What Is Love?
Lorna, a podcast listener in Ireland, writes in with an observant question: “Pastor John, the most popular question asked of Google is: ‘What is love?’ Why do you think so many people struggle to understand love? And how would you define it?”
I think if we start with the definition, it will become clearer why so many people struggle to understand what love is. So let’s admit that there are very different kinds of love, or to put it another way, the word love can be used in many different ways. Whenever we are asking what love is, like Lorna is asking me now, in a sense I need to respond and say, “According to whose definition?” Or, “According to what document?” Or, “According to what passage of Scripture?” And so on.
Where Do We Start?
For example, C.S. Lewis — and I would recommend this book very highly — in The Four Loves distinguishes eros, a kind of romantic love where the lovers are hungry for each other, and philos, friendship love where two people are linked arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, with a common vision and a common goal and a delight and a partnership pulling together toward the goal, and storge, affection that one might have for an old sweater or slippers, an old dog that you just can’t let go of, and agape, divine love characterized by sacrifice in the pursuit of another person’s good.
So just from Lewis you ask, “Which one of those do you want me to define when you say, ‘What is love?’” So that is part of the reason why people are groping. The word love has so many different references. And it is not a bad thing that it should.
“God’s love paid the highest price, the life of the Son, for undeserving enemies, to give the greatest happiness.”
Now what I have found most helpful is to divide love into two categories. I got this first from Jonathan Edwards, but it goes way back before him. He divides love into “love of complacency” and “love of benevolence.”
Complacency would be, “I love pizza.” In other words, “I find myself pleased by the qualities I find in pizza — namely, its taste.” That would be love of complacency. Or you might love a place or a country or lots of things. You could say you love them because they are lovely. They are pleasing to you.
Whereas, the love of benevolence is not based on the loveliness of the object of the love, but rather your good will — benevolence — your good will toward the person or the thing that you are loving. Your aim in that kind of love is to do good, to bring about something beautiful, not respond to beauty.
So we could spend a long time discussing the nature of complacency in God and what it is like to know and enjoy and admire and be satisfied in God, and we could spend a long time talking about benevolence to people who don’t have the kind of admirable traits that make us drawn to them.
So what I think would be most helpful in response to the question is to give a biblical definition of the love of benevolence because this is the kind of love, which in the Bible, is celebrated as the heart of God’s love. So the magnitude of God’s love of benevolence is measured in the Bible by four criteria that it can see:
- The degree to which the person loved does not deserve to be loved.
- The greatness of the price paid to love a person.
- The greatness of the good that is done for the person when he is loved.
- The level of desire that God has for the good of the one loved.
So let me just give a verse for each one of those:
1. In Romans 5:6–8, God loves the least deserving and therefore his love is greater. “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one might dare even to die — but God” — different from all that — “shows his love” — this is what love is— “in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.” So the first measure of the magnitude of God’s love is we don’t deserve it. That is why it is great.
“The first measure of the magnitude of God’s love is we don’t deserve it. That is why it is great.”
2. Consider the price he is willing to pay: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This love is measured not just by the fact that I don’t deserve it. It is measured by the price he is willing to pay; namely, his own Son’s life.
3. The third measure is the good that I get through this love. In John 3:16 that is called “eternal life.” “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And then he defines eternal life in John 17:3 by saying it is to know God and to know Christ. So the greatest possible love gives the greatest possible gift, which is God himself.
4. Did God show this love begrudgingly or does with all his heart? Zephaniah 3:17 says, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” We read the same response in the parable of the prodigal son where the father sees his son coming home, and he hugs him, and he puts a ring on his hand and robes and shoes and throws a party (Luke 15:20–24). In other words, God is totally into saving us. Nobody is twisting God’s arm.
So the most beautiful love in the world is this divine love that pays the highest price, the life of the Son of God, for completely undeserving enemies, to give us the longest and greatest happiness in his presence. And he loves doing it.
Our Love for God
One last thing. If it sounds contradictory to say that the heart of God’s love is benevolence toward unworthy people like us and yet the ultimate goal of human life is complacency in God, which I think it is, I don’t think that is really a contradiction. And the reason it is not is because the ultimate aim of God’s benevolence toward us is to give us complacency in himself. So, the love of benevolence ultimately serves in us the love of complacency in God.
“No one apart from the Holy Spirit will think of love like I just thought about it.”
God doesn’t have ultimate satisfaction in us; we have ultimate satisfaction in him. God would be an idolater if his ultimate goal were complacency in us. Rather, he works to give us ultimate complacency in him. We don’t love God by helping God out of deficiency into joy. But God does love us by helping us out of deficiency into joy. But in both cases, our love for God and his love for us, the ultimate aim is the same: that we find ultimate satisfaction in God, and that God finds or pursues satisfaction in God and the display of God, the exalting of God.
So the ultimate goal of all things — and this may be the most helpful thing for this answer or this question — the ultimate goal of all things when the world is filled with the display of the infinite value of God by treasuring him — people who treasure him and enjoy him above all things — in that sense the goal of all things is love.
Therefore, if you ask me, “Why do you think so many people struggle?” — this question goes way back to the beginning where the question was, “Why do people struggle with understanding love?” — I would say, “No one apart from the Holy Spirit will think of love like I just thought about it. We are by virtue of our innate sinfulness self-centered and not God-centered. We run in a thousand directions to get away from this truth that we find our full and lasting satisfaction in God, and that God is benevolent toward us precisely in order to bring us into that enjoyment.”