice and take steps in obedience, he will minister his love to us so that it gradually becomes a part of who we are. Then we will find ourselves able to show God’s glory to the world in all weather—to go against the flow of the selfish culture around us and love as Jesus loved, even when this results in adversity or persecution. And we might not even be aware of it—because we will simply be living out what is in us.
- The love of the Father for the Son was made plain when Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters and the Father declared proudly, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:17; note that he made the same announcement on the occasion of Jesus’ transfiguration, recorded in Matthew 17:5). Jesus also spoke of the love that flourishes between himself and the Father: ‘The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands’ (John 3:35); ‘The Father loves the Son and shows him all he does’ (John 5:20); ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30); ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me’ (John 14:11); ‘I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me’ (John 14:31). The Spirit’s role was understated, but perhaps most apparent at Jesus’ baptism. By descending from heaven and alighting on Jesus, he was the means through which the Father’s love was conveyed to the Son.
- One such occasion was when the disciples came to Jesus and reported triumphantly that ‘even the demons submit to us in your name.’ On hearing this news, Jesus was ‘full of joy through the Holy Spirit.’ ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,’ he prayed, ‘because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do’ (Luke 10:17-21).