Paul begins his list of Christ’s character qualities with love.
We all think we know what love is—it’s that tingling sensation we get when we “fall” for someone.
One of my seminary roommates used to call that “zing.”
Let me state for the record that zing is good. May we all experience zing, and may we rejoice in it.
But zing is not all there is to love.
If we study the word as it’s used in the New Testament, we find that while it certainly includes an emotional component, it’s much bigger than that. I think the best definition I’ve come across is from my friend and colleague Randy Leedy: “a disposition to sacrifice oneself in order to secure the benefit of the loved one.” (For a considerably deeper discussion of the complexities of the term, try this dissertation by a former student of mine, the kind webmaster of this blog.)
Love is more than just an emotion, or a choice, or an understanding. Love is a perspective and its consequences; love is the way you look at something or someone, and the decision to elevate the worth of that object above your own interests.
Once you realize this, you realize how toxic much of our culture’s view of love is. Many people, informed by the artistic expressions of the age, love people for what they can do for them—you make me feel good, you “complete” me, you make my life worth living. “I can’t live without you,” after all.
But that’s upside down and backwards. Love, genuine love, impels me to give, not to take. It impels me to think of someone else, not my own joy or pleasure or desire.
Sure, it’s complicated; there are lots of facets to genuine love. But if there’s not at its core a greater valuation of the object than of the self, then it’s not love.
What can we learn about love from the Bible? Perhaps it was J.R. Fausset who first observed that Paul is the apostle of faith; Peter is the apostle of hope; and John is the apostle of love.
In that case, let’s see what John says.
In his brief first epistle, he talks a lot about love—
- God is love (1J 4.8, 16).
- He expresses that love toward us (1J 3.1) by sending his Son (1J 4.9-10) to lay down his life for us (1J 3.16) even before we loved him (1J 4.9-10).
- We should love God in return (1J 4.19) and show that love by obeying him (1J 2.5; 5.2-3).
- We should love our brothers, because that’s one way we obey him (1J 3.23; 4.21). And we should love them genuinely, in action, not merely in words (1J 3.18).
- When we love our brothers, we demonstrate that we have passed from death to life (1J 3.14); that we know God (1J 4.7-8); that God is in us (1J 4.16-17); that we’re growing in our understanding of his love (1J 4.12); and that we’re walking in his light (1J 2.10).
- We should not love “the world” (1J 2.15), defined as desires that are fundamentally self-focused (“the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” 1J 2.16).
- And we learn that mature love “casts out fear” (1J 4.18).
There’s a lot of fear these days. And a lot of that fear is being expressed by Christians.
That doesn’t make any sense. If we’re in God, we exist—“abide in”—a state of love. And if we’re living with an external, loving focus, we have no business being afraid.
Perhaps you’ve seen the meme that says, “No one, in the history of ever, has ever calmed down after being told to calm down.”
But calm down.
In this case, there’s supernatural power involved, which ought to make the impossible possible.
How do we walk in love?
- We think about others. First.
- How will what I’m about to say affect this person? Will it build him up or tear him down? Will it draw him to Christ or push him away?
- We devalue our own rights and needs and wants.
- Does the fact that I have a right to free speech mean that I have to exercise it at this moment? Is my winning this argument—or even just getting in a zinger as I walk away—more important to me than the value of my opponent—who is, by the way, in the image of God (Ge 1.27), and deeply loved by him (Jn 3.16)?
Jesus observed that in nature, you identify a tree by its fruit (Mt 7.16).
Who are you?