Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is Love?

What is love?

Is it a burning passion? A sacrificial act? A kind word?

Not only does this question affect every relationship, but it affects the very life that Jesus said would come by loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. How can we do that if we don’t know what love is?

As we read the Bible – or experience any truly loving relationship – it becomes clear that love is more than a few words, a checklist, or a feeling.

Most of us associate emotion with love because it's the part that comes most naturally to us - maybe it’s excitement - or happiness - or safety - or honor - or romance. The Bible often recognizes these beautiful emotions as love too, but it also says that emotion is just a piece of a greater love – a love made up of many different attributes – a love that is perfect, full-grown, genuine, complete and incorruptible. This is a lasting love.

That’s why, before I talk about godly actions that show love, I’d first like take a closer look at the love that drives those actions. Of course there’s no step-by-step formula for love, but there are some important principles to remember, and I’d summarize God’s description of mature love like this:

Mature Love = Good heart (motives/faith/passion/affection) + Good understanding + Good actions.

None of these alone is perfect love, but the sum becomes greater than the parts. In mature love, these pieces are inseparable. For you scientists, we might say they’re symbiotic; they need each other. If it’s helpful, we can look at love as a stool with three legs: No part of it alone can achieve what all three achieve together - stability. But unlike sitting on a stool, this kind of love provides lasting enjoyment and safety.

To illustrate what I mean, consider these examples of “love” with just one part missing. (And to be clear, the term “good” in these examples is used only in an incomplete and superficial sense because of what I’ve just said.)

“Love” With No Action
Good motives and good understanding have great potential to produce the right actions, but they’re no good unless we take action. This is wanting your wife to be happy, knowing she loves big parties, but letting her birthday come and go without organizing one for her. It’s pitying a starving man but giving him no food. It’s feeling grief as we watch a child drown, knowing exactly how to save him, but allowing fear or laziness to stop us from moving.

We may have a good heart and understand clearly what’s going on, but without action, we often hurt people more. Laziness, fear, and doubt (negative skepticism) find many ways to disguise themselves. “I might fail." "I’m being cautious.” “Someone else will do it.” “It won’t feel good.” “I’m busy.” Mature love takes action.

“Love” With Bad Understanding
A lack of healthy skepticism, on the other hand, is why “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Good motives, good actions, and bad understanding act in ways that seem good, but leave a wake of destruction in their path – with the offender often satisfied and clueless to his offense. This is yelling “Surprise!” at a traumatized soldier as we honor him. It’s investing our family’s life savings in a company we haven’t researched at all. It’s giving a big bag of peanuts to a hungry toddler who is deathly allergic to nuts.

What we wanted may have been good and the actions aren’t inherently hurtful, but we still caused unnecessary pain because we didn’t consider the needs of the actual person or situation. Sure, if someone knows our heart, it may be easier for them to forgive us if we hurt them. But if we want to stop hurting them and start helping, good intentions and zealous actions are not good enough. To discern what’s best and what’s true, we have to ask questions to learn more about God, ourselves, the people we love, and the world around us. Mature love seeks knowledge and wisdom.

“Love” With Bad Motives
To this point, we’ve faced people who at least want what’s best for others. Bad motives, however, bring us into the realm of intentional deceit, greed, theft, adultery and murder. And when bad motives are combined with good understanding and good actions, they’re given a stage to cause the greatest damage. This is a false teacher in the church or a corrupt politician. It’s the child molester who gives kids candy and kind words to gain trust so he can selfishly satisfy his lusts. It’s the guy or girl who does the same thing to their date. It’s being in any position of influence and trust, and then abusing that trust to serve our own emotional, sexual, and financial lusts.

These hypocrites and manipulators – wolves in sheep’s clothing – know how others think, they know how the world works, and they know the right words and actions to create the appearance of love. But inwardly they are dead corpses and ravenous wolves that prey on the naïve, gullible and weak. Such actions belong to the devil himself, but let’s not fool ourselves: Everyone is capable of deceit. Each of us has influence that can be abused, even if it’s over just a few people who need and trust us - and at the time, our sin always feels justified. So let’s keep watch for them and shake off the sin that so easily entangles us. Mature love is rooted in faith and humbly seeks the good of others.

How To Love Well
We love well when we genuinely want the best for others, when we gain knowledge and wisdom to know what “the best” actually is, and when we take action to make sure that the right thing happens. That’s why God tells us to love with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s how he loves.

It's true that no one loves perfectly except God; I know I don’t. But as we mature and experience his love, we can learn to love God, ourselves, and others better.

In light of this, it’s worth asking yourself: Does your definition of love match up with God’s? How have you loved well and how can you love better?

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