For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.John 3:16-19
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.1 John 1:5-7
There is one universal truth in all of us: we have an insatiable desire to be loved and to love others in return. I know what you’re thinking: “an insatiable desire to love people?!” Yes, believe it or not you do. But what exactly is love?
This past year there have been numerous time I have preached about love to my congregation. As I meet with others it comes up continually as they navigate their own journey of faith and life. Even in my own life, I have experienced a rebirth of joy and amazement as I have wrestled with the depth of God’s love and the inherent implications it brings.
But let’s come back to the core question, “What is love?” Many of us will answer this in different ways. In fact, I have learned that “love” is really just a junk drawer we dump all sorts of ideas into. Do you have one of those in your home? We have at least four. Love has become this. Everyone has their own ideas of what love is and they throw it in. Culture spoon feeds us many ideas of what it is and they throw it in. Our parents and how we are raised have their own inherited understandings of love and they throw them in. Love has become at times so watered down it can be used for anything!
We will say, “I love God, and I love fish tacos. I love Jesus and I also love the Ohio State Buckeyes!” See the problem? Granted, our english language does not help this incongruence. But its clear.. the way we use the word in our language is so broad that at times we can forget the called-out kind of love the Bible speaks of. But even still, let’s give it a try. Let’s try defining love.
Love is acceptance and tolerance, right?
To many, love is tolerance and acceptance. The idea is that rather than judge people, we should “love and accept” them no questions asked. Is there truth to this? Yea, there is some. But this is only part of the equation. However, what this means in our society is we should not communicate anything that is contradictory to someone’s actions, choices, or behavior—just love them. It sounds good. Sounds progressive. But it is only partly good. Society’s idea of love as it pertains to tolerance is not always in sync with that of the Kingdom of God and Scripture. In fact, it is far from it. True “Kingdom of God” love is not based on tolerance and acceptance, at the expense of life change and repentance.
Love is affection and joy, right?
To many of us, love is passion and affection tied to our emotions. Is there truth to this as well? Yes, but again, this is only partially true. It’s the word we use to describe our feelings of affection. We love hiking, or we love a new song that just came out, or we love chips and guac. When we aim the word at people, we usually mean the exact same thing. When we say we love someone, we mean we have deep feelings of affection because they make us feel value and worth. Love, by this definition, is pure, unfiltered emotion. Think of the phrase “fall in love.” It’s like tripping over a rock or a curb. And it’s fantastic. But there’s a dark underbelly to feeling this kind of romantic love. If we can fall into it, then we can fall out of it because it was based on something that is often unstable emotions.
With both of these attempts at defining “love” that we find in the junk drawer, we can see some challenges that wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny in the bible. With one we have an accepting and tolerant love. But if we bring this definition to Jesus—that’s not what we see. We see a love from Jesus that is yes, accepting of one’s divine personhood as being made in the image of God but equally transformative; inviting one to be transformed into the image of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
With the other we have an affectionate and emotional love which is really our common understanding of love when we think of “things” and “people.” But again, if we bring this approach to the example of Jesus, while yes love is seen as an emotion in the life of Jesus—it most definitely is not all emotional. Emotions are fickle. They come and go. Jesus chose love time and time again. So, if our understanding of love is defined only by one of these two or both; look out! We are defining and conceptualizing “love” in a way that could set us up for disaster, broken relationships, adultery, addictions to lust, and more. We are loving with a shallow and conditional love; not the love Jesus modeled. Perhaps you are thinking, “Ok smarty pants. So, what the heck is love then?”
How would you define love?
Here of late, I have been studying the letter of 1 John I have been learning about love as though it was the first time, I had discovered it. I have also asked many people how they would define love. I have asked friends, I have asked my kids, I have even asked some strangers. Most answers have sounded as though they are coming from a lexicon and very intellectual. However, there was one person that stood out. They defined love using phrases like, “when something happens.” She was defining love through her own experiences from her past. This of course can be dangerous as many of us have both positive and negative experiences that can cloud our judgment and understanding of love. However, she defined love in the way John did in his letter: personal encounter and experience. John kicks off his letter (not his gospel) like this:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.1 John 1:1-4
John highlights his experience of Jesus above all else. But experiencing “what” per se? What John is experiencing is love from God, as seen, experienced, and heard in JESUS. But it wasn’t just any love. It was a special kind of love that could not be found in a textbook or dictionary. A love that was hard to define. It was a love that was being defined on the fly as they observed Jesus and the Holy Spirit at work. On one in particular occasion, Jesus taught on love in such a way that the disciple Mark surely had never heard. In doing so, it created an experience for Mark that was so memorable he had to write it down in His Gospel about Jesus.
On one occasion the disciple Mark (In Mark 12) observed Jesus talking with a religious leader. And he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important?” Jesus answered quoting Deut. 6:5, the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” So, Mark is thinking: “Ok! So, this is how Jesus defines love… an insatiable passion to love God only!” Well, not so fast Mark. Jesus then follows this up in Mark 12:31 with, “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.”
If they were defining this love by what they hear and see from Jesus, they would ask, “So is true love defined as a pure love for God or a love for our neighbor? Which is more important?” Jesus would answer, “Yes.” These disciples who wrote much of the Scriptures then began to define love not as an either/ or. True biblical love the way they experienced in Jesus was a beautiful and profound action of loving God and loving others in synergy. To the point where your love for God will be expressed by your love for people and your love of people will express your love for God. Two sides of the same coin.
Just imagine a figure 8. Turn it sideways. Now it represents infinity involving continuous loops. In one loop the label is “love God.” In the other loop it is “love people.” For Jesus, love was defined by an endless looping of loving God and loving people. While you may think this doesn’t exactly define love, you would be correct. Jesus wasn’t interested in defining Kingdom of God love. He was passionate about demonstrating it with both piety and compassion. This understanding of love was not common.
Let’s take a step back and think about John, who like Mark, was there watching and hearing Jesus like this. These experiences John had by hearing and observing Jesus formed his theology of love. They shaped how he saw the world, loved his friends, family, and fellow Christians. This went for all of them. It wasn’t studying love in a dictionary or Jewish and Greek society that gave them this radical love. It wasn’t from their already built in DNA of wanting to experience love and give love. This was supernatural love.
As the story continues, by the end of His life, Jesus was calling out their shallow definitions of love at many turns. This led to Jesus demonstrating the highest ideal of love: loving your enemies. Then as the disciples look back on an even larger scale, they realize that it was the power of God’s love for the world that caused Jesus to do this. 1 John 4:9 says, “This is how God showed his love among us, he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.”
What could go wrong?
It is clear that true biblical love is defined not intellectually but through experience with the power of God in Christ Jesus… the kind of love that is unexplainable and transforming, intrinsically connected to devotion to God and serving people—the same love that redeems us, picks us up, washes us up, and empowers us to live and love like Jesus—if it is clear that this love is what we are to love others with and God… What the enemy wants to do most is destroy this love within you. Let’s revisit both Johns Gospel and Letter.
19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.John 3:19-21
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.1 John 1:5-6
John’s relationship with Jesus can be described like no other. It is a place of security, deep love, passion, and joy. Make no mistake, the reason he talks about love more than any other biblical writer is because he had the revelation of God’s love by what He experienced. In turn, this brought a security that the enemy could not touch. The same can apply to us today.
Sigmund Freud tells the story of a three-year-old boy crying in a dark room of a home he was visiting one evening. “Auntie,” the boy cried, “talk to me! I’m frightened because it is so dark.” His aunt answered him from another room: “What good would that do? You can’t see me.” “That doesn’t matter,” replied the child. “When you talk, it gets light.” This child was not afraid of the dark but of the absence of someone he loved. What he needed to feel secure was presence. We all need the same; experiencing a loving presence is the ground of this basic sense of safety for all of us. You can’t get that in a book or a dictionary, only in experience and relationship.
Throughout the Bible Darkness was always the presence of the enemy seeking to draw children of God into the shadows where the light of God’s love is hard to penetrate. John makes it clear that God is light and that is where we are to stay the best we can with the Holy Spirit’s guidance and indwelling.
Do you then see that if we are not experiencing Jesus… we are setting ourselves up for a path in the darkness? In this place love becomes distorted. What we pursue becomes off track. We begin to settle for versions of love that are dysfunctional. We allow the love we are to possess for our spouse and children to decay into something foreign to agape. Our love for God and passion for His word and truth descends to a faint glimmer of a candle where there is no brightness. Add all this up and what you get is walking in the darkness, where evil and sin abounds. We end up getting used to life outside of God’s bright shining love.
But that doesn’t have to be your story. Your understanding of how you are loved and your ability to love others is to be formed by experiencing and observing…JESUS. Its meditating on stories like the Pharisee and Tax Collector, Woman at the Well, Jesus with the poor, sick, and broken throughout Luke. It’s studying God in Hosea and how he suffered for Israel. The Holy Spirit will use the living Word to help you experience Jesus. At the church I pastor one of our core values is to be: Faithful in the basics: Scripture, Prayer, and Serving Others. This is how we encounter Jesus and form our theology of love.
For the love of God…stay in the light!
I encourage you: stay in the light. Ask the Holy Spirit to shine brightly on the areas of your life that are remaining in darkness. Do you see any darkness within you that could be clouding your vision? They could be holding grudges and clinging to bitterness. Remember, to love your enemy. Don’t give them power over you. You may be in chains because of your bitterness.
It could be carrying an offense from a situation outside of you. Please release it and love or others are steering your ship. Related to this It could be an unforgiving heart. Maybe you think someone, or something is so unforgivable. I understand that. But remember, at one point that was you when Jesus found you. Agape love does not withhold forgiveness. Sure, it will take time and a process of healing, but we must endeavor to move towards that place. And just remember, if you choose not to, then you yourself will not be forgiven before God. Jesus makes this painfully clear in Matthew 6:14-15 Are you prepared to be unforgiven? These and more are areas of darkness many of us possess within our hearts that are clouding out the light of Christ.
But God is ready to set you free. To wash away any definition you may have of love; and flood your life with new experiences of His love which lead you into the light of his love with Him and with one another. But you gotta want it. You gotta pick up the cross. He won’t do that part for you. He went on the cross so you can pick up your own. When you do, you will discover love in such a new and powerful way that it will transform you. Think to yourself:
You want to redeem your marriage? Fall in love with Jesus and do whatever it takes as He leads you.
You want to be the parent your children deserve? Experience Jesus.
You want to live out you’re calling and purpose? Intentionally experience His love daily in prayer and the Word.
Want to overcome your past experiences of pain and hurt? Allow the Spirit to give fresh revelation of identity.
Want to overcome addictions to porn, greed, slander, anger, and more? Rediscover fulfillment through agape.
Let’s ask the question one more time, “what… is… love?” I am not sure I will ever be able to answer this question appropriately, nor do I think I or anyone was created to. But I do know Who can. And that One is ready to lead us to the discovery of it in ways we have yet to ever experience.