by Dave Hopewell and Serenity Miller
“What’s love got to do with it?” asks ’80s-era singer/songwriter Tina Turner. It’s a question I often found myself pondering following Valentine's Day, a day dedicated to expressing our love to those we care about.
Back when I coached volleyball, I’d have each member of our team share about themselves during a 30-minute session. When they were finished sharing, the rest of us could ask questions during the remaining time. My favorite was to ask, “How would you define love?” After hearing some of the responses, I began to realize the complexity of the word—or rather, our complicated understandings of the word.
Take a second. How would you define love? (Pastor Jessey would take this a step further and ask how you would explain it to a child.)
Would you define love based on your emotions, your experiences, or what you think is the right answer? As the song lyrics indicate, Ms. Turner would continue to lament love, taking the emotional reaction route: Who needs a heart, when a heart can be broken…
Love can be tricky. There’s risk involved. Some prefer to play it safe. Why would we even try the “game,” when we could end up heartbroken? (Apparently having played and lost, another ’80s artist came to the title conclusion, “Love Stinks.”) Ultimately, we’ll only be able to reckon with our yearning for love when we can define love on God’s terms.
To believe “love is good,” we have to throw out many jaded affections and add the modifier: love, as God intends it, is good. But there are plenty of skewed understandings out there about the meaning of love—and our sense of entitlement to “the love we deserve.” There’s a book by John D. Moore called Confusing Love with Obsession: When Being in Love Means Being in Control, which says a lot in the title alone.
Simply put, a lot of what we call “love” is not “good,” and not really “love” at all. Biblically, love is self-giving, oriented toward the wellbeing and enjoyment of another. Culturally, our definition is broken—we think of love more in terms of what we get, rather than what we give. Consequently, relationships all over the world are driven by fear, pride, and self-centeredness, as people worry about getting “enough,” getting “more,” and losing what we’ve “got."
Now, to be clear, our basic desires are not “bad.” We want to meet, associate, and procreate, and we’d like to be reasonably comfortable while we do it. “We all certainly desire to live happily,” early church philosopher Augustine wrote, “and there is no human being but assents to this statement almost before it is made.” That’s not wrong. God did not design us to live lonely, ascetic existences. And God never asks us to completely ignore all of our desires, but to desire the edification of others more than the edification of ourselves.
If we allow love to be defined from our own worldview, then it’s easy to end up with a narrow perspective of love. Then love is something that makes us “feel good”. It’s using another person to fill the holes in our lives. It’s a desire to live happily, contingent on other people meeting our expectations. And when we allow love to be defined through the actions of fallen humanity, we’ll always be disappointed.
Jesus takes our perspective of love and turns it upside down. He shows us love has nothing to do with getting what we want from other people, but everything to do with giving it away!
Look at the famous “love chapter”, 1 Corinthians 13. Brother Paul lays out a beautiful ode to love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (v. 4), and the beat goes on.
Consider the beauty of the love described here. Now consider that Paul’s teaching isn’t meant to evoke fantasies about what love does for us, but a picture of what it can make us. Surely we’d all like to receive such love, but this passage is about how we are to give such love! Paul says if we go through all the right motions, “but do not have love” (v. 3), we gain nothing. In context here, he isn’t referring to having the love of others, but having love for others. It’s not about “getting”—it’s about “giving.”
Read the list of virtues in v. 4-7 once more. These are all attitudes and actions of submission, serving, and surrender. We can choose to be patient. We can choose to be respectful and courteous. We can choose to stop keeping score. Kindness and humility are gifts we can offer every day—to our closest companions, and to complete strangers!
But what about when love hurts? Disillusionment about love can creep up when others crush our expectations about what love is and what it should do for us. We may even experience this the most with the people we love the most—those we allow “in” and let down our guard around. We’ve given our closest loved ones a front-row seat to our lives, and their opinion matters more than anyone else’s—and that means they can hurt us like no one else can!
I try to explain this in our pre-marriage seminars, but I find it staggering to explain the complexity of marriage when so many relationships are already primarily plagued by disillusionment about love. Henri Nouwen explains it this way: “The mystery of [love] is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” Human love is not the standard to which we aspire. To truly understand and appreciate love, we look to the source. And we are not the source of love. God is.
To express Himself, God shows us countless examples of love in Scripture, His Spirit-breathed love letter to us. Consider our current Sunday sermon series exploring the Minor Prophets. There’s a reason this series is subtitled Because of His Love. Through these books, we see the character of a relentless God pursuing His beloved. We see God’s character of love praised through generations of prophetic voices, prefacing God’s ultimate expression of love through the giving of His Son, Jesus Christ. We're pointed toward the image of the invisible God, seeing God’s love demonstrated exponentially in the New Testament, illustrated by grace on top of grace. As image-bearers ourselves, then, we love with the love of God shed abroad in our hearts—love as God intends it. In 1 John 4:7, we read the call clearly: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.”
To know “how” to love, we begin responding to the one who IS love! Knowing who God is and what He has done tells us who we are and what we’re to do. You are God’s beloved. And because you are loved, you can love as Christ loves. Ask Him to move your heart. Ask for the tenderness to fall in love with His Word, become devoted in prayer & learn to serve others. Make it your ambition to give love away, instead of trying to get it for yourself—and just see if you find you have love!
Author Donald Miller envisions how our lives would change if we lived this way: “Imagine how a man’s life would be if he trusted that he was loved by God. How he could interact with the poor and not show partiality, he could love his wife easily and not expect her to redeem him, he would be slow to anger because redemption was no longer at stake, he could be wise and giving with his money because money no longer represented points, he could give up on formulaic religion, knowing that checking stuff off a spiritual to-do list was a worthless pursuit, he would have confidence and the ability to laugh at himself, and he could love people without expecting anything in return. It would be quite beautiful, really.”
So the question becomes… now what? How do we become givers instead of takers? I’m going to say, against Tina Turner’s misgivings, that love has everything to do with it!
This week, read 1 Corinthians 13, asking God to search your heart. Then reflect on the following questions:
* How do you define love?
* Which attitude or action of love do you struggle with the most?
* Do you trust that you are loved by God? How does this change the way you live your life?