Modern people love love. How many romance movies and love songs could we name? Love sells. Love is enticing. We devote a holiday to it every February, and our children give each other stale heart-shaped candies in celebration. Yet, what is love? The world tries to show us love one way; God, another.
The world draws our eyes into the bedroom — at least these days it does. Love finds its pinnacle in a bed, says Western culture: two lovers embracing, staring into one another’s eyes, having cast off the world, enjoying all the delights of togetherness. The camera need not turn to parents or to children. It’s Wesley and Princess Buttercup (The Princess Bride) living happily ever after. The couple is the center of the universe. Love in this first picture is finding whomever or whatever completes me. It depends on self-discovery and self-definition, and consummates itself in self-expression and self-actualization.
This is love as Westerners have understood it at least since novels and poetry of the eighteenth and nineteenth century capital “R” Romantics. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter is typical. A man and a woman love one another. The laws of society and religion stand in the way. The man, a pastor, is crushed by those laws. But the woman casts them off and discovers true freedom and life.
Love as a Black Hole
That’s been the great American love story ever since: him and her, or him and him, or her and her against society, against mom and dad, against religion, against the world. Love doesn’t judge, we say. Love sets free. You can justify anything these days by pointing to love. “If they really love each other, then of course we should accept . . .” “If God is loving, then surely he wouldn’t . . .” Heart plus heart equals marriage, declares the bumper sticker. Never mind the fact that such love imposes its own judgments and enacts its own laws.
“The world isn’t interested in the God who is love. It’s interested in love as god.”
Yet a brand of love that shines the spotlight exclusively on the couple in bed, divorced from all other relationships, perhaps intentionally childless, perverts biblical love into something barren and stagnant. It’s a universe that eventually collapses inward on itself, like a black hole.
We might even say that Romanticism’s story of love can’t help but culminate in homosexuality, where the self seeks to complete and complement itself only in itself, its mirror image, two tabs colliding, two positively charged ends of two magnets, incapable of uniting or creating a new life. The rallying cry of “diversity” celebrates the ironic lack thereof in a same-sex partnership.
The world isn’t interested in the God who is love. It’s interested in love as god. Which is just another way of saying that it’s interested in love of self because self is god.
Love Grows and Fulfills
The Bible also has an answer to worldly self-love. It offers a picture of love, or rather, several. It, too, starts with a bed. Adam beholds Eve and calls her bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. They, though two, become one.
Yet the camera pans back, and we discover that that bed is set in a garden, where the couple’s union produces a world of rose bushes and apple orchards and a mess of children’s shoes by the front door and swing sets and skyscrapers. Biblical love, it would seem, involves an expanding universe. It’s not stagnant like a bed all by itself. It has forward motion and a story to follow. It’s generative. It’s fruitful.
The Bible’s camera pans back further still, ultimately taking in all creation, all history, and God himself. The first snapshots of love in the bed and the garden and the parent, snapshots available for viewing by all humanity, are meant to draw humanity’s gaze upward to even more magnificent portraits of love.
Love Is Not God
Father, Son, and Spirit together provide perfect picture and definition of love. God is love, and that means all love is from him, through him, and to him.
“God is love, and God most loves God because there is nothing better, nothing purer, nothing higher than God.”
In this picture, God is uppermost in his own affections. The Father most loves the Son and Spirit. The Son, the Father and Spirit. The Spirit, the Father and Son. He is not the monistic God of Islam, who, before the creation of his world, would have had no one to love and so could not be love. Our God is the one God in three persons, who, in eternity past, shared a perfect and infinite love among these three persons. Self-love and other-love, giving and receiving — somehow — merge in this God who is love.
God is love, and God most loves God because there is nothing better, nothing purer, nothing higher than God. The Father loves the Son for his righteousness, the Son loves the Father for his goodness, and the Spirit loves both for their glory. You cannot have the love of God without having all the other attributes of God’s character — his righteousness, his goodness, and more.
Love doesn’t exist somewhere out there in the universe independently of God. Rather, love is a personal quality of God. It is a description of his character. It’s part and parcel of everything else about God.
That the World May Know
It turns out, however, that when God is uppermost in God’s affections, the universe doesn’t collapse; it expands, leading to another set of images of love. The divine Father seeks out a bride for his Son. When he finds her, he loves her with a covenantal love. It’s like the wealthy man who loves the daughter-in-law not because of what she is in herself, but because she is now united to his son. “All this is yours and I am your father,” the older man smiles to his daughter-in-law on her wedding day, pointing to the vast extent of his estate.
The groom’s name, of course, is Jesus Christ. He doesn’t say, “Her bone, my bone; her flesh, my flesh.” Instead, he says, “Her sin, my sin; my righteousness, her righteousness” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God loves sinners, in other words, by drawing us into the sweep of his triune, God-centered love. So it’s not just that God loves us. It’s better than that. It’s that God incorporates us into his love for himself — “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me,” as Jesus prayed to the Father (John 17:23). Once again, giving and receiving merge in the ultimate win-win.
True Love in America
A last picture of love can be spotted among God’s people, the church. As we love one another as Christ loved us — mercifully, forgivingly, obediently — we show the world that we’re his disciples (John 13:34–35). We show the world what true love looks like.
“True love for others is a burning affection for people to know God.”
Inside the church, we help each other practice loving God, neighbor, even enemy. We help each other internalize his commandments — one of the most important indicators of our love — so that we too can become purveyors of heaven’s life (1 John 5:3). We strategize to proclaim the greatest message of his love, the gospel (Romans 5:8).
Loving our fellow church members and our non-Christian neighbors means loving them with respect to God. That’s how Augustine put it. If we don’t love spouse, children, job, neighbor, and self with respect to God, we don’t really love them.
True love for others — to conclude with a definition — is a burning affection for people to know God. We want them to know his goodness and his righteousness and his law and his glory because nothing is greater, nothing is better. Do you want to know what love is? Then look to God, his gospel, and his people.