Valentine’s Day is this weekend (in case you have not been out of your house in weeks and missed all of the promotional reminders to show your love by spending money).
In honor of this one day of love each year, I’d like to consider what love really is. A variety of different movies, television shows, novels, and songs discuss the question of true love (a.k.a. twue wuv). We are told that true love is powerful, it overcomes obstacles, it must never be thwarted, and a whole host of other platitudes. But what makes love true love? What is the essence of love?
The apostle John discusses love extensively, especially in his first epistle. 1 John 4:10 is particularly helpful at understanding the essence of love, because here John tells us “in this is love.” Thus, John is helping us to know what is at the heart of love.
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:1).
This verse highlights at least four characteristics of true love.
True love is supernatural. John begins, as he often does, by offering a negative example to explain his point. True love is not defined by our love for God. Our love for God may be genuine, but it is also natural. God is the most lovely being, so the failure to love God is strange–the only reason we would not love God is if our desires are out of order due to sin.
True love is not understood by our love for God but by God’s love for us. The problem is that we tend to think we are likeable people. Why wouldn’t God love us? But that’s because we forget who God is and what we are. God is infinitely holy, while we are wicked sinners. While God is lovely, we are rebellious enemies of God. God showed his kindness in creating us and giving us life, and we responded by spitting in his face and openly violating His good will. That’s what makes true love so amazing–God loved people as unlovely as us!
This kind of love—the kind of love that isn’t only offered to those who love us or attract us—does not happen on its own. That’s why John can say that the one who truly loves has been born of God and knows God (1 John 4:7). True love is shown in the church when people who would normally have nothing to do with each other love each other.
True love is active. God did not simply feel love in His heart or express it in words. He demonstrated it in action. He sent His Son. He proved His love for us by moving toward us.
We place a lot of emphasis on expressing love through our words. The one who loves deepest is able to express that love through lofty rhetoric (e.g., the speech at the end of a Rom-Com where a person confesses his/her undying love). We can’t get enough of creative proposals and wedding ceremonies. But true love is not found in a card, speech, or show. It’s found in the day-to-day, mundane choices and actions of the loving person.
True love is sacrificial. The way John states God’s action it almost seems simple—God sent His Son. But John’s readers would have understood how significant that action actually was. Jesus, the most glorious being who possessed this glory from all eternity humbled Himself by becoming human. But as great as His sacrifice of becoming human was, He went even further and sacrificed His very life for us. There is no greater love than giving your life—and God did this for His enemies!
We want to think of ourselves as loving people, but as soon as a relationship becomes inconvenient we are not sure we want to stay in it. We love often because of what the person gives us. At most we want an equal exchange, where we get as much as we give. But true love is willing to lose in the exchange. It gives without expecting to receive.
True love is redemptive. Jesus sacrifice was a propitiation for our sins. It satisfied God’s wrath against us as sinners by paying the penalty we deserved. God’s love did not lead Him to simply affirm us as who we were—sinners. It led him to work for our transformation from sinners to saints.
This may be the area where our culture is most confused about love. We think true love means never judging. But true love doesn’t only accept people as they are. True love cares for people where they are while also wanting to see them become better than what they currently are. And the greatest way to love is to urge people to find redemption in Jesus Christ.