I love my children. I love my wife. But then again, I also love hot dogs and a good steak. I love to go to the movies, and I love to read fiction when it’s raining. When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty astounding the number of contexts and amount of times we use the word “love.” Think about it yourself – how many times have you said that 4-letter word today alone?
I’m not arguing that we need to discontinue using the word. I am arguing, however, that the context in which we use it might show us what we really believe love is. And to go further, it’s likely, given our prolific use of the word, that we might have at best a misunderstanding and at worst a dilution of what “love” actually means.
What if we did that? What if we started to trace back the times and the objects of the word itself, and then based on that tracing alone, tried to compose a definition of love? What would we find? My guess is that we would find at least three things that we regularly mistake for love:
We are in the habit of saying we “love” the things that entertain us. That make us laugh, or make us cry, or just capture our attention for a little while. In other words, we “love” that which inspires a feeling in us.
That’s not all bad, because loving does involve genuine affection for another. But a larger part of love is not based on temporal feelings, but rather on decisions made over and over again to seek the good of another over and above your own. If we only love based on the feeling we get from a person or thing, then that love is really only a sappy sense of sentimentality.
God, though, loves us not because we are entertaining to Him, and not merely because we stir up some sense of emotion in us. His love for us is based in and of Himself, for He is love. If we are His children, then we must make the choice to love those who do not entertain, inspire, or create good temporal feelings in us at all.
We might also regularly mistake love for utility. That is, we “love” that which serves us or meets some need in us. We “love” a person who makes us feel good, or “love” a person who brings us physical pleasure, or “love” a person who raises our own reputation because we are around them. There is love represented here, but in the end, it’s really love of ourselves.
When we mistake love for utility, we assign value to other image-bearers of God based on what they can bring to us. We want people around us who can increase our pleasure, increase our power, increase our money, or any other number of things. The question at the heart of this mistaken view of “love” is this: What can relating to this person get me? And so we objectify others, all for the sake of our own personal gain.
God, though, does not love us for our utility, for He is not served by human hands as if He needed anything. God loves us despite the fact that we were rebels to His goodness and kingdom; He loves us even in our efforts to rob Him of all that is due His name. In fact, real love is about self-sacrifice rather than self-actualization.
Finally, we might be mistaking love for affirmation. In this view, we think loving someone means always agreeing with them. So we love the people who always affirm all our life choices, and we put ourselves in the kind of relationships where we never confront or disagree with someone else.
Oh sure – we tell ourselves all kinds of things to justify this behavior – it’s not my place to say, we don’t relate to each other like that, they won’t listen to me – but in the end, it’s simply a refusal to either listen to or speak the truth.
Love is not the same thing as affirmation. Love lives in the sphere of truth, because when we love someone we are committed to seeking their good even if it means saying difficult things to them. This is what God does for us – He tells us the truth about ourselves even when we are unwilling or unable to see that truth on our own.
Love – or at least the word – is all around us. But in many cases, both in us and in the rest of the world, it’s simply affirmation, entertainment, or utility masquerading as true love. If we want the truth about love, the only option for us is to return to the source, for:
Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn. 4:11).