What is Love?
Ten years ago I took Vanessa to be my wife, to have and to hold from that day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death do us part. I chose one woman, the love of my life, and I decided to forsake all others for her. That was one of the best decisions of my life! I have never regretted it. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
10 years of marriage feel like a significant milestone in my life. I have only been around for a little over three decades so 1/3 of my life has been spent with my wife. Though I have known her for longer than that. I realized Vanessa was someone special the when I was 16 years old, and on November 11, 2000 a Saturday afternoon, I asked her if she would like to be my girlfriend. When she said yes, that same day I asked her father for permission to date his daughter. So this November it will be 17 years since my wife and I started dating.
My wife and I met young and raised each other.
We started dating as teenagers in high school. From the beginning I laid out a 7 year plan where I explained to Vanessa how I would finish high school, go to college, graduate in four years, get a job and marry her.
I was not messing around. At 16 I knew I wanted her to be my wife and to grow old by her side. Vanessa has been a great blessing in my life. She provided me with focus during a period of life where many tend to wander somewhat aimlessly. I knew what I wanted and what I needed to do.
I was never distracted, I never thought about breaking up, I never thought about dating anyone after I started dating Vanessa. I thank God He put her in my life as early as He did.
That said, I must highlight here that this is a description of my life, not a prescription for your life. If you read this blog or listen to this podcast, please don't take this as a recommendation. It worked for us, but I realize this is rather rare. We knew we wanted to wait for marriage and we had to be very careful and take extra precautions when dating. Also we dated long distance during all four years of college. It was not easy.
But we face challenges in the name of love right?
I have heard it said that love drives all great stories and adventures. When talking about love, we seem to have been conditioned to expect to hear about some great sacrifice, incredible odds, great peril and danger and how love eventually caused a miracle to come true!
But what do you really believe about love?
What has been your personal experience?
What is the role love plays in your life?
I believe it is worth asking the question.
What is love?
(please don't say "baby don't hurt me")
I like the answer given by Julian Baggini on an article by The Guardian
The answer remains elusive in part because love is not one thing. Love for parents, partners, children, country, neighbour, God and so on all have different qualities. Each has its variants – blind, one-sided, tragic, steadfast, fickle, reciprocated, misguided, unconditional. At its best, however, all love is a kind and passionate commitment that we nurture and develop, even though it usually arrives in our lives unbidden. That's why it is more than just a powerful feeling. Without the commitment, it is mere infatuation. Without the passion, it is mere dedication. Without nurturing, even the best can wither and die.
Love is such a big topic. Everyone has a way of understanding it, of defining it, of explaining it. I am sure each one of you listening or reading have your own take on love.
Ultimately, I do not have the final word on love. But I do wish to think it through on this post and I hope you will join me. I don't expect you to agree with me on all points necessarily. As long as we can have this conversation and be challenged by it and grow because of it, I am more than happy!
"For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another,"
1 John 3:11 (NKJV)
On a blog post from Psychology Today entitled "What Is Love, and What Isn't?" you can read an excerpt from the book The Seven Natural Laws of Love by Deborah Anapol Ph.D. Through poetic words and beautiful writing she describes love as a force of nature. As much as I like a lot of what she has to say, I am also challenged by what she has to say. Challenged because as much as I agree with many of the things she says, I felt like she makes us innocent bystanders of love. I felt like she said love is what it is and there is nothing we can do about it. It could very much be that I am reading too much into it and if I was ever to sit down to talk to with Dr. Anapol we would realize we agree with each other.
However, here is my problem with us having no control over love. How is it then, that Jesus can command us to love our enemies?
What do you say to a husband or wife who says that the love in their marriage has died? If there is nothing you can do about love the only option may seem to be divorce and try to find love all over again, though you have no idea how long that love will last. Do we stop marrying because we don't know and can't control if or how long the love will last?
I am aware that because of my background and experiences as a pastor I may be reading into her text perhaps what she never meant for it to say. But I bring this up because I have met many who approach love and marriage this way. Marriage is the first thing that came to mind, but it is not the only thing affected by love. Everything in life can be interpreted in light of love. Let's take for example 1 John 3:11-24
The first part of verse 23 says
"And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, ... "
How can we be told to believe in Jesus and love one another?
How many times we read through these passages without slowing down to chew on them and ask questions and apply what they teach? How can John write about love and faith and obedience and intermingle all these things that we prefer to carefully compartmentalize?
According to John, I can judge my walk with Jesus, or my level of faith/trust/belief by how I interact with others, by how loving I am. But I am not able to create love, how can I be judged by something I am unable to do on my own? Because salvation is all about what God does, and He can do what needs to be done (Phil 2:13, Eph. 3:20) so long as I don't harden my heart (Jer. 16:12) against Him.
I could spend this whole post just talking about these verses, but I really want to avoid the temptation to go deeper here for the sake of a broader overview at this time. (I might come back to this passage and study it more carefully on a future post.)
"He who does not love does not know God, for God is love."
1 John 4:8
John has a lot to say about love. 1 John 4:7-12 is another great section on love that we won't dedicate too much time to but is worth mentioning and reading. Notice how we are called to love, but God always goes ahead of us giving us the example. We can love and we are called to love, but God loved us first. If it wasn't for God, we would not even know what love is.
This was our introduction.
Now we will go deeper.
Matthew 5:43-48New King James Version
Love Your Enemies
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
How can Jesus command us to love?
"For Jesus the love command functioned as 'the hermeneutical key to the law's interpretation' and was 'an integral part of His proclamation of the coming reign of God.'" - Furnish, Victor Paul. The Love Commands in the New Testament, 328-329
Jesus' command to love can be understood as the key that helps us understand and properly interpret His law. I like this approach, because it means whenever someone is struggling to interpret God's law, love should be foremost on her mind. Not just any love, God's love. God's love actively seeks out the sinner, just as Jesus illustrated with the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31). When we interpret God's law from a perspective of love we can understand God's reign as the rule of Love.
We are so quick to understand love only in a romantic light we fail to see how love can be so much more and ought to be, especially in the life of a Christian!
All of us have experienced love in our lives. Someone has loved us enough to free us from being helpless, stuck, lonely or lost. The love we have received, with all its imperfections, has deeply shaped who we are today.
Anders Nygren, a Swedish bishop, published Agape and Eros in 1932 which has become a classic and deeply shaped both scholarly and popular Christian understandings of love. Nygren describes agape love as being sacrificial, purely unselfish, and spontaneous. Not created by any value it sees in others, rather creating value in them.
Agape love is understood as It is love that takes place regardless of the attractiveness of the one loved. It is not something we do or are able to do; instead, God initiates it as a pure gift, and we merely reflect the love that shines from God through us towards others.
You are probably familiar with this approach to love, looking at love as Sacrificial Love.
“Sacrificial love throws its pure light on our usual way of loving and reveals our selfish rationalizing and calculating."
It gives us much-needed humility, helping us realize how we fall short of loving sacrificially. Sacrificial love can redeem our usual selfish kind of loving and turn selfish relationships into beautiful relationships. Sacrificial love takes the risk of initiating reconciliation whether it expects any affirmative response or not. It speaks compassion even when compassion hurts. Sacrificial Love interrupts the vicious cycle of mutual recrimination. It redeems lost or damaged love and creates new love. (Paraphrased from Stassen, Glen Harold, and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. InterVarsity Press, 2003.)
However, to hold sacrificial love as the ultimate and best definition and understanding of love is to fall short. The sacrificial aspect of love is not the full definition of love. Purely sacrificial love can become one-dimensional, it lacks justice, and therefore can be abused by those in power to keep others from opposing being exploited and abused. Sacrificial Love keeps oppressed people in their place.
In the days of Martin Luther, the German Priest who started the protestant reformation, it was used to keep peasants in their place.
In the United States and South Africa, it was used to keep blacks in what was designated as their place.
And in many places it is still used to keep women in what is designated their places.
It is so sad to realize that cases of spousal abuse are just as prevalent along the Bible belt, and is present even in homes of conservative Christians. A misunderstanding of love can lead to abuse.
I am willing to sacrifice things for those I love. But I need wisdom to discern if I am in an abusive relationship. Love is sacrificial, but not only sacrificial.
Micah 6:8 calls for justice.
People can develop a martyr complex and think that their role in life is to suffer the abuse of others. Remember that the prodigal son returned home, where he received better treatment. He didn’t believe that as a follower of God it was his lot in life to receive abuse and remain feeding pigs and starving.
Jesus did not die on the cross for the sake of self-sacrifice, He did not die just to show you how much He loved you, He died in order to save you. He did not die because it was the loving thing to do. He died because His death would bring our salvation. Saving us was the loving thing to do. Jesus' sacrifice was for a specific purpose, and there was no other way.
Do not stay in an abusive relationship out of "love," that is not God's plan for you, and it is not true love, but rather a distortion of love. God rose up judges to deliver His people from oppression (Judges 2:16,18), God used queen Esther to give His people a fighting chance. (Esther 8:11,13)
It is one thing to suffer in order to achieve something good. It is another thing entirely to suffer as if our suffering somehow pleases God. Sometimes by quietly suffering abuse, you are enabling the abuser to continue in his/her life of sin. At times, the loving thing to do is to confront the sinner and help him/her get the help he/she needs.
God deeply desires our response of love.
The Bible describes God as interested in a mutual love.
"'The love of God is known as concern, devoted care, willingness to share in the life of a particular people to set them free and to deal with them graciously in their desires and passions, health and sickness, worship and pleasure, warfare and peace, life and death,' and to make a covenant with them." (Williams, Daniel Day. Spirit and the Forms of Love, 22-23.
Love is not a one way street running from God to us in which God is disinterested in our love or faithfulness.
"God loves His Son and He loves the world with an unshakable will to communion" (Williams, 37)
We will never deserve God's love, but He desires communion. (John15:9-14;17:20,21)
"that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me."
John 17:21 (NKJV)
Our union with God testifies of God and causes others to believe in Jesus. Jesus clearly intended for us to respond to His love by uniting ourselves with Him.
God will never stop loving you (Romans 8:39-39), but He does care about your actions.
Freedom is knowing you are loved and yet doing all you can for your lover.
What Love Is Not
Loving another does not mean that your selfhood is destroyed. Even the inspired writers of the Bible held on to their selfhood. Notice how the books of the Bible are written in different styles.
Love must affirm and accept the freedom of the other. It always amazes me how God himself respects our freedoms. He could easily coerce us to always obeying Him. When our mighty and wise God allows us freedom how dare we deny someone else of their freedom?
Is it not amazing how the attempt to coerce or compel the love of another carries with it self-defeat? The moment you force it, it stops being love. (Williams, Spirit and the Forms of Love, 116)
Careful what/who you love.
We do not love unless our personal being is transformed through the relation to the other. (Williams, 117)
Loving God affects how we live, loving basketball or ice cream, or music, or reading also does. Even more than that John 15:13 tells us that love caused Jesus to lay down His life. Because we love Jesus, His action of laying down His life deeply impacts our lives as well. (It is important to note that unless Jesus laid down His life, no one would be able to take it from Him. To die in the process of saving someone is noble, but I believe that Jesus' sacrifice was on a different level. Jesus did not die trying to accomplish something, He did not die trying to save someone. Jesus laid down His life, refusing to fight, because it was only though His death that we could be saved, and had He not laid down his life, no one could have killed Him or coerced Him to lay it down.)
"There can be no love without suffering, in the sense of being acted upon, being changed, moved, transformed by the action of another." (Gushee 331)
Guard your heart. The one you love has great power over you, to transform your life for better or worse. The joys and the sadness of the one you love will impact your life, more than you can imagine.
The attitudes and actions of others whom we love move us. The discovery that we are loved has the power to transform us. Love makes us vulnerable to be changed by the one we love as well as by the one who loves us, not by coercion, but by love.
Gene Outka defines Christian love as equal regard, that is, we should value all persons equally. but treat them according to their different needs. (Gushee 332)
This definition helps with the struggle for justice based on equal rights responsibilities and opportunities for all persons. It also allows for self regard, since I too am a person created in the image of God, I also deserve to be regarded as such. The danger is that we can focus more on our needs/desires and neglect the need of others. We need to be careful with this definition because we need to take into consideration our special responsibility for those who are our dependents, who are under our care, our family members.
Love is not a single principle but a complex drama. Because love has numerous dimensions of meaning in different scriptural texts, reducing it to one principle or theme excludes other scriptural meanings that need to confront us.
Jesus acted with mercy towards outcasts, fed the hungry, restored vision to the blind, taught the way, forgave the guilty, and died at the hand of the Romans. He did not do this simply for the sake of self sacrifice but to deliver others from the bondage of sin and the penalty of death and to bring them into the community of reconciliation. In this sense love would not be just sacrificial love, or just equal regard, but rather as a delivering love. Not only that, Jesus wants to have a relationship with us in which we love Him as well.
"Love does not get its meaning merely by its definition but by its function in the narrative that shapes particular traditions." (Stassen and Gushee, 328)
All this talk of love will do us no good unless it impacts and shapes every aspect of our lives. Love becomes real when it functions shaping our culture, our traditions, in our homes, in our church. Love should cause us to sacrifice for worthy causes, to set free and defend the oppressed, to mend relationships, to embrace and accept others, and to challenge all of us to draw closer to Jesus allowing God to bring about the changes that need to take place in our lives.
Pick one area to focus on this week.
Which area do you feel God calling you to develop further?
Pick one, and prayerfully look for ways to live a more loving life, always remembering to turn to God in order to receive from Him all you need to succeed in living a more loving life.
A very useful resource for me on this post besides my Bible was Stassen, Glen Harold, and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. InterVarsity Press, 2003.