What Is Love?

What Is Love?

Growing up my dad told me that "love" is the most over-underused word in existence. Some toss it out like pennies in a wishing well. Others never mention it when it needs to be heard. His exhortation to me was simple: talk as if words mean something.

Good counsel as it is, this adage points to the bigger question of, well, what love means. For starters, Hollywood depictions of the warm and fuzzy and happily-ever-after won't do. And clinched-fist, love-is-a-choice determination won't either. I'm not concerned with love the feeling, or love the verb. What exactly is love? What is love, the virtue? Real, bona fide love?

The Real Stuff

The most popular passage on love in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 13. Even if you don't read the Bible, if you've been to a wedding or read greeting cards, you've probably heard it. It is undeniably beautiful. I encourage you to go read that chapter again. And then if you want to see what it looks like played out in real life, go read 2 Corinthians 8.

In 2 Corinthians 8:1–4, Paul gives us a picture. He urges the Corinthians to consider the example of the Macedonian Christians — an example which he calls "genuine love" in 2 Corinthians 8:8. Genuine love. Yes, that's right. So what did they do?

In The Dangerous Duty of Delight, John Piper expounds on Paul's description of the Macedonians' love in four points:

  1. Love is a work of divine grace. "We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia" (2 Corinthians 8:1). Piper comments, "The generosity of the Macedonians was not of human origin. It was a work of grace in their hearts" (43).
  2. The Macedonians' experience of God's grace filled them with joy. "In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part." (2 Corinthians 8:2) Piper writes, "Their joy was not owing to the fact that God has prospered them financially. He hadn't! In extreme poverty they had joy. Therefore the joy was a joy in God, not things" (43).
  3. The Macedonians' joy in God's grace overflowed in generosity to meet the needs of others. "In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part" (2 Corinthians 8:2). Piper writes, "Therefore the liberality expressed horizontally toward men was an overflow of joy in God's grace" (44).
  4. The Macedonians sought the opportunity to sacrifice their meager possessions for the needy saints in Jerusalem. "For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints" (2 Corinthians 8:3–4). Piper: "In other words, the way their joy in God overflowed was in the joy of giving. They wanted to give. It was their joy!" (44).

God, Our Anchor and All

In sum, the Macedonians were so glad in God that their joy overflowed in an eager initiative to serve others. Piper concludes with this definition: "Love is the overflow and expansion of joy in God, which gladly meets the needs of others" (44).

This is genuine love as the Bible shows us. We can't generate it ourselves. Nor are we left to fumble around with God-given ingredients in isolation from him. It's all from him and to his glory. Any other kind of love, as legitimate as it may seem, is a counterfeit deep down. Without reference to God — and without an anchor in our own joy — love lacks the depth that makes it genuine. It doesn't fire on all cylinders. But with God — with the triune God who has always existed in the perfect fellowship of love as Father, Son, and Spirit — when he is our all-satisfying joy, we draw from an immeasurable abundance.

Love really means something. And you can't talk about it without thinking about him.


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Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Melissa, and their four children, and is the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary .