What is Love?
by Dave Brown
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The word love is frequently found in the bible, and while the bible gives many characteristics of it (e.g., 1 Corinthians 13), it never gives a simple definition. Perhaps that is because it takes different forms depending on what the object of the love is. Keeping it simple for this article, we will consider just three: (1) our love for God, (2) the love of parents for their families, and (3) the love of our neighbors. This will help us understand what Jesus defined to be the great and the second commands, as given in Matthew 22:37-39: “And he said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second like (unto it) is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In going through the New Testament and examining the commands to love and the characteristics of love, one definition seems to be totally consistent with all of them. Namely: love is the placing of another person’s interests above your own. Philippians 2:4: "Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." This implies the sacrificing of what might be best for you in order to do what is best for others or another person.
In the sections below the “another person” is God, a family member and a neighbor, respectively. “Interests” involves that person’s well-being. On a prioritized basis, his spiritual well-being would come first followed by his physical well-being, which would include such things as the necessities of life, health and it might even extend to his happiness and sense of security. Let us see if this working definition of love holds up as we explore the three love recipients.
The Love of God
Jesus made this the first and greatest command, so he must have had an idea that we would know how to accomplish it. Or perhaps that we would eventually know, since love is a subject in most of the New Testament. Intuitively it is far more difficult to determine how to love God than to love those around us. There are many tangible ways to provide the needs of our fellow man; but how do we provide the needs of God? Are we to think that this is impossible because God lacks nothing of a physical nature? Clearly not – we would never be given a command to do something that is impossible.
We have great help along these lines. 1 John 5:3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” It is our faith in the second part of this definition that provokes a true sense of emotional gratification to God. “His commands are not grievous.” Is this a statement of fact, or is a requirement of love? Both. We could keep his commands to the best of our abilities, but do it resentfully and with a sense of deserving some reward. But this would be viewing these commands as being quite burdensome, and obedience of the spirit in our hearts and minds would be impossible. But if we truly believe that “His commands are not grievous” we will recognize that they were all given out of His love for us and for our own benefit and happiness. Thus, Psalms 1 and Matthew 5, the beginning of the Psalms and the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, tell us how blessed it is to learn and do God’s will. There is absolutely no downside to it.
But let us consider 1 John 5:3 in another light. It could equally be telling us what the love of God is for us. That is, in order for us to realize His love, it is necessary to keep His commandments. Read it again with this idea that it is defining for us what God's love toward us is. "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments." It is only by keeping His commandments that we can enjoy and take advantage of the love that He has for us. For His commandments are given for the purpose of providing the maximum blessings to us both in this world and in the world to come. When we ignore his commands (or, as some, teach that keeping them is actually sinful) we cannot possibly enjoy their benefits because we summarily consider them with contempt and trample them under foot (Matthew 7:6; Hebrews 6:6).
If we are to truly love God we must believe that obedience to His will is something to be enjoyed and cherished. Mark 10:29-30: “Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or lands, for my sake, and for the gospel's sake, but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.”
Finally, 1 John 4:19: “We love him, because he first loved us.” Describing this in more detail, Romans 5:6-8: "For while we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man someone would even dare to die. But God commended his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If we believe these passages, it will be difficult for anyone to keep us from doing our Lord’s commands. We will love God not just out of gratitude, but because we know that God has our best interests in mind in all that he gives us to do.
The Love for Our Families
This might depend on what relationship we have within the family, but let’s consider it from the viewpoint of parents. There is a natural love that all beings have for their offspring, with very few exceptions. But when we see how victimized children can be when, for example, they are used as pawns in divorce cases, we realize that this natural love is far from universal. Clearly they are not putting the best interests of their children first, for if they were they would rather take wrong themselves than to see their children hurt.
Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it;” Did Jesus put our interests above his own when he went to the cross? Can you say you love your wife if you fail to put her interests above your own? Does the husband and head of the household not have to subject himself to the needs of his wife and his children? This is his responsibility even while exercising his dominion over his family. Can he believe that he loves them if he does not do this? It is his obligation to do all that he can to make them happy even if, at times, it seems this love is unrequited.
We speak to the husband’s obligations knowing that it is a good and natural thing for a woman to love and care for her husband and family. Putting their interests above her own should come naturally, and it should bring her joy to see the fruit of her love.
The Love of Our Neighbors
The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) defines our “neighbors” to be all people we will ever come in contact with. We are all brothers and sisters in a physical sense, and thus, for us to draw racial or nationalistic distinctions is an abomination to God. God does not favor any one race or nationality over another; He is not a respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25; James 2:1, 9; 1 Peter 1:17) – few doctrines in the New Testament are stated this often, and apparently we all need to be reminded of it often.
1 John 4:20-21: “If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen. And this commandment have we from him, that he who loves God love his brother also.”
So, in fact, loving those around us is a primary way that we show our love for God: first, because God commanded it, but also because they are God’s creation and God loves them without discrimination of any kind. How do we put their best interests above our own? First, by being the type of example that will lead them to Christ if they are at all willing to follow, for their souls are more precious than anything else. But it also involves our helping them as best we can in physical ways ...
Galatians 6:9-10: “And let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith.”
Please review the beautiful aspects of love given in 1 Corinthians 13.
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