But Really, What is Love?

The word “love” is perhaps the most overused word in the entire English language. It’s hard to feel truly seen and appreciated when people use the same word to describe their attitude toward ice cream as they do to describe their feelings for you. While often unintentional, this language equates the value of a human being to that of an inanimate object. We’re all guilty of it, which just goes to show that our society doesn’t understand what love is anymore. It has come to mean anything a person wants it to. As Christians, we should base our understanding of love upon the unchanging, inerrant word of God. To better comprehend the way the Bible defines love, we should first clear through the jungle of opposing views.

One common worldly conception of love is physical attraction. Using this definition, it’s not unusual to hear people say something along the lines of love being nothing more than a chemical reaction stemming from the evolutionary necessity to reproduce. This cynical view on love may seem logically correct, but most of us remain dissatisfied with its conclusion. Physical attraction alone defines the true nature of love narrowly and doesn’t leave room for the love we have for our parents, siblings, or friends. This kind of desire or attraction is more appropriately defined as physical chemistry, infatuation, or lust, not love. If we can love people that we are not physically attracted to, then there must be a better way to describe love than mere desire. 

The most popular understanding of love today is the idea that it’s an indescribable, uncontrollable feeling that one person has toward another. This feeling doesn’t have to be related to lust, it’s just a general warmth or fondness. However, this still doesn’t suffice as an adequate definition because our feelings toward a person often change rapidly while we still care about them. For example, if I get into an intense argument with one of my sisters, I’m not feeling that warm, fuzzy sensation that people believe to be love. Using this definition, I do not love my sister because I do not have those feelings. Yet, if someone were to ask me even in the heat of the argument if I loved my sister, I would say yes. Everyone has these arguments with loved ones, even the kindest people in the healthiest of relationships. That’s part of what it means to be human. If we are still able to say, even at the height of such a disagreement, that we still love one another (and mean it), obviously love must be something much deeper than a cozy feeling.

C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Love is…a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” This definition brings us much closer to the truth of what love is. It brings to mind 1 Corinthians 13, which explains, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs… Love never ends.” Love being patient, kind, and never-ending entails that it is not so easily swayed as a person’s attraction or emotions. Love “does not dishonor others” by lusting after them. It does not keep a “record of wrongs” or act in pride as we often do when we argue. If we accept Lewis’s definition of love as striving for a “person’s ultimate good,” then it cannot be “self-seeking.” At many times, what is to another’s benefit is inconvenient to us and even goes against our own material interests. Love as always pursuing another person’s good seems to fit very well with love as defined in 1 Corinthians 13. However, in order to strive for the ultimate good of someone else, we must first understand what this ultimate good is.

Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard’s definition of love is perhaps one of the most accurate and concise descriptions outside of the Bible that provides the ultimate good. Kierkegaard simply said, “To love another person is to help them love God.” This perfectly complements Lewis’s explanation. The Bible explains that God is love (1 John 4:7-21), so when one looks to the example of Christ as the embodiment of love, what do they see?  They see God Himself laying down His own life for the good of His people. But what was the good in this situation? It was salvation from the just punishment of our own sin that we might be with God. Martyrs throughout history have died because nothing was more valuable to them than God. They knew He is the ultimate good of themselves, others, and all of creation. As Christians, we can’t be caught up in the way the world defines love. We need to act in Christian love, which behaves as a witness of our faith; a witness of God as the ultimate good. People are supposed to be able to recognize that we are Christians because of our love for one another (John 13:35). By expressing love, we express our faith in God as the ultimate good.