What Is This Thing Called Love?

The following is a column I had published in the religion section of our local paper. It ran about 7 years ago but has been on my heart, so I thought I’d share it.

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Love….  What is it?  I’m told it’s in the air.  The Beatles say it’s all you need.  Some say, “Make love, not war.”  (Though love conquers all).  “I love you” is heard around our house all day.  “Love is grand.”  But what is it?

The first time I heard love defined I was pretty young.  I was watching the old sit-com Charles in Charge starring Scott Baio.  (Let the carbon 14 dating begin).  One of the kids on the show asked Charles’s mother how to recognize real love.  I caught my breath.  This was a question to which I deeply wanted an answer.  But I didn’t realize it until that moment.  Charles’s mother said, “I suppose it’s when you care more about the other person than yourself.”  In my childish way, I found the answer satisfying, substantive.  Not bad for a sit-com.

There’s a lot of truth in what Charles’s mother said.  I think that’s why the answer was satisfying.  The Bible says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16, NIV).  There it is: Love defined.  Jesus cared more for others than Himself.  He calls us to the same course.

I used to equate love with a sort of universalism.  Now I see how self-centered that was.  It mostly made me feel good.  Sure, Jesus loves everyone without distinction.  Anyone can find release from sin and death because He died for everyone.  My brand of universalism meant having nice feelings toward people for whom I’d never lay down my life.  It wasn’t love, just a self-congratulatory fake.  God’s task has been to reorient my entire life around His idea of love.

Is empathy the same as love?  A recent study found no correlation between empathy and charitable action.  Empathy will cry with you and hand you a tissue but that’s about it.  There is a correlation between charitable activity and religious conviction.  This is no surprise for anyone who has read the book of James.  James asks what good it is to wish someone well without acting to meet their needs (James 3:15-16).  This is an understanding of love rooted in the cross.  Jesus didn’t just say, “I’m really sorry you’ve alienated yourself from God.  That must be tough.”  Instead, He suffered death so that He could invite us to experience God’s glory (Hebrews 2:9-10).  

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18, NIV).  This is a tall order if we are at all honest with ourselves.  Our default is to prefer ourselves.  How can we truly put others first?  The apostle John says, “God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in them” (1 John 4:16, NIV).  God never expects something that He Himself doesn’t provide.  He asks us to lay down our lives for others.  He also promises to live in us, to be the motivation we lack.  The Person who is love will put others first through us; the Person of the cross will lay down His life in us.  Having this relationship with God doesn’t mean we’ll never blow it or that we’ll live a life of perfect love.  It does mean we can love others truly, as God does.  We will fail and make mistakes.  But if I may mar Tennyson, it’s better to love fallibly than never to love at all.     

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