What Is Love?
When I was in middle school, the movie Night At the Roxbury came out. I remember absolutely nothing about that movie except the two main characters (Will Ferrel and Chris Kattan) head-banging to the song “What Is Love” by Haddaway. If the Lord tarries and hundreds of years from now historians unearth a copy of that film, I cringe at what people will assume about our culture.
However, if completely ripped from their context, the lyrics pose an interesting question and provoke some thought:
What is love? // Baby don’t hurt me, // Don’t hurt me // No more. (~12,426 times)
So what is right and what is wrong? // Gimme a sign…
Understanding true love and truly loving are noble goals. It is, after all, the summary of God’s will for us. When asked what commandment stands above all others Jesus answers: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’… [and] The second is this: ’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31, ESV). To live in God’s will, we need to know how to love.
The problem is that today love has come to mean something entirely different than what Jesus means in these verses. Love has come to describe a feeling of pleasure or joy that people have for a variety of things. People can have these feelings for kombucha, bungee jumping or other people. But when love is limited to one’s personal feeling, it becomes a selfish thing and ceases to be love. From Jesus’ words, we know that love is to have an object, namely God and our neighbor.
Even in this case, feelings can become the driving ethic of our love. When they do, anything that one does to make another person feel satisfied, happy, secure or pleased is seen as loving them. Our society has done a fine job of catechizing us in this. You’ve heard the arguments. “Even though I have no intention of a lifelong, committed relationship with that person, as long as we both “feel” good about it now and it’s giving us both pleasure, it’s really love.” While feelings of joy, security and pleasure do sometimes accompany true love, feelings can be misleading and fickle. Therefore, this cannot be the love Jesus commands.
To borrow once more from our friend, Haddaway, “What is right? What is Wrong? Gimme a sign!” Thankfully, in order to show us true love, God has given us a sign. It’s called the cross.
The cross of Jesus shows us that true love was distinct from his human feelings. This wasn’t a “do what feels good” kind of love. “Father,” he cried, “if it be your will, let this cup pass from me!” For Jesus, there was nothing enjoyable about receiving the beatings or the crown or the nails or enduring his Father’s wrath intended for sinners.
We also see that the true love of Christ doesn’t always evoke pleasant emotions for the recipient. Paul says that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8, emphasis mine). This is an uncomfortable truth. It says that we were broken and sinful in a way we couldn’t fix. We don’t want to hear that. It’s offensive. We live in a do-it-yourself culture. Because salvation is not a do-it-yourself endeavor, many reject Christ’s love entirely.
Despite the absence of good feelings, the cross is true love. It’s perfect love. It’s exactly the love we need. And it’s the model for the love we are to have for God and for our neighbors.
To love God, then, means that we are to listen to him, submit to him and believe what he says is true even when it’s frustrating. It means that I am to agree with him when he calls me a sinner, and to love him by trusting Christ’s forgiveness earned at the cross instead of my own goodness. When he says that I should remember his Sabbath day to keep it holy, there are times I’d rather do my own thing. But I love him when I do not despise his Word or its preaching, but gladly hear and learn it. When he says in his Word that I must forgive those who have wronged me, it’s hard. But, loving him, I forgive with the same forgiveness he’s shown me. When that Word tells me that I am not free to enter into a sexual relationship with whomever I please, whenever I please, this goes against my very “natural” desire to do so. But to love him means to trust that his design is best and obey him in it.
When we love God, love for our neighbors follows. To love our neighbor means that we want God’s will for them rather than our own. We show that love by sacrificing our own will, desires and motives for them to show them his will. This is seen in the committed, unconditional sacrifices we make for our spouses. It’s shown in the sacrifices we make to teach our kids the gospel in a culture where that goes against the norm. It’s shown in the ordinary, mundane sacrifices we make in our jobs so that by our hands God can provide our neighbors with their daily needs. It’s seen in the forgiveness we offer to those who have wronged us. It’s shown when we, out of a desire for their best interest, have difficult conversations with our friends and family to show them God’s plans and design when they may be in error. It’s shown when we sacrifice our fears to tell them about forgiveness in Christ.
“Loving” wrong is easy. It’s nothing more than indulging our sinful flesh. Loving right is hard. Even when we’ve been given faith in Christ’s love and are made his children, we struggle. But the cross stands as our reminder that even when we are unloving and unlovely, we have a Savior whose perfect love forgives and provides the strength to love as we ought.