What Is Love?
What Is Love?
All of us have a working definition of love in our minds. Love is one of those words that we instinctively know what it means. We sing about love; we watch movies about love; we read romance novels about love. Love is part of what it means to be human, and no matter what culture you live in, most people would say they know something about love.
But it’s one thing to talk about love. It’s a whole different matter to love someone. Love is hard. We know this. Or if you don’t, you will soon. Love sometimes hurts. Love sometimes disappoints. And too often, we simply fail to love.
What do we do instead? We respond cynically. We approach life with stoic rationality, rather than risk being burned again by love. Or we redefine love to something more manageable:
- “Don’t do to others what you would not have them do to you.”
- “Love is all about actions; my family knows I love them.”
- “As long as I don’t hurt anybody else, what does it matter what I do with my life?”
I wonder how you define love?
On our best days and in our right minds, we all know that love is good, and we all want to be known as loving. Nobody wants to come to the end of their lives and be remembered as someone who was selfish and bitter and hateful. But as we all know, that is far easier said than done.
And yet, to be remembered as loving by our friends and family is one thing. But what about God? What would it take for God to see in us a life of love?
First Corinthians 13 is one of the most well-known passages in the Bible, because here, God gives us a description of love. But rather than watering it down to something that we can manage, God turns up the heat. As much as we think we know about love, it turns out we know very little. As much as we think we value love, it turns out we haven’t even begun to realize its true significance.
(Read 1 Cor. 13:1-13)
Many of us have attended weddings where this passage is read, and it’s easy for us to attach to this passage all the picture-perfect sentimentality of a wedding day. But that’s not the context of this chapter. Rather, throughout 1 Corinthians, we find ourselves embroiled in controversy, conflict, and disunity within a local church. So Paul’s goal is to confront all the wrong ways we think about love, which lie at the root of so much of our sin. In this chapter, Paul’s saying to the Corinthians three things:
- Without love, you’re nothing.
- You don’t even know what love is.
- Love will last longer than the stuff you care about.
What will it take for us to pursue a life of love?
Without Love, You’re Nothing
(Read 1 Cor. 13:1-3)
If love is so important, why is that when it comes to our lives, we give little thought and attention to it? Why is it that our default attitude is simply to do what we want, and sort of assume that we are being loving?
But love is far too important for us just to assume. Because without love, you ultimately are nothing. To make this point, Paul compares love to all the things the Corinthians admired. If these don’t apply to you, then feel free to substitute the things that you’re impressed with.
So even if you had the gift of tongues, where you could soar on the heights of spiritual ecstasy and speak like the angels to the amazement of everyone around … but you did not have love, then all your speaking would only be meaningless noise to God. In fact, the term “clanging cymbal” often referred to an instrument used in pagan worship, so Paul might be saying here is that these miraculous gifts, without love, are indistinguishable from pagan worship.
No matter how passionate, how deeply emotional your religious experience, without love, you cannot please God.
Paul pushes it even farther. Imagine someone who is a gifted preacher, who has all their theology perfect, who understands all the deepest mysteries of God and can understand and teach God’s Word to thousands but does not have love—that person is nothing.
Or imagine someone who, by faith, is able to perform the greatest miracles. They can heal the sick, they can move mountains, they can change the course of history, but they do not have love. That person is also nothing. When God evaluates them, they are of no account.
No matter how accurate your theology or effective your ministry, without love, God is not impressed.
Paul pushes beyond spiritual gifts to the realm of great acts of sacrifice. Now, surely, this is the way to impress God! Imagine someone who gives away all they have, leaves family and husband/wife and children, and spends the rest of their life serving the sick and the poor in some dark corner of the world. Or imagine someone who resists persecution, who stands up for what they believe, even to the point of being burned at the stake, giving their life as a martyr for the gospel. Surely, those actions count for something, right? Yes, if there’s love. Oh, but without love, they gain nothing.
No matter how sacrificial you are, even to the point of giving your life, without love, you gain nothing.
This reveals that we are way too easily impressed by external religion. We admire great feats of passion, service, and sacrifice. We think that people who do great things are the people who really matter to God, and we dream about doing great things in our own lives.
But what we see here is that just because you do great things does not necessarily mean that there is love. Actions do not necessarily equal love. Without love, God is not impressed. No, love involves our hearts, it begins with our affections, with our motives, with our being—which is why it’s so hard.
If this is true, then we should never assume that we have love figured out. We are so intentional in figuring out how to be more efficient, more educated, more religious, more theological, more gifted, but do we think the same way about love? Have you ever met with a brother or a sister to study your life and to consider whether you are loving others and strategize how you can grow in your life?
What this means is that you can never be so great and so accomplished to feel that you have arrived, that you have mastered love. Even if you are a hero of the faith, a world-class preacher, you will always be humbled by the challenge that love presents to your fallen heart.
The reverse is also true: You can never be so small and insignificant that you cannot do great things for God. Because if your life is characterized by this love, then your life becomes a display of the glory of God in a dark world, and God counts your life as of eternal value.
Friends, let this be an encouragement to you. If these warnings are true, then the reverse promises must also be true:
- Even if you never sing with the tongues of angels or speak with great eloquence, but your words flow from love, then your voice will be sweet music to God.
- Even if you’ve never preached on a Sunday morning or received a seminary degree or performed a great miracle, but your relationships are characterized by love, then you will have accomplished great things for God.
- Even if you’ve never sold all you had and moved to a Third World country or suffered dramatically for your faith, but week in and week out you have faithfully loved brothers and sisters in the local church, then an eternal heavenly reward awaits you.
Love is ultimately what matters. Love is not an optional accessory to our life’s achievements. Love is the defining issue of our lives. What this tells us is that the problem we face in life is not fundamentally that we don’t do enough great things for God or that we are not brilliant enough, gifted enough, or heroic enough. That’s too often what we think. But what did Jesus say?
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37–40)
If this is true, then the ultimate problem that all of us face is our lack of love. We fail to love one another, because we fail to love God. This is the essence of what the Bible calls sin.
The Bible is not asking us to perform amazing feats for God. It’s not telling us to give away all our money to charity in order to be accepted by God. Instead, it’s asking something far more radical and simpler. Is our life characterized by love?
You Don’t Know What Love Is
(Read 1 Cor. 13:4-7)
This is not an exhaustive description. But this is what Christians who are struggling with pride and disunity need to hear. This is a useful heart-check for every single one of us. Do you want a way to evaluate your love? Walk through each one of these characteristics one by one. Take time this week to sit down with a spouse or a friend and talk through these. How am I doing in this? Where am I not doing well? How have I seen growth in this in the past year?
For patience: How are you in patiently bearing with hurts against you without complaining? It’s striking that Paul begins there, perhaps because that’s where love begins in a fallen world. Love requires patience. If you limit your love only to those who will never cross you, you’re going to find yourself quite alone. How’s your patience?
How are you in proactively showing kindness? Love is kind. Love cheerfully and freely seeks to do good to others. This is different from “leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.” This is going out of your way to do intentional good to another, not only physically, but spiritually as well. Are we kind to others, even those we think don’t deserve it?
How about in dealing with envy? Envy is the inability to rejoice with those who rejoice. So are we glad when other people receive good things in this life, even things that we want but don’t have? Do we pray for others to be blessed even in ways that we haven’t been blessed?
How about boasting and pride? Do we look down on others who don’t have the character or career or whatever that we have? Maybe not overtly, but do we carry a sense of superiority over others? And if so, how do we treat those who we consider beneath us?
What about in being self-seeking? Are we concerned primarily about ourselves? So many of our good actions can be ruined here. The teenager shapes up so that they might be allowed to go out. The husband gives his wife a nice present so he can go golfing with his buddies. The business owner adopts philanthropy to drive more sales. Can we trace self-seeking motives to our actions?
How are we in being slow to anger? The Bible is clear that there is a place for righteous anger. But perhaps we grant ourselves far too much leeway in that. How often are we angry when actually no wrong was done? How often are we angry when only a small offense occurred? How often are we more angry because we were personally hurt, not because there was sin against God? Love is not easily provoked.
Love keeps no record of wrongs. How are we in forgiveness? Forgiveness is not excusing an accident; it’s not pretending everything is okay. Forgiveness is recognizing that a real offense against us has occurred, but rather than using that against another, we choose to suffer for it and cover over it, so that the other person will not have to suffer. Love forgives.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Does our love for others involve confronting evil when we see it? Does it involve speaking the truth, even when it’s hard to hear? Flattery is not love. Flattery cares more about ourselves than the other person. Nor is it love for us to gossip and take delight in the failings and wrongs of others. Love refuses to delight in evil, but it rejoices and speaks the truth.
Finally, does our love persevere? Does it endure? Genuine love lasts for a lifetime. If we show patience and kindness for two months or two years or two decades, but then decide to take a break and give way to selfishness and pride, then that was not genuine love. If we forgive the first and second and tenth time, but not the eleventh time, then that was not love. Love endures through every circumstance, it is generous in its trust, it hopes for the best, and even after repeated disappointment, it perseveres to the end.
Notice that in all these descriptions, Paul is not giving us a simple list of actions. Yes, love involves actions and results in deeds. But love is more than mere actions and deeds. Love fundamentally begins with our hearts.
Let me make three observations about this list.
Love Exists in the Context of Broken Relationships
This is why love is so hard. Notice how many of these characteristics are in response to the reality of sin. Patience, not envious, not easily angered, no record of wrongs, not delighting in evil … all these things exist because people are sinners and we are sinners. But rather than perpetuating the cycle of sin, here we are being given a new way to live. Love is how we respond to sin in this fallen world. But love only works if you engage in these fallen relationships.
This is why love in the local church is a big deal. Remember, the context of this letter is not a storybook wedding, where the husband and wife are looking their best and on their best behavior. The context is messy relationships inside the local church: relationships with people who struggle with pride and selfishness and anger, who come from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, people with whom you have nothing worldly in common but Jesus. It’s in that context of regular, difficult, face-to-face relationships where love is to exist.
So if you isolate yourself in your self-controlled world and never invest in relationships and never open up your heart to others, you might be really good at showing patience or even forgiving once in a while, but you won’t know what it means to love. Love is impossible on a deserted island. Love exists in the context of relationships, even fallen relationships.
Love Does Not Originate in Others
The way love works in this world is that we see something outside of ourselves that’s attractive, that promises happiness, and that elicits love out of us. That is what this world calls love. But that’s not what we see here. This is not about loving those that we deem to be beautiful or rich or good. This is about voluntarily loving people who hurt us, who wrong us. This is about willingly, and even cheerfully, loving people that we don’t think deserve it and who offer us no earthly advantage. Why? Because this is a love that does not begin with others, that is not dependent on others. Rather, it flows from a heart that has been radically transformed.
How is such a love possible?
We Love Because We Have Been Loved by God
“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:7).
God doesn’t love us because we are good. God loves us because he is good. I remember growing up seeing people wearing these buttons that would say, “Smile, God loves you.” Certainly, knowing God’s love should cause us to smile. But not because we can feel good about ourselves. God’s love is not about pumping up our self-esteem.
God loved us while we were sinners, while were his enemies. God’s love originated from himself. God’s character is that of holy love. It would be better if the button said: “Smile, God is Love.” Now that is true hope. Because if God is love, then his love is not dependent on us, but it overflows from who he is. And it’s when God’s love overflows into our lives, it transforms us and enables us to love as he loves. True love originates not from others, not even from ourselves, but from God.
Every description of love that we are given here, connects back to the way we have been loved by God in Jesus Christ.
Consider that love is patient. How patient God has been with us! The only reason any of us lived long enough to hear the gospel and repent and be saved is because God is a longsuffering God. Some people look at stories of the Old Testament of God raining down fire from heaven, and they say, “What kind of monster would do that?” But what we should be looking at is the 10,000 prior days of beautiful sunshine and gently falling rain, even as people lived in sin and rebellion, and wonder, “How can God be so patient?” We are those who have received so much patience, and any patience we can show pales in comparison.
God has dealt with us kindly. God doesn’t simply put up with our faults. No, he has adopted us into his family. As his children, he means to spend all of eternity showing us his amazing kindness. Ephesians 2:6–7says, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
Consider how slow to anger and forgiving God has been to us. When God forgives us, he does not do so half-heartedly. He does not forgive just 50 percent or 90 percent of our sins and then expect us to make up the rest. God forgives all of it—past, present, and future.
As someone who has been a Christian for over two decades, I’m amazed that God not only forgave me on day one, but even after all these years and all these mercies, he continues to forgive my sinfulness again and again and again. If that is how God has loved me, can I not trust him with my hurts and my bitterness? Can I not trust him to be God and to handle all the ways others might hurt me? Yes, God’s love frees me to forgive and to let go.
Finally, it is the gospel that guarantees our security. God’s love will persevere now and forever. Romans 8:38–39, says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Praise God. His love is not only for a season or a lifetime or even only one million years. His love endures forever and so my love and patience and kindness for others can endure also.
If we’re having trouble persevering in love for someone (or any of the above characteristics), use that as an opportunity to thank God that his love is not like ours. Thank God that his love in Jesus Christ is so patient with us, forgiving, can never be taken away, that it will never cease. Realize that we never deserved such love but have received it in full through the gospel. Allow that to spur us on to love.
If you’re not a Christian here this morning, please understand before God calls you to show love, God first calls you to receive his love. Being a Christian is first and foremost not about doing something for God, but it is letting God do what we could never do for ourselves. Though we have lived a life of rebellion and sin, and though we are justly deserving of God’s wrath, God has been patient with us. In his kindness, God sent his Son into this world, to live the life of obedience that we should have lived, and to humbly bear the punishment of sin that we deserve. Having conquered sin and death, Jesus rose from the dead, and now offers himself to you. If you will stop running away from God, if you will repent of your sin, and trust in the love of Jesus Christ, then all this can be yours.
Though love might begin imperfectly in this life, by God’s grace, it can begin truly, and if it does begin truly, then it will endure beyond this life, into eternity.
Love Will Last Longer than the Stuff You Care About
(Read 1 Cor. 13:8-13)
All of us want to make sure that we are investing our resources in things that will last. We pity those who pour their life savings into an investment, only to see it all disappear. We feel badly for those who buy a house right before the housing market crashes. But as hard as that might be, those things are not insurmountable. You can always find a way to recover financially.
But what about our life? What if we spend our one life we’ve been given for things that will eventually pass away? That’s what Paul wants us to understand. The Corinthians were obsessing over prophecy and tongues and gifts of knowledge, and these are not bad things. They’re even good and spiritual blessings, given by Jesus Christ for his church. But as helpful and edifying as those things might be, they are passing. They are not going to be around forever.
When will these things go away? It will be when the perfect appears. Some scholars debate as to what that could mean, but Paul seems to be clear that perfection is about the arrival of a Person. Of seeing him face-to-face, of being known even as we are fully known. What this is talking about is the return of the risen Messiah to establish the kingdom of God in this world. On that glorious day, the sky will roll back like a scroll, and the Perfect One, Jesus Christ, will appear. Lord Jesus will come, and we will see our beloved Savior face-to-face.
Brothers and sisters, that’s not theoretical, wishful thinking. This is what God has promised and this is what we are destined for. We are to allow that coming reality to shape our lives today. Do you see what Paul is saying here? Consider what it will be like once Christ returns, and let that influence how much weight we give to the stuff of this life. If what we are so consumed with now will not last past that Day, then why allow it to consume us?
Paul isn’t just talking about bad stuff, like sin or drugs. Do you realize that so much of what constitutes as faithful Christian living now will not exist in eternity? Think about it. We won’t need to encounter God in a book anymore, we will be in God’s presence forever. We won’t need charismatic gifts anymore, we will all worship at his feet. We won’t need to organize small groups or Sunday Schools or mission trips, sin will have been defeated forever. We won’t need to study Bible prophecy anymore, all of God’s promises will have been fulfilled.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that any of these things are wrong. They’re all very good and important … for now. While we live in this age, in the time between the First and Second Coming of Christ, yes they are all fitting activities. But friends, don’t live like this life is all there is. Something far better is coming.
On that day, only one thing will remain: love. That’s what verse 13 is saying. Faith, hope, and love. That wonderful New Testament summary of the Christian life. We live by faith in what Christ has done for us. We live in hope of the return of Christ. And our lives are transformed by love for God and for one another.
That’s what the Christian life is all about … for now. But the day will come when we no longer need faith and hope. Hebrews 11 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” But on that day, we will see. We will see him face-to-face. All our hopes will be fulfilled. So there will be no more need for faith. There will be no more need for hope. All that will remain is a world of love.
Eternity future will be just like it was in eternity past. John 17:24–26 says, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
God is love, but remember that that is first and foremost not about us but about God. Throughout eternity past, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lived in a perfect fellowship of love. God perfectly expressing his love and perfectly enjoying that love within the fellowship of the Trinity. Perfectly delighting in one another, perfectly rejoicing over each other. And this is what will go on for eternity future, except now, we will be swept up into that love.
One theologian writes this:
The Father gives all his glory, his love, his blessings, his very self exclusively to his Son—and then he sends this Son to share with us his fullness. … The Father, then, is not about sprinkling blessings from afar, and his salvation is not about being kept at a distance, merely pitied and forgiven by our Creator. Instead, he pours all his blessing out on his Son, and then sends him that we might share his glorious fullness. The Father so loves that he desires to catch us up into that loving fellowship he enjoys with the Son. And that means I can know God as he truly is: as Father. In fact, I can know the Father as my Father.
Oh friend, this is what eternity holds. The love that God the Father has for his Son will be in us. Forever united to Christ, we will be brought into that eternal fellowship of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In tasting God’s amazing love, we ourselves will love one another also. Remember the context of this passage is about love in the local church. If you are a believer of Jesus Christ here in this room this morning, then one day, you will love one another with this perfect love.
One day, there will be no hint of impatience in our love for one another because there will be no sin at all. Any differences that we might share will only increase our love for one another and our gratitude to God.
There will be perfect kindness between us as every glorified saint in this room will be an infinite source of joy and praise for God.
There will be not a hint of envy or jealousy, but the blessings of other saints will only lead to greater rejoicing and greater worship of God.
There will be no temptation to boasting or pride, because there we will together know perfectly that everything we have is from God, and we will serve and love one another with perfect humility.
Anger or frustration will no longer exist in our dealings with one another, because love will always be perfectly mutual, perfectly reciprocated.
Any wrongs, any offenses that were experienced in this life will have been fully and perfectly forgiven; no mention of it will ever come up again.
In heaven, we will be free from our laziness, from our dullness, from our passivity, from our awkwardness, from our shyness, from our foolishness, from our selfishness, and from every other evil that keeps us from loving one another as we ought.
Never again will congregations break up. Never again will loved ones depart. But forever, we will know that we will have perfect enjoyment of each other’s love forever and ever.
This is where we are headed. Yes, our love today is so weak. But don’t we long for that day? And don’t we long for that love to be formed in us now? Oh friends, let us not simply long for the blessings of heaven, but let's strive for the love of heaven as well. Keep this vision of love in our sight.
As a church, there will be a temptation to worry and to mistrust and to conflict. What I want to say to us is don’t lose sight of heaven. The things we so often fight about will ultimately not last. What will last is the love among God’s people. So let that love be your main concern in the coming weeks and months and years.
Oh, may this church be a bright display of God’s love in this dark city, and may that display shine out for all of eternity.
 Mike Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity
Geoff Chang is an associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR.