What is Love?

Author: Jeremy Simpson
August 22, 2018

Last Sunday, Pastor Paul brought our attention to the numerous passages of Scripture that underscore how love is the bottom line in a Christian’s life. This simple, distilled truth is the short answer Jesus himself gave for the purpose of our lives lived for God alongside our fellow human beings. Like any bottom line, the significance it represents includes all the stuff on the chart that led us to its final figure. So as we look forward to further unpacking God’s calling on our lives for greater love in the coming weeks, let’s take a minute to talk about what biblical love really is and some common misunderstandings in the way we think about it.

Sometimes we can adopt a wrong view of love by focusing too strongly on either the emotional or active aspect. Dr. Gerald Peterman, professor of New Testament at the Moody Bible Institute, wrote a great book titled Joy and Tears: The Emotional Life of the Christian. In it he explains how teachings on love are often cast toward one of two extremes: 

“From TV, movies, magazines and blogs we typically get an inferior understanding of love; it is weak, fickle, and has to do with only emotion. On the other hand, to correct such a poor view of love, some well-meaning believers have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. They say love is only action. But such a definition is also inferior... Love and action go together, but love is a motivator for action. It is motivated by the value it sees in a person or thing, takes pleasure in the person or thing -- such as a good meal, the Lord Jesus, or a neighbor -- and then acts appropriately: it partakes with thanksgiving and sharing, it worships and serves, it seeks the good (respectively).”  

It is easy to see how anemic love can be when it’s understood as just a feeling without action. But what about when we err on the side of “love is only action, not feeling”? We might make this mistake because we think it unfair for God to command our feelings. Perhaps this is because we see our emotions as out of our control, disconnected from our principles, thoughts, or perspectives. 

Does it strike fear in your heart to read the apostle Paul's statement, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3)? Me too. What happens when we just don’t feel it? Should we just pretend love? No. But we can start with loving actions if that is all we can muster while we also call upon God to shape and mold our hearts. We must be careful not to adjust God’s claim on our whole being to fit our fallen emotional state. We will miss part of the glory God intended for us to experience as people made in His image.

God knows that our emotions, our hearts, are affected by and affect our thoughts and actions. Our feelings should be shaped by our faith; as a great example, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). His love for us shapes the way we feel about Him, and the way we feel about His love for us shapes the way we see and serve others. 

God understands that we are whole people with feelings, thoughts, and actions all intertwined in their influences upon each other. His commands to us reflect this. Jesus tells us, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39). 

Is Jesus asking us to feel or to act? Both! In commanding love with our heart and soul and mind, He is asking for our entire selves, all that we are, to be dedicated to loving God and others. A heartfelt disposition, principled values of concern, and self-sacrificial behavior are included in this call. Jesus asks for our whole being, internal feeling and external action inseparably, to serve in the cause of love. 

God wants us to love with our entire selves, using all the faculties with which He created us. This truth is seen in many other places throughout the New Testament as well. The apostle Paul draws upon this full view of love when he suggests that externally loving actions done without a loving heart are empty: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). He’s telling us that a loving attitude should be what motivates such great sacrifice and that, otherwise, our action is ineffective. 

At another point, Jesus fleshes out the connection between the feelings and actions of love when He tells His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). He’s telling them that affection for Him aligns our hearts in obedience to Him. Our feelings are the precursor for the action, as the action is evidence of the feelings. 
 
This is not only how our human love for God works, but also God’s perfect love for us. We see in John 3:16 that God’s own self-sacrifice is motivated by His feeling love for the world, and that sacrifice is evidence of that affection: "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son...” The apostle Paul also talks about this fullness of God’s love in Romans 5, where he distinguishes between a divine, loving motivation for sacrifice from a fallen human motivation for sacrifice: “For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person [a celebrity philanthropist] perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 7-8). God cared about us so much that even in our most offensive and condemned state before Him, He lovingly made a way to remain a just punisher of sin and also to justify sinful humanity through Christ sacrificially assuming our death penalty on the cross. 

It is clear from Scripture that love is both an emotional disposition and self-sacrificial action when it comes to God and His expectations for His followers. A robust view of love according to our Creator can be summed up as heartfelt affection (God's for us, ours for God,  ours for others because God loves them too) that motivates unselfish actions. Or as Pastor Paul succinctly put it on Sunday: compassion + sacrifice = love. 


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