Back in 1998, the Christian rock group DC Talk sang, “We all wanna be loved.” It was a hit, like most of their music, because it expressed the universal desire of every human being to be loved. But what is love?
Unfortunately, “love” is not easy to define. In fact, understanding love has been a problem for as long as humans have existed.
The Bible’s first book, Genesis, tells us God created the first man, Adam, but he was alone in the Garden of Eden. So God made the woman Eve to be Adam’s companion. Adam was overjoyed with this precious gift.
But it wasn’t too long afterward that Adam and Eve sinned against God. When God asked Adam what he had done, Adam’s answer was less than gracious. He blamed Eve for his sin. Selfishness entered the world and kicked love off its throne in the hearts of men and women. Since that day, people have struggled to show and understand true love.
Yet a 2011 Marist poll revealed that 73% of Americans believe in “soul mates,” or in the existence of one perfect partner for each person. The majority of Americans believe in something called “true love.”
But what is true love? As we consider that question, we’ll look at a familiar passage in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, that beautifully expresses ideal love. We’ll also compare what the Bible has to say about love with other definitions that we find in the world today.
What Is Love According to the World?
Let’s first consider some competing definitions for love today.
Definition #1: Love is sex.
Our culture is preoccupied with sex. Consider the movies these days. A man and woman meet, fall in love, and the very next scene they are in bed together. Or it’s the other way around. They first hop into bed, and then they are in “love.” This definition confuses lust for love.
What our sexualized world calls love, the Bible calls lust. God designed sex to be between one man and one woman who are married. Sex outside these boundaries is sin against God and neighbor, not love, and hurts those involved. While sex can be part of godly love, it is not the same as godly love.
Definition #2: Love is tolerance.
How do I know that you love me? You will tolerate anything I say or do. If you truly love me, you will never judge me, even when my actions are immoral or harmful.
One of the worst things to be called nowadays is intolerant. But tolerance isn’t love either, if it rejects the truth, and we will see why soon. The Bible says that true love can never be divorced from truth.
Definition #3: Love is a feeling.
I have warm fuzzies in my tummy. It must be love. And today I love you, but tomorrow, someone better may come along.
This sentimentalism isn’t true love. It’s devoid of consistency and commitment: here today, gone tomorrow. This confuses infatuation for love. According to the Bible, genuine love involves commitment. It isn’t something you fall into and out of on a whim.
Many people mistakenly equate love with lust, tolerance, and infatuation. These, according to God’s Word, are not love.
What Is Love According to God?
What is “love” as God intends it to be? God anticipated this question and gave us an answer through the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 13, Paul describes love in 15 ways, using 15 verbs in the original Greek language.
In the next four verses, Paul writes one of the most profound statements in all of the literature about love.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV)
These verses don’t so much define love as they describe what love does and doesn’t do.
“Love is a verb” is a nice way of characterizing Paul’s understanding of love. You will know love by how it behaves. Paul isn’t interested in an abstract definition; he is interested in practical reality: love in action.
The Attributes of Godly Love
In this chapter, Paul lists eight negatives, or things that true love is not. The negatives are sandwiched in between six positive attributes of love, followed by the declaration that love is eternal; it never ends.
Let’s explore each attribute of love.
- Patient: Love is the opposite of short-tempered. It is patient with others. Love does not easily lose its temper.
- Kind: Love gently and compassionately cares for others.
- Not envious: Love is not displeased at the success of others.
- Not boastful: Love does not put itself forward with bragging.
- Not proud: There is no arrogance in love. Love is concerned to give of itself, not to assert itself.
- Not dishonorable: Love is not disgraceful or indecent. It looks out for the well-being of others.
- Not self-seeking: Love “does not insist on its own way” is how the ESV translates this verse. Love puts others first.
- Not easily angered: Anger usually results from a selfish concern for our rights. Godly love doesn’t always defend itself and is not easily provoked.
- Keeps no record of wrongs: True love does not harbor a grudge or a sense of injury. It’s completely forgiving.
- Does not delight in evil, but in truth: A direct contrast to equating love with tolerance, godly love is always truthful.
- Always protects: Love bears with others and looks to shelter them.
- Always trusts: This is not gullibility but simply means that love is always willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Love looks for the best in others.
- Always hopes: Love is rooted in the sure promises of God and looks to the future when God’s plans shall be completed. Love envisions God’s completed work and therefore desires good for others.
- Always perseveres: Love moves forward with determination and purpose, never giving up.
- Love never fails: When all else fails or fades away, love endures.
This is the substance of true, godly love.
The Best Example of Love
We can understand these verses in two ways: this is how we should be, and this is how God is, since “God is love” (1 John 4:7 NIV).
We love others and God because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).
The supreme example of God’s love is Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for us, while we were God’s enemies (Romans 5:8-10; 1 John 3:16). He died in our place for all the times we fail to love God and love others, so that he might give us the ability to truly love God and others again.
Go back and read those 15 descriptors for godly love and honestly test yourself.
Could others describe you in this way?
Ask God to help you, through his Spirit, to understand Jesus’ love for you displayed through the cross, and to grow in his love for others.