I have two frustrations with the word "love." First of all, the word “love” is so overused in our culture that it’s empty of meaning. It has become a complete cliche. For instance, "love" can mean:
My second frustration with the word “love” is that the people who are defining love in our culture are the same ones who can’t make love work. Pop stars and movie stars write our love songs and star in our romantic comedies. But when’s the last time you heard of a 50 year marriage in Hollywood? Or 25 years? Or 5 years?
So what IS love? Can we provide some substantive meaning and reclaim the word? I John 4 stands as a Scriptural expository on the word. Here we begin to see what love is in the truest and most genuine sense. Some key thoughts on love:
Love Must Be Visible
In contrast to a feeling, emotion, or idea, genuine love finds its way out in tangible, visible ways. John writes, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (I Jn. 4:9). “Love made manifest” means that love has to be concretely apparent. It can't be invisible. St. Augustine wrote, "A sacrament is where God's love is made visible." God expresses love in real and tangible ways - bread, wine, water.
We understand this in relationships. Love is just a word unless is it made visible with a hug, flowers, a selfless act, etc. John's point is that in Jesus, we see what love looks like in real life.
Love is Choice and Action.
Building off of "visible," love always requires choice and action. John writes, "God sent his only Son." This was a willful action on God's part. It didn't "just happen." This component of love distinguishes it from spontaneous feelings, or "crushes" when you can't control how you feel. Genuine love outlasts the "crush" and continues to make choices and actions long after the romantic butterflies fly away.
This is really important. I often hear couples say, "We just fell out of love." If love is a feeling, we easily fall "in love" and "out of love." Our emotions are always fluctuating. But genuine love chooses to act on behalf of another even when one doesn't "feel like it."
Love is Fundamentally About Self-Giving
If love is choice and action, it's primary action is always self-giving and sacrificial. Love requires the giving up of something, and often giving up the things we value the most. For God, it meant that he "sent his Son" (I John 4:10). The cross is the costly act of God in giving up what was most precious to him. Throughout the Bible, the word love (from God's perspective) is always tied to self-giving. It always costs him something. He gives without expecting anything in return.
For us, love is the hard work of putting others above ourselves. The Great Commandment calls us to "love our neighbor as ourself." Jesus further calls us to "love our enemies." This kind of love demands that we pay a price. It means that at times, love will hurt as we give up pride, time, energy, sweat, and blood.
Love is Proven in Struggle
There is a dysfunctional belief about marriage floating around - that it’s all about self-fulfillment. That the reason you get married is to be happy. But marriage doesn't always make you happy. Because it isn’t about self-fulfillment, but self-sacrifice. In pre-marriage counseling, I usually ask if a couple has had a fight yet. If they haven’t, they’re not ready for marriage. Love is only proven in the struggle. Not in health, but in sickness. Not in better, but in worse. Not in richer, but in poorer. That’s when love is tested and proven. Love someone when they're sick and poor. Then you'll discover the depth of your love.
Love Has One Origin
John says "God is love" (I John 4:7) and “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us . . .” (I Jn. 4:10).
In other words, love in its purest form does not originate from us. Not that we are incapable of love, but when talking about love, we must always talk about the First Love. Any human love is a response to God's initiating love.
This kind of love is ultimately and fully defined in the costly act of Jesus. He suffered death by love.
This kind of love is not seen enough. It's not spoken of enough. Few people know that they are unconditionally loved by God in this way. This week, tell a family member or close friend that they are loved - by God and by you. It can’t be said enough. I was frustrated with the word "love." Until I heard, “This is love. Not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son.”