Originally posted September 10, 2008 on Facebook
It has been written that “Love is an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person.” (Thoughts for Those in Troubled Marriages. Marriage Missions. Steve & Cindy Wright. 7/14/2006) Anyone who has ever tried to practice true biblical love can confirm the truth of that statement.
Before we jump right into an in depth study of the characteristics of love, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and ask a more fundamental question. What causes love? Where does it come from? Let’s start by having a look at love in the context of its source and its flow.
In order to understand love, we must first understand the flow of love – where it comes from, how it starts, how it flows, and what we’re to do with it. Let’s begin with the fundamentals of what love is or more precisely, what God is.
STEP 1 – God is Love
The Bible tells us very clearly that God is love – not that God exhibits characteristics of love, not that God values love, but that God IS love.
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:16)
It follows then, that God is the source of all love.
STEP 2 – God Loves Us
So, exactly how strong is God’s love for us? He loves us enough that he sent his one and only son into this world to die for our sins.
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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)
God didn’t come to die for our sins because we deserved it, but because he loves us.
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
He loves us enough that he created us fully knowing that he would pay the ultimate price for our sins.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16b)
Despite God’s complete foreknowledge of our rebellion, God elected to give up his heavenly throne, take on human flesh, and die for our transgressions so that we could spend eternity in his presence.
The fact of the matter is, if Jesus was who He claimed to be, then the cross demonstrates that it will take eternity just to understand how much God loves us. (De Haan, Martin R. How Has God Loved Us? RBC Ministries. David Sper. 1994. 7/14/2006)
God pours out his great love directly into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who lives inside all believers.
3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:3-5)
God will always act towards us in love because by his very nature, he can not do otherwise. However, God’s love is not mushy and superficial. It is a lifestyle of serious dedication and obedience to the will of God. Love starts with knowing and keeping God’s commands. The ultimate goal of love is perfecting the one loved, and God’s purpose in loving us is to perfect us. Perfecting us means transforming us from the inside out to be more and more like him. As we give God more and more control of our lives, he makes us more and more like Jesus. In his love, he works to perfect us and, thereby, to perfect our ability to love others as he loves us.
STEP 3 – We Love Because God First Loved Us
God’s love produces love in our own hearts. His love motivates us to love and sets the standard for our love. When it comes to love, God is the raw material. God is the factory. God is the distributor. And, God is the middleman. All we are is disposable containers in which God packages his love for distribution to the world.
God’s word is perfectly clear on why we love. We are only capable of giving love to others because he first loved us. 1 John 4:19 tells us, “We love because he first loved us.” Absent the love of God, we would not, and could not, love one another. As he is the source of our strength, our hope, and our salvation, he is the originator of love and the source of our ability to love. We were created to love when we were created in his image.
Furthermore, we are told that our ability to love is the ultimate measure of our relationship with God:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
Love is paramount to God, and he uses it as the measuring stick of our lives. We can not know God without that knowledge expressing itself in love – in love for God, and in love for others. The ability to love is another precious gift given to us by the grace of God. All of us should remember that we will be called to give an account of our life before God,
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:13)
Given that love is God’s measuring stick for our lives, and we will be called to account for all our actions (both loving and unloving), it is important to understand God’s idea and ideal of love.
STEP 4 – We Love God
Love is consistently defined in the Bible as obedience. Specifically, love for God is defined as willingness to follow God’s commands.
5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. 6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (2 John 1:5-6)
Paul gives us some insight into how we should prepare ourselves in order to be able to love.
The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5)
Love springs from a pure heart, good conscience and sincere faith. All three of these manifest themselves in an obedience to God’s will.
So, how do we love God? How do we express that love? What seems like it should be a very complex and involved theological answer is actually very simple. We show our love for God by obeying his commands as reflected in scripture.
If you love me, you will obey what I command. (John 14:15)
This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, (1 John 5:3)
John goes on to explain that everyone born of God overcomes the world and that those who overcome the world are those who believe that Jesus is the son of God. In other words, God’s commands are not burdensome because they all boil down to believing in, and following, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is our example of, and should be our mentor in, loving obedience. If ever we wonder about the need to be obedient to God, we need look no further than Jesus, God himself incarnate, for guidance:
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:9-12)
We are commanded to walk as Jesus did. Only in doing this will God’s love be perfected in our lives.
4 The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did. (1 John 2:4-6)
The key then to loving God is obedience. Perhaps this is why we find it so difficult to learn how to love God and to maintain that love. The fact is even once we learn to love God, we must be careful not to let that love for God go untended. A love for God that is not nurtured can be easily lost. This was true for the whole church in Ephesus. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus commands John to write,
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lamp stands: 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place (Revelation 2:1-5)
When we lose our focus on God, we run the risk of losing our love for him.
Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, (Matthew 24:12)
Our love for God, so strong at the moment of salvation, can grow cold. Jesus alludes to this as well in the Parable of the Sower in which he makes reference to two groups of people whose love for God grows cold. The first group receives the good news with joy but quickly falls away when persecution comes. The second group hears the word, but the worries of this world choke it out. Like any good relationship, we must nurture and express our love for God in order to strengthen it. Love is never stagnant! It is always either expanding or retracting, and our love for God is no different.
STEP 5 – We Love Others
God does not just desire that we love, he commands it! The command to love in scripture is not veiled or hard to pick up. God could not have been more direct in his command to love:
This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:17)
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:12)
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
Love is at the core of God’s plan for humanity because relationship is at the center of his plan. Let’s look at just a handful of the verses where we are commanded to love in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
God’s command to love shows up early in the Old Testament in the Levitical Law given through Moses.
“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:18)
Very early on, God tells his people to love. Based on his authority – “I am the LORD” he commands the Israelites to love their neighbors as they love themselves. In this one simple verse, quoted by Jesus himself, the Lord introduces the concept of forgiveness (“do not seek revenge or bear a grudge”) and sacrifice (“as yourself”) as foundational to the command to love.
3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Then you will win favor and a good name
in the sight of God and man. (Proverbs 3:3-4)
God commands us not just to love, but to bind love around our necks. This imagery conjures up the notion of being led by the leash of love. We are told to write love on our hearts. It is to be the very core of our being. This verse indicates that we control the decision to love. We are not a victim of love.
This verse also introduces us to the idea that love is the basis by which we are gauged in our lives. When we make love foundational in our lives, we win favor in the sight of man, and more importantly, in the sight of God.
So, like the religious leader who asked Jesus who his neighbor was, the fact that God commands that love be the foundation of our lives begs the question, who are we supposed to love?
God does not simply ask us to love those who are members of our family or those people we enjoy being with, he commands us to love those who hate us and those who persecute us.
27 “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. (Luke 6:27-32)
It is impossible to love God and to hate people at the same time.
20 If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21)
This command to love those who hate us is hard. Indeed, it is an impossible task and a standard which we are not capable of meeting on our own. Fortunately for us, God does not ask as to go at it alone. He calls us to this impossibly high standard, then he works within us to help us try to attain to this standard.
God created us in his image. One off-shoot of that is that he created us to be in loving relationships, not just with him, but also with other people. Indeed, the only way to find true joy and fulfillment is by sacrificially loving others.
In our next installment, we will look at some of the attributes of God’s love then move on to our detailed study of the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13.