I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has noticed that everyone today seems to be in love with the idea of love. I mean, who’s going to disagree with dear Aunt Betty who pronounces at the holiday dinner table that what the world needs now is “love, sweet love”? Who would dare to upset the sacred social equilibrium by questioning the cherished relative? And who in their right mind would commit cultural heresy by challenging such an obvious statement in the public forum?
Hold my eggnog.
Now, of course, we admire the spirit and sentiment behind our beloved aunt’s statement. Christians would wholeheartedly agree that what the world needs is love. After all, we’re told, “If we have not love we are nothing, gain nothing ... and the greatest of these is love” (c.f. 1 Corinthians 13). Love is the obvious answer. Love is the inoffensive answer. Love is the cliché answer. And, biblically speaking, love is the right answer.
But as the old logicians like to say, it begs the question—what kind of love are we going on about here? A love that’s defined and characterized by who?
Questioning ‘Love is Love’
At the risk of upsetting the entire sentimental Christmastime mood here, I think we all know that we’re living in a cultural moment of great moral confusion where almost anything is being justified in the name of love. Almost all of us have heard the expressions, “love wins,” “It can’t be wrong if we love each other,” “Who are you to tell me who I can and cannot love?,” or the new fan favorite, “love is love.”
See the conundrum we’re in? Who gets to define what love indisputably is and determine what it looks like? Saying “love is love” doesn’t mean anything when the ultimate standard of love is our own individual wants and personal feelings. A subjective, feelings-based sort of love becomes impossible to define and impossible to determine because everyone’s feelings are as different as our faces and our own personal feelings change as frequently as the price of gas.
What is needed in the world today—and I would venture to say even in some churches today—is a return to the only unchanging source and standard of love—God is love.
Remembering that God Is Love
Advent is a jolly-good time to remember that God is love and to remember the distinctive nature of God’s love. The God of love must be our starting point and standard for love or else we have no starting point and standard except our fragile and fluctuating individual selves.
What is the nature of God’s love? Think of understanding the unique landscape of God’s love like learning our ABCs. And in the alphabet of love, you’ve got love a, b, c, and d.
Love A says, “If you scratch my back, then I’ll scratch yours.” It’s reactionary self-interest. I’m only going to give to you what you have first given to me. Let’s call that Love A. But Love B reverses it.
Love B says, “If I scratch your back, then you’ll be more likely to scratch mine.” It’s civilized self-interest. At the end of the day, it’s still self-serving. So, Love A essentially thinks, “I will give having already gotten from you.” Love B thinks, “I will give secretly hoping to get something in return from you.” But then there’s Love C.
Love C says, “I will scratch your back without expecting anything back.” It’s selfless sacrificial action. This is the best of friends and family love. As Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay his life down for his friends” (John 15:13). And yet there is an even higher form of love that surpasses humanity’s greatest extent of love.
Love D says, “I will scratch your back even if you stab me in the back.” This is selfless and supernatural enemy love. Love D is helping the person who has hurt you the most. It’s blessing the person who has betrayed you. It’s serving the person who can’t stand you. It’s praying for the person who is persecuting you. Love D is a love from another world because it is from another world. Love C and Love D is God’s love.
Jesus taught us the ABCs of love in Luke 6:32-36:
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you (Love A) …what benefit is that to you? And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.” (Love B) … But love your enemies and do good (Love D) … And lend, expecting nothing in return (Love C) … And your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
What kind of love is God’s love? It’s Love C and Love D. It’s not self-centered transactional love; it’s sacrificial, supernatural, enemy love.
God Demonstrated His Love
It’s one thing to teach this kind of love; it’s another thing entirely to display it. The astonishing and life-changing message of Christmas is that God didn’t just declare his C and D love; he demonstrated it. God didn’t just tell us what love is; he showed it to us and gave it to us. God didn’t just send us a card; he showed up to the hospital.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16a). To a world that had turned its back on him, God gave his very best. We no longer wonder what love is or what love looks like. God has put together a masterclass on Love C and Love D in the person of Jesus and has offered it to us for free.
“For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8).
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
God Empowers Our Love
So, what does this mean for you and me? We’re told, “Let us love one another, for love is from God” (1 John 4:7a). This is a command that comes locked and loaded with the power to fulfill it. We can’t give away what we don’t already have. So, if we want to reflect this sacrificial enemy love to others, then we first must receive this love from God.
This is the ongoing gift of Christmas. Receiving the gift of Christmas isn’t just receiving God’s love; it’s receiving God’s Spirit that gives us a new power and potential to reflect his love to others. The true Spirit of Christmas empowers us to do the impossible—to move past the idea of Love C and Love D and move it all into action.
Love Is More Than a Principle
There’s an old Peanuts cartoon that pictures Linus looking out the window and he says, “I love mankind, it’s just people I can’t stand.” And we all get that right? It’s so much easier to love the idea of love or the article I read on love instead of the people who are right in front of us that we are called to love.
It’s much easier to love the principle but not the people, because the principle of love doesn’t disappoint you; the principle of love doesn’t say harsh things to you; the principle of love doesn’t wound you; the principle of love doesn’t make mistakes, but people do.
If we’re honest, we all tend to agree with our need to love, until we need to love. Because every day we’re confronted with two ways of looking at life and two ways of looking at love.
Two Paths and Two Symbols
The world’s motto and philosophy of life is “your life for mine.” But the Christian’s motto and philosophy of life is “my life for yours.” It’s laying our lives down in sacrificial love for others—a love that is personal not just general, and a love that is sacrificial not just sentimental. It is a love with particular names and sacrificial costs attached to it.
Is our love for one another reflecting the purity of God’s character, moving us to action, and costing us something? If not, it is not God’s love.
Our cultural symbol for love is a heart because the emphasis is on how we feel. But the Bible’s symbol for love is a cross because the emphasis is on what we give to others despite how we feel. Christian love is an action before it’s ever a feeling. It’s a verb before it’s ever a noun. It’s not mushy gushy sweet sentimentality; it’s giving yourself up for the ultimate good of another. It’s not pleasing yourself; it’s denying yourself. It’s choosing the path of Love C and Love D.
What does the world need now? The same thing it has always needed—not just “Love, sweet love” but rather, “Love, God’s love”—the C and D kind of love. For this is the love that wins the day and the love that we invite people to see and to celebrate every Christmas.
Jeremy A. McKeen is the Planting Pastor of Gospel City Fellowship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire..