Western culture is hopelessly confused about love. The expression “hate crimes” is the first evidence. Hate and love are opposites. Today, hatred means disagreeing with someone about their politics or their moral stance on a subject like abortion or an LGBTQ issue. If hatred is a disagreement, then love must be agreement, a willingness to go along with others, to not stir up trouble. In other words, to be loving means to be “nice”.
We also associate love with making people feel good. The opposite is to make them feel bad. Therefore, it is loving to supply drug addicts with needles or give free housing and food to people even though they refuse to work. It is unloving to apply corporal discipline to children or practice church discipline. In his book, Martin Luther and the Christian Life, Carl Trueman sums up our contemporary confusion:
“Love has become almost the only transcendent moral imperative in our society. Yet, we use love to justify abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and adultery. This list in itself should indicate that it has become a virtually contentless term and, like its opposite, hate, can be used to justify anything and silence all objections. The result is that Christians who wish to develop a Christian ethic need more than the word love at their disposal. Love needs content if it is to be anything more than empty sentiment.”[i]
The purpose of this article is to give love Christian “content”. Nothing could be more important to Christians who want to live biblically in our muddled world.
At the Last Supper, Jesus made love his priority. “A new commandment I give to you,” He said, “That you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
Later, both John and Paul insisted that love is the one necessary virtue. It is the litmus test of our spirituality. “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers,” writes John in his first epistle. “Whoever does not love abides in death” (1st John 3:14).
And Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, “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.”
These are strong words. No matter how much we believe, if we are not growing in love, we are still spiritually dead. And even though we exercise spiritual gifts, have great faith, and possess a Master’s of Divinity, without love we are, spiritually speaking, a “clanging cymbal”, or worse—“nothing”.
Therefore, a growing capacity and desire to love is not optional. To do that however, we need a clear definition of biblical love.
God’s love has three qualities. First, it is not sentimental: it is centered in action. Second, it includes affection. And third, it always loves people for God’s sake. God is the priority of biblical love.
Action Not Feelings
For contemporary culture, love is sentimental and therapeutic. At its center are feelings—both mine and those of the person loved. We don’t want to feel hurt, and we don’t want others to feel hurt either, so we opt instead to disobey God to preserve our feelings and theirs. We do not confront their sin. We do not practice church discipline, and we do not separate from them when they become apostate. Because it doesn’t feel good, we will not love an enemy, and we will not forgive those who have wounded or betrayed us.
By contrast, God’s love is not sentimental. It is displayed and measured through action, not feelings. If God’s love is a train, the engine is action, and the caboose is one’s feelings. God’s love is always for the good of those whom He calls by His name. It is sometimes necessary that His good for one person is at expense of another person. Sometimes, it’s at my expense, or your expense. In his book, Seeing God, Professor Gerald McDermott writes:
“For the authors of scripture and for Jesus, love is not a feeling. It will sometimes involve feelings, but in its essence, it transcends feelings. Love is a commitment to do what is good for another.”[ii]
Therefore, when it is in the recipient’s best interest, God is willing to hurt those He loves. They may feel stress, need, or rejection, but if it furthers their spiritual growth in the long term, then it is good.
“True love…is not simple friendliness, but a strong inclination to do good to another. It is not an emotion, but a powerful movement of the soul reflected in action, thinking and (often but not always) feelings.”[iii]
Proof that we understand the gospel is in our willingness to override our feelings and to love and forgive our enemies. That is because God loves His enemies. If He didn’t, you wouldn’t be saved, because you were His enemy when He died for you. Further, Jesus Himself taught that we are to love our enemies:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43–48).
In other words, the first proof of new birth is the willingness to do something non-Christians will never do— love when it doesn’t feel good. That is how the Bible defines love. It is all about action!
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1st John 3:16). Jesus acted. He did something, and what He did, astonishingly, He did for His enemies.
“Once you were alienated from God,” Paul writes in Colossians 1:21, “And were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” And he returns to this point in Ephesians 5:3 “[We were] by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind.”
This means that Christ went to the cross for “children of wrath.” Many who profess to be Christians think Jesus died for us because He liked us, but nothing could be further from the truth. He died for his “enemies”— people for whom he felt anger, not affection. He loved his enemies with action, and He tells us to do the same.
What about affection? Affection isn’t absent. It’s just the caboose, not the engine. God’s love includes affection. Jesus’ propitiation of His Father’s wrath is the evidence of God’s affection for us. By going to the cross, He lavished us with filial affection. And by sending Him, God the Father demonstrated His love for us, His adopted children. It’s what God does for every believer.
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). If you are a Christian, God’s wrath is removed. God the Father feels the deepest affection for you, and He constantly lavishes it on you, an affection that comes through an infinitely costly act of wrath-propitiating love.
Priorities are crucial. Only those who love God more than they love people can love people biblically. Love can be man-centered or God-centered. God-centered love prioritizes God over people. Love that is man-centered loves people more than God. Man-centered love is idolatry. Man-centered love will violate God’s will to relate to others. God-centered love will suffer the rejection of others to love them as God desires.
A lawyer approached Jesus with a crucial question. “Which is the greatest commandment?” He asked. The answer reveals Christ’s priorities:
“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).
The key to loving people biblically is keeping the first commandment first. Love God more than people. Those who do this will love people as God wants us to love them. In other words, God’s Word will motivate and direct their love.
God’s love is sometimes “tough-minded”, but understanding and applying it transforms marriages and parenting. It revitalizes local churches and strangles the temptation to sin (or be an enabler of someone else’s sin). Putting God and God’s love first results in our love becoming potent, life-giving, and transformative. “When first things [God] are put first,” observed C.S. Lewis, “second things [love for people] are not suppressed but increased.”[iv]
God-centered love puts first things first. It loves others according to the relationship as defined by Scripture. We love our spouse differently than we love our children. We love our children differently than our employer. Love is relationally specific. Although we love all people sacrificially, God asks wives to love their husbands uniquely—by submitting to them and respecting them (Ephesians 5:22).
God asks fathers to love their children by teaching and discipling them (Ephesians 6:4). This implies obedience to Proverbs 13:24—“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” In other words, disciplining a child is a means of showing true love to him.
God tells us to love the lazy by not enabling them. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). It is not loving to enable your 32-year-old son’s laziness by allowing him to live in your basement, if he is fully capable of working but unwilling to do so. God commands husbands to love their wives sacrificially, washing them in the Word (Ephesians 5:25). God commands us to love unrepentant church members by excommunicating them (Matthew 18:15-20). God commands us to love employers by submitting to their authority, serving them even when they are unjust (Ephesians 6:5-9). But it’s important to note that when it gets bad enough, it’s also OK to find a job somewhere else. This authority does not prevent employees from seeking better employment elsewhere, all while being respectful. God’s Word commands us to honor our parents even when they mistreat us or disappoint us (Exodus 20:12).
Christ, who perfected this love, is our model. The text, “God is love”, perfectly describes Him. He loved people as the Father desired, not as they desired to be loved. Feelings were not primary, they were secondary.
In the Garden, Jesus pleaded with His Father for a way around the Cross. He wanted to love us without the pain. When the Father said, “No,” Jesus obeyed. He loved God more than He feared the pain. He loved us as God willed, not as He willed. His cross is the ultimate example of loving with action. “By this we know love, he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1st John 3:16).
Whether it feels good or not, whether our culture approves or not, God commands us to “lay down our lives for the brothers.” This means action not feelings. Ultimately, it will include affection for those we serve. It means loving God more than we love people. In all of this, Christ’s Cross is our model.
[i] Trueman, Carl R. (2015-02-28). Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Theologians on the Christian Life) (p. 174). Crossway. Kindle Edition. (Italics mine).
[ii] Gerald McDermott, Seeing God, pg. 172 (Vancouver, Regent College Publishing, 2000).
[iii] Ibid, p. 36.
[iv] Letters of CS Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966) pg. 248.