Some people seem to think Christian Love means Affectionate Reassurance.
Affectionate because it brings lots of hugs, smiles, and “I love you’s”. Reassuring because, to some, love means making people feel good about themselves. So self-acceptance, self-validation, and self-fulfillment become primary issues, requiring you to affirm and reinforce all three if you really love someone.
I’m not about to knock any of these. If someone loves me, I do expect some affection from them, along with some concern for my well-being. I don’t solicit friends and loved ones to make me feel good about myself, because face it, sometimes I shouldn’t feel so good about Me. But I’ll go for some reassurance that I’m valued, and some basic respect as well. Those are qualities love entails, I’d say. They don’t really define it, but where love goes, they tend to follow.
Rather than go off on what love isn’t, though, let’s try looking at a few Biblical definitions and descriptions of the real deal which is, after all, the best way to tell the counterfeit from the genuine. And since more than ever, we’re hearing that Christians should be loving (no argument there) yet we’re also at odds over what “loving” means, some clarity on the thing itself really is called for.
Of course a comprehensive definition of love is beyond the scope of a simple blogpost and, for that matter, its author. But I’d like to highlight four characteristics of love the Bible offers, characteristics that, I feel, give us an idea of how godly love works.
The Agape Standard
Let’s start by emphasizing the “godly” part. We know the two Greek words used for love in the New Testament stand in fairly sharp contrast to
Phileo means “to approve of, like, sanction, treat affectionately.”
The word only shows up a handful of times in the New Testament, usually in relation to human love or strong preference, and notably when Jesus questions Peter on what sort of love the disciple has for Him – human or divine? (John 21:15-19)
Agape is divine love, perfect and holy. The word is more commonly translated in the New Testament as “love”, and refers to the way both the Father and Son love us (John 15:9) the way we’re to love God and our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39) the way we’re commanded to love each other (I John 4:7) and the nature of God Himself (I John 4:8) Whatever agape is, that’s what we’re to be, and how we’re to love. Four points, then, come to mind when we’re describing agape.
- Love is Sacrificial
Jesus said the pinnacle of love is sacrifice, the laying down of one life for another. (John 15:13) Now here, if we’re honest, we’ve got to admit it’s hard to know whether we’re sacrificing for our loved one, or sacrificing because of the good response we’ll get when we do.
(Don’t even ask how many times my good friends and I give each other the bump for scoring “points” with our wives, points unquestionably scored in hope of a good response.)
So really, when we love, we care not only for the loved one, but also for the amazing feelings we experience in the throes of that love. Still, love carries a responsibility to strive for whatever’s in the best interest of the loved one, not the lover.
If I love you, then, I’ll show it through small or stupendous acts of sacrifice, putting aside my comfort, preferences, and even my needs, for the sake of what’s best for you. Loving you is about what I give, not what I get.
- Love is Practical
John pointedly asked how someone can profess love while withholding practical basics – food, clothing, shelter – from someone who needs them. (I John 3:17)
God so loved the world that He gave, a cue we could all stand being reminded of from time to time. If I love, then I remember the poor, I support the church I receive weekly benefit from, I extend my time and my abilities where they’re needed, and, in general, I give.
The oft-quoted line from the film Jerry Maguire is relevant here. If I say “I love people”, then you have the right, per I John 3:17, to say “Show me the money!” There should be a tangible, verifiable trail pointing from the love I profess to the people who are it recipients. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s agape, there’s service.
- Love is Respectful
Paul’s beautiful, concise description of agape in I Corinthians 13 begins with a two-pronged descriptive: Patient and Kind.
If I love my neighbor, friends, family, and sisters and brothers in faith, than to all of them, saved or unsaved, I show patient kindness.
The people I deal with must be, if I’m operating in agape, shown respect, consideration, and a notable lack of pushy demanding on my end. If I love, I am patient and kind.
I may and in fact will at times disagree with someone. We’ll hold differing views, or our personalities will clash, or we’ll have a dispute, or whatever. Fine; that’s the reality of relationships and hardly evidence of no love. But in the midst of those tensions, the people in my life will be spoken to respectfully, absent name calling, sarcasm, put-downs, or verbal power plays. They’ll be treated with dignity, shown genuine affection, and, as much as possible, I will enjoy them.
There’s a concept I’m attracted to: enjoying people. Jesus seemed to do that while running the gamut of interactions from prostitutes to Pharisees. To me, it looks like He delighted in what God called Him to lay down His life for, and when I review His diverse connections in the Gospels, I’m reminded of His parable about a man selling everything he had for a treasure (Matthew 13:44) and how that conveys God’s attitude towards the souls He created, was alienated from, then came to save.
- Love Seeks God’s Will in Another’s Life
Somebody say “Ouch!” Because if there’s one aspect of God’s love where human affection collides with divine intentions, it’s this one.
Plainly put, if I love you, I hope and seek for you to be right with God: first saved, then living obediently. And if expressing that desire risks our affectionate bond, much as I dislike that, then so be it.
This is where phileo and agape sometimes wind up playing offense versus defense, fighting over the human ball. Because my affections want us to get along above all else, while my agape stubbornly reminds me that if you’re seriously wrong, then you’re seriously endangered.
In fact, it’s not only love for others compelling us to stand firm on essential truths, but even more so, love for Him.
Granted, I don’t want to be a jerk who’s forever preaching and assuming moral high ground, and I hope I’m never arrogant enough (much less stupid enough) to think people are on the edge of their seats dying to know what
Still, at times, truth needs to be told, offensive as it may be to the hearers. Paul, for example, acknowledged this tension when he spoke candidly to the Galatians about their legalism and, anticipating their offended response, asked rhetorically, “Am I therefore your enemy because I tell you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16)
Jesus, when Peter tried to sway Him from His ultimate sacrificial goal, lashed out at His beloved disciple and friend with the worst insult imaginable: “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. (Matthew 16:23) Human affection clashed with divine will, and God Incarnate went off.
Peter, in turn, later spoke in love (I think that’s a safe bet) when he presented the curious multitude on the Day of Pentecost with what I consider one of the most confrontational sermons on record. (Acts 2:14-40) He wanted somewhat to live peacefully with all people; he wanted ultimately for all people to live.
Which drives an important point to the modern believer: The quality of our love is not determined by how well it’s received by the people we love, nor by how it’s interpreted. Love, at its best, is often rejected,
What’s critical is that it always be love – respectful, practical, affectionate, honest, and driven by desire for the other person’s good – that’s expressed by, and indeed compelling, us.
He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.
(I John 2:6)
And so be it, for all of us, and for always.