What Is Love?

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9-11)

If I tell you that you are loved, how does that make you feel? We’re all dying to know that we’re loved. There are no words more powerful, or more likely to disappoint us after we hear them. The problem is that the love we’re talking about doesn’t mean the same thing to different people and in different situations. We use it to describe a lot of things, like our favorite food and activities, and we even use it casually with people, sometimes. It’s gotten so watered down in our culture that we’ve had to develop the term “true love” to point to something beyond the kind of love we speak of so casually; but even true love, as we use the term, refers to something that is mostly romantic, a notion popularized by teen novels and movies like The Princess Bride.

It’s a term that changes based on our age. I found a diagram on the internet that made me laugh, because it’s so true:

The way we use the term “love” has little to do with the love we read about in the Bible, though that’s the source that continues to influence our use of the word. We use the word because it evokes a feeling which is greater than the sentiment we share so casually with others; it’s something we long for, and rarely find from other people.

What John is saying is that God’s love came at a cost. In our culture we think about love as affection. But affection doesn’t cost much. It can be little more than emotion, and emotion can disappear quickly. True love never fails (1 Cor. 13:8). Receiving affection feels great, but it doesn’t change anything. It’s temporary. As good as affection can be, the love I yearn for is beyond it. Acceptance, forgiveness, joy. In Christ, I receive the thing my soul desires. I receive new life, His life. It cost him everything to be able to offer it to me.

John explains that God’s love was revealed by offering up His son. But Jesus is more than an example of love—he is the very thing itself. John writes, “This is love,” and then defines it in reference to the person and work of Jesus Christ. True love is sacrificial, and brings life. This is the love we need to have for the people God puts in our lives; it’s the thing that changes them. It’s not affection, and it’s not emotion. It costs us. Our time, our energy, our money. Love means considering someone else’s needs as more important than your own. You must value the people God puts in your life in order to offer real love in a world of selfish conceit. The world can’t offer that. We can. We not only can, but John says that we should, out of what we have received ourselves. We can offer it because we’ve received it, and it dwells within us. And when we do, that love can change the people the Lord puts in our lives.

When I was twelve, I spent time with a young couple who were dedicated to youth ministry at our church. They worked with some of us, teaching and encouraging us, and shared their lives with us. As I think back on their tiny apartment and plain furnishings, I realize, from my current (adult) perspective, that they weren’t wealthy. But they were generous and kind to us. I experienced the love of Christ through them.  I’m not sure if they understood how important it was. You never know, but an act of sacrificial love may be the thing that makes a lifetime of difference to someone. It did for me.

One of the things that stops us from caring for others is this idea that love is a transaction, that we must receive something in order to give. It’s a common tendency in our culture today, to put our own needs first. In marriage, it leads to divorce, because there inevitably comes a time when someone isn’t giving you what you need, and you begin to think that you have the right to find it elsewhere. But if you think about love this way, as something you offer only as part of a mutual exchange, you’re not talking about true love—the kind of love God has for us. As John says, this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and died for us. Real love doesn’t count the cost. It is a response to a need, and it is powerful because it doesn’t have conditions. It brings life to those who receive it. A marriage rooted in the love of Christ will not be shaken.

Since we know what true love is, something so much greater than the cultural definition—and we do know it because we’ve received it—we should offer that love to others, and not what our culture gives. As John says, since God so loved us, we should love one another. It’s the reason why we’re here, to share the love of Christ. If we do, it will change the lives of the people we offer it to. And it will change us.

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