What Is Love? A Christian Perspective
Love defined, how the world loves contrasted with how God loves and how Christians should love.
What is love? Genuine love is an affectionate and benevolent concern for another person and the source of that desire is from God which is contrasted to the World’s idea of love.
“What is love?” Of all the search queries users type into Google each year, “love” or “what is love” is one of the most consistently searched terms in the Western world.
Some wonder about love because they are “in love”. Some are lonely and wonder what they are missing out on. Others are just trying to figure out what “loving” a fellow human being means. Whatever the case, love is a core idea in both Christian and non-Christian philosophies.
In this post, I aim to define love, explore how it’s a multi-faceted concept, contrast the World System’s idea of love with God’s love, and show how Christians should love as God loved us – through the power of the Holy Spirit.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
There are many definitions of love. Here’s a summary definition from some takeaways in the Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Love is an unselfish, affectionate, and benevolent concern for another person and the source of that desire is from God.
But this is not how the world loves.
The World System’s Incomplete Version of Love
Christians are not the only people who love. People in the world love too. But the world focuses on other aspects of love devoid of a theistic foundation. In other words, God is not necessary to define love in the world.
There are three primary ways people love in the world system: relationally, reciprocally, and romantically.
1. Relational Love – This is probably the most common type of love in the world system. Similar to the definition above, Merriam-Webster defines it as “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” But God is not necessary for this love to be present.Relational love can be present between family members, but that’s not the strongest example of relational love.
Instead, the Beatles 1967 classic, “Love is All You Need” more typifies this aspect of the world’s love.It’s the blanket acceptance of anyone and anything.Think how you might feel when you’re stoned, drunk, or otherwise separated from your rational senses and you just want to accept everything. And anyone who goes along with that inclusive, non-judgmental outlook on love. That is how the world views love and it’s not the Biblical model.
2. Reciprocal Love – Reciprocity is the idea of exchanging things for a mutual benefit. Reciprocal love means giving affections toward something and receiving a benefit in return. For instance, anyone who loves their smartphone derives a particular benefit from it’s usage. Or any person in the world who loves their spouse may continue to do so long as there is a mutual affection or concern.
However, whenever reciprocity is broken, the perceived obligation can evaporate. The feeling of love dies and often the relationship goes with it. This can be true with wives, boyfriends, friends, or even children.It only makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. When the usefulness of a relationship has run it’s course, it has no necessary reason to continue. There is likely a more suitable person where you can establish a new relationship of reciprocity easier than repairing the struggling relationship. This is the natural course of world’s love but is not the Biblical model.
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” (Luke 6:32)
3. Romantic Love – The world system also focuses on love in a semi-erotic or romantic way. In an article for Psychology Today, the author says “love strikes like lightening, unpredictable and irrefutable” In the world, love is a feeling. It is directed at another person and often becomes romantic or sexual in nature.
Since the mid-20th century Sexual Revolution, two changes have happened. For one, romantic love has become a dominant theme in our culture. It’s no longer a flavoring of our society, it’s now one of the main ingredients. Sexual tension, pornographic, and semi-pornographic content overshadows other types of content in the grocery store checkout lanes, radio airwaves, movies, and internet.
Sex rules the world. And two, the world has become more open to non-traditional sexual expression (traditional = heterosexual, life-long monogamy). From the world’s perspective, romantic love can happen between a man and a man, a woman and a woman, and any other assortment of depravities. The only usual qualification is that love between the parties should be consensual. This is not the Biblical model either.
These three primary ways people love in the world system (relationally, reciprocally, and romantically) are present in so many ways. Just listen for them in the songs you hear, in the movies you watch, in conversations between friends and family, and in your own experience. Love in the world is all of these things, but it’s a corrupted version of the original.
God’s way is different. It’s more complete.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
The Apostle John wrote many verses on love including John 3:16. Love was one of the core themes of both his gospel and his epistles in the New Testament. To John, God assumed the very nature of love when he said…
“God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
God is the foundation for genuine, multi-faceted, and eternal love.
He’s also the best example of love. Since eternity past, God has loved the Son, who has loved the Father, and who both in turn love the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. Jared C. Wilson wrote at the The Gospel Coalition…
“A solitary god cannot be love. He may learn to love. He may yearn for love. But he cannot in himself be love, since love requires an object. Real love requires relationship. In the doctrine of the Trinity we finally see how love is part of the fabric of creation; it’s essential to the eternal, need-nothing Creator.”
To Wilson, the love of God is an aspect intrinsic in Gods nature. God, as a Trinity, is in a love relationship within the Godhead. And this serves as a foundation for genuine love. And that love is antithetical to the world’s love. God’s love is fundamentally neither romantic nor reciprocal. Instead, it seeks the good of another person despite what the person can give back sexually or any other way.
God’s love is also sacrificial. The Apostle Paul put it like this: “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” (Romans 5:8). God didn’t sacrifice his one and only Son for priests, monks, or holy people who already loved him.
God sent his son to die for sinners.
God sent his Son to die for hypocrites, for prostitutes, for crooked politicians, for dishonest businessmen, and cheating wives. God didn’t wait for sinners like you and me to get holy before he loved us. Instead, he loved us in spite of our failures and sin. While we were still sinning away, Christ died for us.
A Christian’s Love
God’s love is our model for genuine love.
The object of our love is to be directed both to God first and to everyone around us second (Mark 12:30-31). God assumes we already love ourselves (Luke 6:31). God wants us to focus our remaining affections on him and everyone else. The apostle even goes as far to say that anyone who doesn’t love doesn’t know God (1 John 4:8). So love is the distinguishing feature of the true Christian.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
How he loved us is how we should love him and each other. Here are a few of the ways God has commanded, commended, or encouraged us to love (paraphrased slightly)…
- Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast. (1 Corinthians 13:4)
- Do to other people how you would like people to treat you. (Luke 6:31)
- Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. (Mark 12:30)
- Love each other as I (Jesus) have loved you. (John 15:12)
- Everyone who loves has been born of God. (1 John 4:7)
- Love your enemies, do good to them. (Luke 6:35)
- Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31)
- Husbands, love your wives. (Ephesians 5:25)
- A friend loves at all times. (Proverbs 17:17)
- Remain in Jesus’ love. (John 15:9)
- Perfect love drives out fear. (1 John 4:18)
- Bear with one another in love. (Ephesians 4:2)
- We love God because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
- Whoever does not love does not know God. (1 John 4:8)
- Love does no harm to a neighbor – it fulfills the law. (Romans 13:10)
- Love each other – because love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)
- The greatest love is when a man lays down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
- Jesus laid down his life for us – we should do the same for each other. (1 John 3:16)
The Christian concept of love is not like the world’s. It’s deeper, more relational, more demanding, more generous, more sacrificial, more time-consuming, more of a blessing, more helpful, less sexual and much, much less reciprocal. In short, it’s how God loves us as Christians.
Or as CS Lewis once said…
“The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a sunhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.”
Conclusion: Loving Like Jesus
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)
There is a danger when hearing about God’s love.God’s love and the Christian’s duty to love God and other people and be overwhelming. After all, who gives to people expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35), invites only poor people to their parties (Luke 14:13), and lays down his life for his friends (John 15:13). In other words, who loves like Jesus?
In our flesh we cannot obey these lofty commands to love. We cannot fulfill the law of God and love like Jesus in our own personal strength and willpower. But in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do many things. We can love our wives, husbands, children, friends, and even homeless people as the Lord gives us strength and opportunity.
It is how God loved us first.