What is Love?

by A. Maeve McDonald

Mysterious, elusive love. It mystifies and enchants. It both elates and sickens. It provides endless inspiration for artistic expression in music, painting, poetry, prose, film—not to mention the nostalgic lyrics of a one-hit-wonder: What is love? Baby don’t hurt me no more! Like in this [pretty annoyingly] catchy song, love often mingles with pain in these contexts. Perhaps this is why a heart pierced with an arrow is so often used to symbolize love! The pursuit of love can indeed lead us down a lonely rabbit trail of sin and suffering. Our yearning for it can give rise to desperation, obsession, and compulsion. We are all on a quest to grasp it, to earn it, to experience it. Some of us find it, many of us don’t. This is because many things that aren’t actually love masquerade as the real thing: lust, infatuation, idol-worship, hopeless romance, people-pleasing, co-dependency, neediness…all these things can feign love.
But what is love actually?

The concept of “love” is central to biblical truth. We know from Scripture that God is love (1 John 4:8). The gospel is rooted in love (John 3:16). The purest form of love is revealed in Jesus’s death on the cross. And we are admonished to love God above all else and to love others as ourselves (Matt 22:37-38). So what does godly love look like?

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The Greek term for love used by John to describe God in 1 John 4:8 is agape, a form of agapeis, which is also used by Jesus (agapaō) when he quotes the greatest commandments to love God and others (Matt 22:37-38). The essence of agape love is self-sacrifice. True love, then, is not self-seeking (1 Cor 13:6). And it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to love God and love others in a truly self-sacrificial way. Because Godly love is self-sacrificial, living it out can be costly to us. It can cost us material possessions, time, relationships, popularity, and can be really inconvenient! It motivates us to die to self (Luke 9:23; Gal 2:20). Because it is not of this world, it is often rejected by the world. But, loving others without the Holy Spirit often involves a self-serving, consumerist form of “love” that actually takes away from God and other people more than it gives.

When John says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), he points us to the origin of love, for in the previous verse, he writes unequivocally, “love is from God” (1 John 4:7). This brings up the question, can we truly love without God?

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Faith Actually: What is Love?


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