Happy Valentine’s Day, Mercy Hill. I’m sure some of us are floating six inches off the ground today over the greatness of our romantic relationships, while others are slumped over about six inches in disgust over everyone else’s happiness. Both of these attitudes point to problems with our views on what weight relationships should carry in our life and possibly a fundamental misunderstanding of love. That is what I want to survey in this blog. What is true love?
We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19)
True love (i.e. love as the Bible defines it) is created in us by God’s love for us. God loved us first, and when he makes us aware of his love, it produces in us love for God and love for others. This is love proper. It might seem shocking and even maddening to realize that under the Biblical view of love, any feelings of affection for others (whether romantic or plutonic) that are not direct derivatives of our love for God, are forbidden loves. As John Piper proclaimed so powerfully at Passion this year, the essence of all evil is a preference for anything over God. Paul says in Romans 8:7 that those without the Spirit are hostile to God. They aren’t lovers of God, but haters of God. Therefore, anything that stirs our affections outside of the love that is the first fruit of the Holy Spirit—“But the fruit of the Spirit is love . . .” (Galatians 5:22)—is an evil affection.
True Love is a Verb
I tend to despise clichés, but this is a good one. We easily forget that love is not just a feeling. In fact, as Timothy Keller says, feelings are often produced by the actions of love we perform. Do you realize that most of us get John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in the Bible, wrong? We learned it as “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son . . .” and that’s not a wrong translation. But, because of the modern notion of the emotional feeling of love being “true love,” we read it wrong. We almost read it that God had such a great feeling of love that it propelled him to send his Son. That may also be true, but that’s not what the verse is saying. The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates it in a way that we Americans can understand: “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son . . ..” The essence of the verse is that God loved us through the action of the death of his Son in our place. God’s love is active.
Now, God’s active love stirs our affections for him through the leading of the Holy Spirit. That is true. But it is in our affections for God that we become obedient to him in loving others through our actions, which then stirs our affections for them. Remember, this is how how Biblical love works. And yes, in a way, it is almost cyclical. Love starts from the One who is love, and then our affections fuel our behavior which then, in turn, fuels our affections. This is why author James K. A. Smith can say “You are what you love.” What we love becomes our identity because it fuels how we act. Love creates behavior. Think about what we say when we recite 1 Corinthians 13:
“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.” (vs. 4-7 NIV)
Love creates behavior and defines how we behave.
We could now talk about what this means for all of our different relationships, but since it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s end with what it means for our romantic relationships. First of all, let me make clear that it is good to have affectionate feelings toward your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or interest. They are something to shoot for, but (despite what the world would say) not essential for a committed relationship.
Because of how the Bible defines love, we have to examine all of our affections in the light of our love for God. Here are some example questions: “Would acting on my affections (whether the gaining or losing of them) move me to being disobedient to God?” and “Are these affections stronger than my affections for God?” If the answer is yes to either of these, we need to be cautious. We need to seek God in prayer and read his Word and seek the council of others before moving forward. If we are to enthralled with our romantic love that we need it more than God, we will crush ourselves and our partner under the weight of unrealistic expectations. If we are thinking about divorce because our affections have ceased, then we are allowing the world to define what love looks like. If we are thinking about dating someone who would pull us away from God, then we are seeking forbidden love.
Also, another question that we could ask is, “Are my behaviors toward my romantic partner the fruit of my love of God?” Remember, true, biblically-defined love also defines how we behave in our relationships. Are our actions towards our relationships defined by 1 Corinthians 13 and the fruit of the Spirit?
Ultimately, the best Valentine’s advice any Christian could receive is that before we act on our affections (or lack of them), let us daily return to our first love. Let us return to the cross of Jesus where he died for all the wrongs we commit in our relationships. Let his sacrificial death and his miraculous resurrection be the fuel for how we love others. Let the gospel be the dictionary that we grab when looking for the definition of love.
–Alex Nolette (Equip Associate)