Love Is Not a Verb
Two weeks ago, I encouraged us all to make a 2014 resolve to “pursue love” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Based on the following statements by Jesus, I would say that love is the most important thing to pursue this year.
[The greatest commandment:] You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37–39)
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
However, we must be clear on what love actually is or else we will find ourselves lost in the pursuit of it and lose our resolve.
Love Is Not Only a Verb
John Mayer’s catchy song captures the way many people end up defining love in total: “Love Is a Verb.” The problem is that’s not the whole truth. Love is not only a verb.
Now, I know what Mayer’s getting at. He means that lip-only love isn’t love. Love is displayed in action. That is true. The apostle John agrees when he says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
But it’s still a massive and potentially dangerous oversimplification. If we reduce love to mere action, we will miss love at its source. Making love only a verb will likely make us Pharisees. Because just like you can talk loving without really loving, you can act loving without really loving. That’s what Paul meant when he said, “If I give away all I have and deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). We can look like we’re fulfilling 1 John 3:18 and still not love.
To understand love correctly, we must see that love originates as a noun that necessarily produces verbs.
Love So Amazing, So Divine
Let’s turn to the “Apostle of Love” for help with this:
“God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“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)
“God is love”: By saying this, John is pointing us to the origin of love. In the previous verse, he writes, “love is from God” (1 John 4:7). True love is a part of and comes from the most beautiful, most valuable, most satisfying Treasure that exists: God.
“God so loved the world, that”: It is true that love is a verb. In English, we use forms of the word “love” as nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. But that doesn't change the fact that love in its divine origin is an action-producing noun. Even used as a verb in this verse, we end up understanding love as a noun. The word “that” makes all the difference. It tells us that God’s love for his Trinitarian glory, and for the Bride he determined to purchase for his Son, was the motive that moved him to the action of giving his Son.
“By this we know love”: True love is revealed in Jesus’s death on the cross. He laid his life down for us “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2) in glorifying his Father (John 17:1), receiving glory from his Father (John 17:5), and the full eternal joy of his redeemed Bride (John 15:11). That’s what love looks like.
The most helpful single sentence definition of love I have found is from chapter four of John Piper’s Desiring God: “Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others” (119).
Love is not merely the action of meeting others’ needs; it includes the motive of the action. True love cherishes God supremely as the supreme Treasure and therefore wants others to also cherish the supreme Treasure and be eternally happy.
God is love, and love is from God. Therefore, loving others is doing whatever it takes for them to have as much of God as they can.
Demands My Soul, My Life, My All
This has huge implications. It means that true love can’t flourish apart from God.
Anything that looks like love that we do for others — being patient, kind, not boastful or irritable or resentful, giving away our possessions, even martyrdom (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, 3) — that isn’t done for God’s glory and with a desire that others may taste and see that God is good (Psalm 34:8) is not true, vibrant love. Godless love is a hollow shell, a love that has lost its soul, a flower cut from its root. Godless love is sin (Romans 14:23).
It makes you catch your breath, doesn’t it? How often is your “love” sin? O how wonderful is the precious gospel! Jesus fulfilled the greatest commandments for us sinful lovers! There is therefore now no condemnation for us if we are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
But, if you’re like me and see the frequent hollow sinfulness of your love in light of biblical love, you’ll realize that this whole “pursuing love” thing is a much deeper issue than we first thought.
And the remedy is far more than us trying to do more verbs — to produce more actions. We need a deeper transformation, a profound reordering of our souls’ affections. And this only happens by looking at the glory of the great Noun until we delight in him more than anything else.
So that’s where pursuing love begins: look at the Noun — gaze at God in his love. Dive into the greatest commandment before getting consumed in the second. In the long run, because of the actions it will produce, this is the most loving thing we can do this year.
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