Love Defined

“Love.” It’s a word we hear all the time. Almost all of us would say that we have a sense of what it means. But I suspect that most of us who follow Christ could grow quite a bit in understanding what love truly involves. The fact that the culture in which we live often (though not always) encourages views of love that are spectacularly wrong only helps to the make the case. 

With that in mind, consider the following rough and ready exercise:

God, the Bible tells us, is love (1 John 4:8). Without fully exhausting what that means (as if we could), I think it’s fair at least to say that God serves as the very standard of what love involves. How then can we know what it means to love? We look at what God does.  

Along these lines, we can and should look at the entire Bible to fill in that picture, but we could take worse shortcuts than looking specifically at the life and work of Jesus. After all, the Bible affirms that Jesus is God incarnate. In him God became a man without ceasing to be God. Love walked among us as one of us. So it stands to reason that Jesus provides us with an excellent picture of what love is really all about. Consider then, that love is entirely consistent with the following:

  • Acting in humility (Phil. 2:8)
  • Providing for physical needs (e.g., Mark 5:21-43, 6:30-43)
  • Exercising patience (see Jesus’ relationship with his disciples in all four gospels)
  • Showing care for those of a different ethnicity (Mat. 8:5-13, Mark 7:24-30) and for those who are socially ostracized for other reasons (Luke 5:12-16, 7:36-50, 19:1-9) 
  • Weeping in response to losing a loved one (John 11:32-35) and to unbelief (Luke 19:41-44)
  • Offering genuine encouragement (John 11:17-26, 16:20-22)
  • Praying for friends and loved ones (John 17)
  • Showing kindness to children (Mark 10:13-16)
  • Enduring false accusations and insults (Mat. 26:57-68, 27:27-31, 39-44)
  • Practicing forgiveness (Luke 23:34, John 21:15-19—see 3:36-38 and 18:12-27 previously)
  • Caring for family (John 19:25-27)
  • Caring for enemies (Luke 22:47-51)
  • Serving others, even in onerous jobs (John 13:1-5), culminating in laying down one’s life for them (Mark 10:45)

The above list is worth careful consideration to spur (1) our repentance for the many ways in which our lives differ from it and (2) our further prayers for the grace to lessen the gap.  Even so, I doubt that many of its items are that surprising for most of us. We have little problem in acknowledging that love is consistent with these things, even if we do a poor job of living them out.

Of course, it’s a very partial list. The picture of Jesus—love incarnate, remember—also includes other things, things that may not leap to our minds when we think of love:

  • Asserting that loving him involves keeping his commandments (John 14:15)
  • Teaching hard and unpopular truths (Mark 12:1-12, John 6:22-66)
  • Distancing himself from his family (Mat. 12:46-50)
  • Rebuking friends (Mark 4:40, 8:31-33)
  • Warning and rebuking those in opposition to God (Luke 11:37-52)
  • Identifying people as children of the devil (John 8:42-47)
  • Refusing to answer questions (Mark 11:27-33) or do miracles (Mat. 12:38-40)
  • Physically driving people out of the temple (Mat. 21:12-13)
  • Demanding allegiance to the point of death (Mat. 16:24)
  • Claiming to be the source of truth and the exclusive way to know God (John 14:6)

We could certainly add to this second list, including the fact that Jesus will one day judge all people (Acts 17:31) and punish his enemies (Rev. 19:11-21).

A few short thoughts in response to this:

  1. While it’s true that human beings are not called to imitate Jesus in every respect (we’re not to accept worship, for example), a careful understanding of the biblical materials simply won’t allow us to maintain the second list is irrelevant for our own lives. 
  2. Consequently, the picture of love we find in the Bible is considerably more involved—and certainly more challenging—than many of the conceptions of love in our culture. For example, it certainly contrasts with the idea that love involves treating all views and actions as equally legitimate or is predominately an intense feeling
  3. While there is a proper tension of sorts between these two lists, the Bible presents them as ultimately compatible. Understanding and living in light of this reality more and more will be the fruit of God’s grace, worked out through his word, over a lifetime.

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