What is Love?

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

In my first post I got on my soapbox and boldly declared: “Love is all we need, folks! All we need is love!”

diversityIn our complex, chaotic, confusing world, we Christians don’t need greater certainty about our particular brand of doctrine. We don’t need to find the latest and greatest or oldest and truest form of worship. We don’t need more political engagement, more activism for the Christian cause.

Theology, liturgy, politics, and more are not inherently wrong, of course, and can even be very good, even vitally important—but none of these is the one thing we need always and forever.

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

I say this, because, as I outlined in my last post, I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this.

But what is this love? What does it look like?

Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Some people hear “love” and think “tolerance,” acknowledging and accepting others and their actions with a kind of benign smilingness. Some, perhaps conditioned by Christianity, hear “love” and think “self-sacrifice.” Some, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy.

But the love I’m talking about is not merely affection for others, though feelings of affection are good and beautiful. This love is not merely tolerance of others, though it is important that we acknowledge and accept others’ differences. This love cannot be reduced to simple self-sacrifice, though it is true that we need to break through our selfishness and give of ourselves to others. And although physical and emotional intimacy is a necessary, God-given gift, by itself this is not the love that saves us.

Acceptance. Affection. Self-sacrifice. Intimacy.

Each of these is good and necessary. Each of these gives a glimpse of love, one angle on a multi-faceted love. But none of these by itself is the love we need.

When the biblical authors attempt to describe “love” they consistently point to God’s love for us. In the New Testament, more particularly, they point to God’s love for us in Jesus. To get even more specific, the New Testament often points to Jesus’ suffering and death to portray what true love is all about.

Image: NASA
Image: NASA

So, for example, in the Hebrew Bible we hear of God’s hesed, Yahweh’s loyal love for ancient Israel, standing at the very centre of God’s self-revelation (e.g. Exod 34:6; Ps 145:8-9). We see this loyal love in action from creation on, Yahweh providing and protecting, giving and forgiving, rescuing and restoring, time and time and time again.

In the Gospels we hear Jesus speaking of an Abba Father who cares for the least and last, who seeks the lost, who loves sinners with a ring-and-robe and fatted-calf-feast kind of love (e.g. Luke 15). In the Epistles we hear that “God shows his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), that “we know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16), and that we are to be “imitators of God” by “living in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2).

“God is love,” we are told, and Jesus comes as “the image of the invisible God,” the “exact imprint of God’s very being,” the ultimate revelation of the God who is love (1 John 4:8, 16; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3; John 1:18).

So in light of God’s love for us, and especially God’s love for us in Jesus, what is this love, this one thing we really need? A few reflections, and then a summary description.

Love starts with a stance of openness. It doesn’t stand aloof, arms crossed in suspicion or scorn, waiting for the other to prove themselves. Love steps forward with arms open wide, even running toward the other. It sees the other as a person, inherently worthy of welcome, of compassion, of affection, of respect. It sees these things, even when the other person cannot see it themselves.

Love is freely given. It is “freely given” in that it is voluntary, not coerced. A forced “love” is no love at all. It is also “freely given” in that it expects nothing in return. That is barter or bribery, or crass capitalism—it is not love.

Image: Philip Byrne
Image: Philip Byrne

Love is a giving of oneself. Our time, our attention, our listening ear, our gracious words, our empathy, our loyalty, our experiences, our material resources—all the things that make us who we are as persons, all the things we value as humans, given for the other person. This puts us in a precarious position, because we love without knowing how our love will be perceived, without knowing how it will be received. There is always risk in love.

Love is given whether the recipient deserves it or not. It is loving anyone we cross paths with day by day, our “neighbours.” It is loving “strangers” or “sinners,” those who are different than us in any way, even in ways we vehemently disagree with. It is loving even those who oppose us in anything, even if they do so violently: our “enemies.”

Love is given even when it hurts the giver. This is not an excuse for abuse—remember, love is freely given, never coerced, never forced. This is not the weak being oppressed by the strong, but the strong giving themselves for the weak. Love, at one time or another, in one way or another, will always suffer for the other person. To love is to suffer.

The goal of this love is mutual flourishing, giver and receiver together. The objective is life shared together: not merely surviving but thriving. It is the opposite of what Christians call “sin,” those attitudes and actions that cause harm to others and ourselves.

Think of our most basic needs as human beings. We’ve got those basic physical needs, what we need just to exist: clean air and water, nourishing food, adequate warmth in clothing and shelter, simple health and safety. Then there are those basic psychological, emotional, and social needs we all have, without which we are diminished as persons: positive relationships with others, a sense of belonging in a group, a sense of meaning or purpose, of experiencing and contributing to beauty, truth, and goodness in the world.

These are universal human needs. They can give us a minimal, rough sketch of what “flourishing life” can look like. Which means they can give us a working description of what love should strive for: ensuring others have these basic human needs met, meeting these basic needs for others, for one another together.

This, then, is love: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.

Image: Martyr's Mirror
Image: Martyr’s Mirror

Let that sink in a little.

Go back and read that again.

As you do, pause to think about different people in your life, people you encounter day by day—those you’re close to, those you’re not, those you like, those you don’t.

What would it look like to love them like this?

What would our world be like if we loved one another like this?

Stay tuned for part four.

Love is All We NeedScripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

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