“Love is love.” That slogan has popped up countless times in our nation’s dialogue in recent days. It’s part of an effort to shape the hearts and minds of Americans on social issues. It’s simple, succinct, and catchy. It has some appeal, especially to people who value “love” as a supreme good, a sentiment that trumps all other considerations. The problem is it’s just not true.
Our society is confused about love, and this slogan does nothing to minimize this confusion. What exactly does it mean to say “love is love”? On its face it is a statement of identity, equating two things, e.g., a car is an automobile. So it might mean that all loves are the same. I love my wife. I also love pizza. If “love is love” then I would be saying that my relationship to my wife is identical to my relationship to pizza. I may not be the most romantic person in the world, but even I could guess that my wife would not be pleased if I told her, “You know that I love you because I act, think, and feel toward you in the same way that I do toward pizza.” (I haven’t seen that sentiment portrayed in a Hallmark card either!) My love for my wife may have a few similarities with my love for pizza, but they are nowhere close to identical. One love is not like the other.
Most of us recognize that the slogan is not trying to communicate that all loves are identical—even if it is what it says. It’s at least narrowed down to people. Love for different people is ultimately the same. But even here there are distinctions in loves. I love my friends, but I do not love them exactly like I love my sons. And my love for my sons is different from my love for my wife.
Most people seem to be using the phrase to refer to a kind of love that is sexual in nature. The phrase is stating that no kind of sexual love is any different from another. People are wrong to view some sexual love as inappropriate, for who are we to say one kind is better than another? “Love is love.”
But almost all the people trumpeting this slogan do not really believe it. Some people love their siblings sexually. Is that love identical to other loves? Suppose a man sexually loves his wife and he sexually loves his mistress. Should his wife say “who am I to condemn him, because ‘love is love’”? Some 40 year old men sexually love 12 year old boys. Is that love the same as every other? Love is love?
You may be upset that I would mention some of the above examples. “Those are not the same thing, and it’s wrong to compare them.” But if they are not the same thing, and it is not legitimate to compare them, then not all love is love. “But those examples are not examples of love.” In making that objection, you have done exactly what our slogan “love is love” is telling us we cannot do. You have made a judgment about a sexual love that says it does not belong in the same category as others. You have said “this love is not love.” The moment you begin to limit love in some way—by saying it needs to be non-incestuous, or between only two people, or only between consenting adults—you have set up a definition by which we are now forced to determine that some loves are love and others are not.
So who gets to decide what loves are in bounds and what loves are not? I certainly would not claim to be a proper judge for these matters. Who could have the wisdom, compassion, knowledge, and insight to distinguish legitimate loves from illegitimate ones? Only God can do that.
What is love? The Bible consistently points to God’s love for humans as the supreme example of love (e.g., 1 Jn 4:10). One particularly relevant passage is in Ephesians 5:25-27.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Here, Paul holds up Christ’s love for the church as the greatest example of the kind of love husbands are to have for their wives. I’d like to highlight one aspect of that love: true love is a holy love. Christ died for the church to make her holy.
Any love that wants to make a valid claim to be love must be holy. If a love does not move the other person toward holiness it is not love. So a young man who pressures a young lady to sleep with him before they are married does not really love her. He may say that he does, and both of them may think that he does, but he is ultimately more concerned for his own gratification than he is for her well-being. The man who loves his wife and mistress may think he really loves them both, but he actually loves neither. True love will never violate God’s standards. No matter how much someone thinks they love a person, if they are helping them down a path contrary to what is holy they do not really love them.
Why does all of this matter? What business is it of anyone’s to care about anyone else’s love? First, as I already noted, almost everyone cares to some degree, or we would be working to abolish laws against pedophilia. But it also matters because true love is far better than any false loves.
Suppose you had a friend who told you he found some great steak that he wants to enjoy. He takes you behind some restaurant and pulls some rancid, rotting hunk of meat out of the dumpster. You tell him, “Don’t eat that! Let’s go inside the restaurant and get some real steak.” He replies sharply, “Who are you to tell me what steak to eat. Steak is steak!” Would you say, “Well, it’s not hurting me for him to eat that meat, so I shouldn’t say anything”? Wouldn’t you want to see your friend give up the supposed steak that very well could poison him and instead experience the satisfaction and nourishment of a nice, well-cooked steak?
In reality, we have all gone after the rotten piece of steak. We have acted as if bad things were good things and good things were ultimate things. Our loves are twisted, and we have run down a path that leads to our own destruction. God has graciously warned us, but we have all rejected His warnings. Because we have pursued our own wrong desires, we are incurably sick, spiritually dead, and hopelessly lost.
But God really loves us. He came to us when we were completely unlovable and gave of Himself to save us. He sucked the poison into Himself and offered us real nourishment in its place. He died for what we did so that we might live for Him. He calls us to turn from our path of destruction and trust in Him for life.
God loves us enough that He wants what is really best for us. He knows which loves are real and which are counterfeit. He does not want us to settle for something that seems like love when it is really not. His love moves us to holiness, where we find eternal pleasure in Him. There is no greater joy and satisfaction than knowing and experiencing His love, and loving others in the way He has called us to love. How do we know which love is love? God’s love is love!