Is it strangely possible that love is both pervasive and yet endangered in our day? The label is certainly plastered, like bright yellow tape, across anything and everything around us. Or, perhaps more accurately, society has made love a big-beige wall, drained of the definition or vibrancy it once had, so that anyone can decorate it however he or she likes. “Love” has come to mean whatever anyone says it means — and to suggest otherwise is, of course, “unloving.”
That those four letters are overused and abused, however, does not alter what love is. We could, for instance, start calling our mailbox a “tree,” and even convince our neighbors to do the same, but it wouldn’t erase the living realities of roots, and bark, and branches, and leaves that grow green, then yellow, then red, then fall. So what might we be losing by blurring the lines of what we call love?
Who Can Love?
Love, we know, not only has a definition but an identity, a personality, a name:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7–8)
Only those who know God, the true God, can love, because this God, and only this God, is love. Drawing on texts like these, John Piper helpfully defines love as “the overflow and expansion of joy in God, which gladly meets the needs of others” (The Dangerous Duty of Delight, 44). If that’s true, that means millions — billions — of people think themselves loving while having never truly experienced or extended true love.
“Millions of people think themselves loving while having never truly experienced or extended true love.”
Closer to home, many of us, even in the church, consider ourselves loving without having wrestled with what it really means to love. We mistake not-loves for love, and therefore often fail to pursue the real thing.
What Love Is Not
In 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul wrote, perhaps, the most familiar and cherished lines on love ever written. And while weddings today might lead us to believe the chapter was written for bright-eyed grooms and their brides dressed in white, he was actually writing to an ordinary, conflict-afflicted church struggling to love one another (1 Corinthians 1:10–11).
While we could focus on what he says love is and does, Paul also teaches us that pursuing love requires carefully discerning what love is not. For instance, “Love does not envy or boast” (1 Corinthians 13:4). It is not arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful. It does not insist on its own way. In fact, he begins the chapter not with startling examples of love, but by distinguishing love from four common not-loves. Notice how we can practice each without practicing love.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1–3)
Serving Is Not Love
The first of the four warnings is to the spiritually gifted. Our giftings, even our spiritual giftings, are no sure evidence of love. Don Carson writes, “The various spiritual gifts, as important as they are and as highly as Paul values them, can all be duplicated by pagans. This quality of love cannot be” (Showing the Spirit, 84).
What kinds of gifting did Paul have in mind? He gives examples in the previous chapter: the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, healing, miracles, prophecy, spiritual discernment, and speaking in tongues. The apostle encouraged, even charged them to practice these giftings. Evidently, though, some were given profound spiritual insight and an unusual ability to articulate those insights, but still lacked love. They probably assumed they were loving the church when they really loved being gifted and needed and seen.
And still today, some of us pursue gifting, and insist on using our abilities (whether in our churches, our communities, or our careers), but we do so without love. We’re more concerned with being needed, being productive, being successful than we are with loving others. We likely see this best when what others need from us diverges from the ways we want to be serving.
Knowing Is Not Love
Others in the Corinthian church pursued knowledge, and assumed their knowing made them loving. But even if we had all knowledge and understood all mysteries, Paul says, we can still lack love. In fact, the more we know, the more susceptible we may be to temptation, because “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). If Satan can’t keep us from the truth, he’d be happy to see us fill our minds with knowledge if it means enflaming our sense of pride and emptying our hearts of love.
So how do we distinguish between proud knowledge and good knowledge? Paul says, “‘Knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:1–2). Pride betrays a knowledge running low on love. As godly knowledge grows, though, so does its sense of humility. Gold in a leaky boat will sink the boat, but gold in a well-built boat adds weight that strengthens and stabilizes the boat, even through heavy storms.
Those who know more, with love, have an increasing sense of just how much they do not know — and of how little they deserve to know anything they do know. And they use whatever knowledge they have not to stoke their personal sense of worth or image, but to build others up in their walks with God. They wield their knowledge to comfort, to encourage, to teach, to heal, to correct, to restore, to love.
Giving Is Not Love
“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). On the surface, it’s hard to conceive of a scenario like this. Could a man really give away all he had, even his very life, without love?
The apostle says yes. How could that be? Because people make radical sacrifices for all kinds of reasons, and usually not because of “an overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others.” In fact, many of the reasons have nothing to do with God at all. And as we’ve already seen, if an act has nothing to do with God, it has nothing to do with real love.
Sadly, our own reasons for giving, serving, and sacrificing, even in the church, sometimes have little to do with God. We want to appear generous. We want more power or influence. We like the feeling of having others indebted to us. We want to be rid of a guilty conscience. We want to fit in with some crowd or cause. “If men do great things and suffer great things merely out of self-love,” Jonathan Edwards warns, “that is but to offer that to themselves which is due to God, and so make an idol of themselves” (Charity and Its Fruits, 87).
Whenever the roots of our motivation stray away from our joy in God, our love will starve and wither. We will give, even give much, and gain nothing of eternal fruit or significance. Sweat, bleed, and even die as we might, our deeds can never cover a lack of love.
Believing Is Not Love
Perhaps most surprising of all, some even make the pursuit of faith a detour around love. “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). These people might say, “Of course I’m loving, look at what I believe.” To which, Paul might say, “I will know what you really believe by how you love.”
And he’s not alone. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? . . . Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14–17). Our acts of love could never save us, but neither can a faith that does not work through love (Galatians 5:6). We can have faith enough to hurl mountains into the sea, and yet still not be willing to climb the hills of love God has put in front of us.
“Genuine faith is not as concerned with moving mountains as it is with knowing and enjoying God.”
Believing and even expecting great things from God does not prove we belong to God; people in every religion, and even some pagans, hope for great things from God. But none of them — none of them — can love like anyone who truly knows Jesus. Genuine faith is not as concerned with moving mountains as it is with knowing and enjoying God, and the more it learns and enjoys of him, the more its love overflows into the needs of others.
Notice that Paul says four times, “If I have not love,” not, “If you. . . .” Even as he rebuked the heated and divided church, he modeled the kind of humility he longed to see in them. He knew how much even an apostle’s heart could be prone to resist and avoid the high costs of love. So are we similarly aware? Have we allowed our love for one another to grow cold behind the veils of our knowing, our serving, our giving, our believing?
No Greater Privilege
For all the ways “love” is used today, any real experience of love is a treasure beyond counting. Those who truly love prove not only that they know God, but that they are known and loved by God. If we see any genuine love in ourselves, we see God in us. Edwards captures something of the miracle in this love:
The saving grace of God in the heart, working a holy and divine temper of soul in the gift of faith and love must doubtless be the greatest blessing that ever men receive in this world; greater than any of the gifts of natural men, greater than the greatest natural abilities, greater than any acquired endowments of mind, greater than any attainments in learning, greater than any outward worth or honor, and a greater privilege than to be kings and emperors. (Charity and its Fruits, 74)
The love that God empowers is the greatest privilege on earth. When we love one another, God is pressing the wonders of his own heart into the cracks and corners of his kingdom — into our families and friendships, into our churches, into our neighborhoods. Without love, no matter how much we know, give, or do, we are and gain nothing. But if we walk in love, we gain more of God and we become more like God — and we hold out real love to a world whose God is love.