What is Love?
To some this may be the title of a catchy song, to others, love conjures up ideas like ‘falling in love’, a ‘happily ever after’ or mere feelings, but how does the Bible speak about love?
Though it is the context of each verse that determines how to define love, this article will consider love from a divine source and standpoint. Since ‘love is of God’ (1 Jn 4:7) and ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:16), it is to him we must turn for its definition.
To 21st-century Westerners love has descended into sentimentality. Love has been severed from volition and truth and thus appears to be a light, fluffy sort of emotion. We can love ice cream, a car or a person all in the same sentence, but this kind of love is reduced to mere emotionalism; bereft of any substance – it quickly fades.
In the Greco-Roman world, love, or charity as it was known had no feeling but was cold and calculated. Says Alvin J.Schmidt “the early Christians practised ‘Caritas’, as opposed to the ‘Liberalitas’ of the Romans .... ‘Caritas’ meant giving to relieve the recipient’s distress without expecting anything in return, whereas ‘Liberalitas’ meant giving to please the recipient, who later would bestow a favour on the giver”. This love was legal and clinical but missed the mark of God’s love.
Bible love is different and seems to have at least four elements to it.
Its source chooses to love – love is volitional as well as affectionate. This avoids the extremes of sentimentality on the one hand and calculus on the other. The love of God perfectly balances his mind and heart. He chose to love; his love was not cold duty, nor enforced constraint but a choice to show affectionate, warm, sincere, compassion. Moses recorded “the LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you...” (Deut 7:7-8). In short, God loved because he chose to love. Mr Vine, in his dictionary, says “It was an exercise of the Divine will in deliberate choice, made without assignable cause save that which lies in the nature of God Himself”. The idea of falling out of love, or feeling in love misses the mark. Left to the whim of feelings, love loses its spine and substance – it becomes candy floss. Love without warmth and affection becomes robotic and mechanical; the love of God avoids both extremes.
The recipient of God’s love is undeserving of such. The recipient is unworthy, unable and unwilling to reciprocate in any way the love showed. The love of God views the recipient as inherently valuable – all people are viewed as eternal souls, and thus, humans are shown love by God. Roman love, however, was based on functional value; love was only shown to those who could repay or do something in return. Selfless, sacrificial love that enriched the needy was a weakness when the Caesar’s ruled. 21st-century love is also partial in this respect – we love those who are deemed worthy, or are like us. Generally, we love people for what they can do, yet the love of God is vastly different, having been shown to wretched sinners. God has loved his enemies and those who did not seek him. In our sin, we weren’t able to love God – but, “when we were yet without strength in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6). Neither were we willing to love God – but, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
The love of God has been shown to the beggar, the rebel, the dead, the blind, the mutineer, the defiled, the bankrupt and the metaphors could be multiplied. Divine love is infinitely different to human love, the recipient is completely unworthy and yet still, God loves. Mephibosheth captures the point well, saying: “what is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am?” (2 Sam 9:8).
Love from the giver to the recipient is active, freely given and very costly. The passivity of ‘falling in love’ belongs to Disney fairy tales. The love of God moves out; it is not based on happenstance or merely how he feels, rather it is a mighty, active, force, that is showered abundantly on the object. Says the hymn writer:
O the deep, deep love of Jesus!
Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free
Rolling as a mighty ocean
In its fullness over me.
The use of the word “charity” in 1 Corinthians 13 emphasises this idea of freely giving and receiving nothing in return – even though it may be spurned. Says Paul “charity suffereth long, and is kind ... charity never faileth” (v4,8): this is revolutionary.
It cost God everything to give his well-beloved Son to the cross of Calvary. This was a sacrifice we cannot fathom, when the only-begotten, who was always in the bosom of the Father, was sent to Golgotha’s tree. The Lord Jesus delighted the heart of God – his darling Son who had been face-to-face with Him in eternity past – the Son of infinite worth and infinite value, and yet God did not spare him. The Son who had been in eternal, unhindered and perfect communion with the Father became the lamb of God who paid the price for sin. This is sacrificial love that transcends anything this world could ever imagine. This love is alien to us – otherworldly – its source is divine. The immortal words of John 3:16 encapsulate this sacrificial, unconditional, giving love: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son”.
Finally, love always enriches and acts for the betterment of the object upon which it is lavished. Western love leaves people in their sin. Love without truth is no love at all. This was not so with God; his love would not leave us wallowing in sin but demanded that we had to be changed. We have been predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son (Rom 8:29). Mr Darby once penned the words “And is it so we shall be like thy Son?”. This beggars belief – poor, defiled, helpless and hell-deserving sinners will be like the Son of God eternally. Says John “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 Jn 3:1). Mankind would never have concocted nor conceived of such love – this can only be from the God who is love. No wonder John wrote, “we love because he has first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19, DBY). We only have the slightest notion of love because God has revealed it to us.
In short, a definition of Bible love seems to be: ‘an affectionate, unexplainable choice that acts freely towards an object entirely unworthy, costing the giver everything while enriching the needy eternally’.
As recipients of God’s love may we rejoice again this morning in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal 2:20), remembering that he has loved us unto death, and alone is worthy of all the praise and glory.
Alvin J.Schmidt – How Christianity Changed the World (p126)