What is Love?
“Well”, you may respond, “what are we talking about? Are we talking about a romantic feeling, sex, a kind gesture, loving ‘that new outfit’…or what?” That is part of the problem. We use the term love to mean several different things. For a moment, though, let’s zero in on a non-romantic, selfless form of love.
It’s safe to say almost everyone wants to be loved. We know how it feels to be unloved, that painful feeling of rejection or of being ignored. We hurt when friends or family members don’t value us. Naturally, we want to avoid that and, instead, experience the warmth and care from another human. We want to be accepted, to be treated with kindness. We want to be loved.
In spite of our culture, in spite of what runs our economy, in spite of frantic lifestyles, people are hungry for love. Our society rewards numbers (wealth, performance…), status, notoriety, popularity; but, we have a deeper need to be accepted and loved. Even though kindness is rarely noticed by the media, we all want it. In the midst of an increasingly isolated lifestyle, where we are overworked, overstressed and overextended, we long for personal attention and touch.
Is love like a Christmas gift? Are we better at receiving it than at giving it? Certainly, it is human nature to focus on ourselves, to think more about what we get than about what we give to someone else. Maybe that’s why most of us aren’t great at loving others, because it is too easy to stay focused on ourselves. Or, we give conditionally, we only give love when we believe we will receive something in return.
If I were to ask you, “How is your love life?”…you might be offended that I was being a bit too nosy. But, let me ask anyway, how is your love life?
I began this post with the focus on how most of us aren’t very good at loving others, but I’m sure you can think of some people who break the mold, people who are good at loving. Throughout this book, I’ve given you examples of everyday people who personified the subject we are looking at.
Pete Brady of Brookfield, Connecticut is a great example of someone who loves people. Thirteen years ago, he noticed the many elderly people in his community having trouble raking their leaves and maintaining their homes. Pete wasn’t especially handy, but he could rake leaves. He started helping seniors. He was also a good organizer, so he got other volunteers involved. They raked leaves, painted walls and did a variety of odd jobs for people who needed a little help. Because Pete saw a need and was willing to express love, Brookfield now has dozens of volunteers helping hundreds of needy people every year.
As noted before, in English we understand love to mean several different things. We know about romantic and passionate love (eros). We also have the concept of brotherly love (phileo) and the godly, non-selfish, unconditional type of love (agape). These 3 Greek terms eros, phileo and agape are New Testament concepts.
For many, love is transactional or conditional. We give love so we can get something in return. If we don’t receive back something of value, a hug or a thank-you or a similar expression of love, we’ll stop giving out love. This conditional form of loving is extremely natural and common; yet, by attaching conditions, don’t we really make it less about love and more about getting what we want? Conditional love invariably leads to performance-pressure and irritation, disappointment and anger when we don’t get or give what was expected.
Let’s return to God’s form of unconditional love, agape. The noun, agape, and verb, agapao, appear throughout the New Testament and describe God’s love: how the Father loves the Son, how He loves people and how His followers are called to adopt this type of love for one another. The clearest example of God’s love is found in John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
In this simple passage, Jesus expressed several profound concepts:
- God’s love is both feeling and action. He loved so much that He gave. He backed up emotion with deed. If you love someone, you care enough to act on it.
- God’s love is limitless. He didn’t limit love to the “good guys.” His love is for all who believe.
- God’s love is precious. He gave His only Son for us.
- God’s love is purposeful. There was a reason for Christ’s sacrifice: our sin.
- God’s love is unconditional. It is a gift. He gets nothing in return.
God’s type of love can require significant sacrifice or cost to the one doing the loving. Jesus gave up His rights and His life for us. As we seek to love others, we need to be prepared to love sacrificially. You may not need to die for someone like Jesus did. True love is a generous, selfless expression of kindness and care, seeking to help or encourage someone else.
There is naturally great risk involved in selfless loving. You may wonder, “Who is going to take care of me?” You don’t know for sure that others will respond to your love by giving back to you. You could give and give to others…and receive little or nothing in return. Unconditional loving requires a leap of faith, doesn’t it?
Here is Jesus’ promise which your leap of faith can be based on:
Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. – Luke 6:38
This is the central question: Do you believe God is able to take care of you? If you choose to extend yourself and generously give love to others, to not keep track of what you may get in return and not hold back, do you believe God will provide for your needs?
Our human nature tells us to not risk getting involved with others, to hold back resources and just take care of ourselves. We are tempted to focus on ourselves, to be selfish. In the past 32 years of ministry, I’ve had the privilege of working with thousands of people from all walks of life representing dozens of countries and cultures. One thing has become clear to me: selfish people are unhappy; generous, loving people are much happier in life. It’s true!
Amassing wealth won’t satisfy your longings. Solely taking care of yourself will only make you miserable. We are happiest and most well-adjusted in life when we are actively giving to and caring for others.
How do we overcome our selfishness? Our need for greed? Our focus on ourselves? Frankly, we can’t do it on our own. You and I can make daily choices to love, but we ultimately won’t succeed on our own power. Just like everything else we’ve addressed in this book, we need God’s help in changing our lives, we need His strength to love Him and others.
We love because He first loved us. – 1 John 4:19
By plugging into and experiencing God’s love personally, you will gain the strength to love others. Wait a moment. Before you move on, stop and consider this. Even though you’ve heard this many times before, let me ask: Has God’s love impacted you? Deep down in your soul, do you get how big a deal this is? You are accepted. You are forgiven. You are valued. You are loved.
Scot Lewis of Mahoning County, Ohio found a way to show others God’s love. In his part of the state, he noticed how many rural families were struggling to feed themselves. They didn’t have access to the services commonly found in the cities. Together with his church, Scot decided to do something about the need. They started gathering and giving away food to needy people. Several years later, the Big Reach Center of Hope is the second-largest food bank in Ohio, feeding thousands of people every month. Scot chose to love others.
When you mimic God’s version of love, you not only follow in His ways, you are changed. By simply loving others with no expectation of receiving anything in return, you are set free.
No longer are your relationships based on performance. You don’t have to meet others’ needs to be accepted and you don’t need them to meet your needs or wishes. Rather, your focus is on helping, accepting and encouraging others. You become free as never before.
Many of us can be pretty good at loving others outside of the home. We volunteer, we help little old ladies or we politely hold the door for the next person. During your lunch hour, you may politely listen to someone at work who needs attention.
However, the biggest challenge most of us face in loving others is at home. Why do we treat the people we love the most, the worst? Why do we blow up in anger at our family, anger that we’d never display somewhere else? Would you raise your voice at the store clerk like you do with your spouse?
The challenge of love is to love someone in spite of the history and the past patterns. Your challenge is to forgive the past hurts and intentionally love those people God has brought into your life.
When you choose to love as God has loved you, amazing things can happen. Join me in living out the love God has given us.