Millions seek it. Teenagers dream of it. Artists depict it. Movie buffs crave it. Preachers preach it. Singers sing it.
But what is love?
While every generation has its popular love ballads, I remember that the ’80s had numerous ones (and a lot of people with really bad hair). In 1984, Foreigner sang, “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Tina Turner rocked, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Stevie Wonder gave us something to say on our rotary-dial telephones with, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” In 1985, Whitney Houston used her amazing voice to sing, “Saving All My Love for You.” Kool and the Gang reminded everyone, “love will stand the test of time,” with a hit song “Cherish.” Whitesnake sang, “Is This Love?” in 1987. That same year, LL Cool J (perhaps my favorite rapper of the era), sang, “I Need Love.”
Others could add the most popular love songs of the 1990s and 2000s. There’s no small amount of them. If songwriters are the poets and theologians of culture, then one thing is for sure: everyone is interested in love. But many confuse love with at least four popular ideas.
- Love is not tolerance
Some think love means tolerance. Certainly tolerance has a rightful place in culture. It’s important in various contexts. In America, one is blessed to freely worship as he or she pleases.
However, some believe that you should never disagree or challenge another person’s viewpoint. To do so will cause one to be labeled “bigoted” or “narrow-minded.”
As Christ-followers, we must not replace truthfulness with tolerance. No one loved like Jesus, yet He was bold and direct. Respect others? Absolutely. Show grace to those who disagree? Yes. Fail to speak the truth in the name of tolerance? No.
Paul said it this way, “[Speak] the truth in love.”
We don’t love the world the way Jesus loved the world if we don’t call others to repentance. And we should do so in a spirit of brokenness and repentance ourselves. Love doesn’t equal tolerance.
- Love is not lust.
Others understand love merely as eros. Countless movies, songs, and books are about erotic or sexual love. On a street level, many use love as a magic word to sleep with another person, stripping love of all its nonsexual power.
So, if a dude takes a girl out for a movie, and later they do the cupid shuffle together, leaving them hormonally excited, the next move in the “Loser Handbook” is to say the words “I love you.” That’s code for, “Let’s break some commandments.”
Ladies, don’t believe that cat.
The type of romantic love that one is made for is covenant love. It’s the type of love that’s talked about in the Bible between God’s faithful love for His people; Christ’s love for His church; and a husband and wife’s love for one another. Love isn’t lust.
- Love is not for pizza.
Many have a diminished view of love. We’re tempted to use “love” for all kinds of things: “I love pizza.” “I love baseball.” “I love munchkins from Dunkin’ Donuts.”
In doing this, people have no other word to describe deep, abiding, eternal love. When a teenager says, “I love you” to a girl he just took to the mall, he doesn’t usually mean it. He means, “I love you like a munchkin.”
- Love is not sentimentalism.
Finally, love isn’t sentimentalism. While one’s feelings are very important, we need to remember that love is more than a feeling.
Love is more than feeling sorry for someone, or having your emotions stirred by a film or piece of music. Love involves tangible action.
When one considers the millions of orphans in the world, or the millions of children being trafficked, or those going without bread today, our sentimentalism isn’t helping them. They need someone to act with love.
“I wanna know what love is.”
So let’s try to answer Foreigner’s question. How can we tell someone what love is? I believe that the Bible cuts through the fog of confusion on this issue. The apostle John, Jesus’ beloved disciple, wrote much about love. Here’s what he says:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (1 John 3:16, emphasis added).
John says that we don’t have to guess about love. If the professor asks you, “What is love?” and you begin listing things on the whiteboard, you can quote 1 John 3:16.
What kind of love was this? Jesus’ love wasn’t simply a mystical love, or a philosophical love, or sentimentalism. Jesus’ love was an active love. He didn’t merely say he “loved.” He demonstrated love. His greatest act of love was at the cross. Paul wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Therefore, I would define love something like this: Love involves compassion that leads to action.
Jesus’ compassion drove Him to wash His disciples’ feet, to serve others, to weep over the city of Jerusalem, and to die as a substitute for sinners. John says it should drive us to lay down our lives for our “brothers.” He reminds us also that it’s more than words, “Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action” (1 John 3:18, HCSB).
God’s people are called to care for those in the community of faith with a love that is different from its culturally conditioned counterfeit (Gal. 6:10). But as we scan the whole Bible, we know that Christians are also called to love their neighbor, to love the least of these, and to even love their enemies (Matt. 5:43–48; 22:37–40; 25:40, 45).
Again, Jesus’ life and death exemplifies such love, and once a person receives salvation in Christ, then the Spirit empowers such love. Christ loved the brothers; He loved His neighbor; He loved the least of these; and He loved His enemies.
In Jesus, we know what love is. It’s the ordinary expression of one neighbor to another.
For more on this topic, see my new book Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down.