Choosing God’s Definition of Love

I was in Lhasa, Tibet the first time I saw someone physically bow in worship to a statue. The Buddhist temple was filled with smoky incense, and dozens of people prostrated before a grinning image. Sunday-school stories of the ancient Israelites giving offerings to idols bubbled up from my memory. It was difficult to comprehend there were people today still worshiping gods made of wood and metal. The second Commandment came to mind: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4, ESV).

My next thought: “I’m so glad we don’t carve images and worship them in our Western culture.”

Of course, I’m embarrassed now that I blindly believed the American people were idol-free. As a nation, we’ve made gods out of so many things, it’s mind blowing. Money and comfort are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are all kinds of things we worshipfully run after to make our lives feel easier and worthwhile. We have relational idols—ideal connections with others that we trust will remove or cover our loneliness and give a greater sense of significance. We have philosophical and political idols—ideas we count on to provide a sense of control, self-determination, and justice. We even have religious idols—reshaped images of God that allow us to better relate to, manage, and fit the divine into our lifestyle.

Yes, we still worshipfully “carve” and fashion things and ideas into shapes we believe will benefit us. And we then bow down in submission, living our lives and treating others according to how these “gods” dictate.

Buddhist temples have nothing on us when it comes to worshiping hand-crafted images.

The Shape of Love?

One such thing I have noticed popping up more and more among Christians is the refashioned image of love. We quickly assume we know what it is: to show love is to affirm the feelings and personal interests of another. Granted, sometimes that is how love is manifested. But as far as a definition goes, it’s not quite what’s presented in the scriptures.  Nobody today disagrees that we need more love in our society. However, if you ask someone what the word means, you’re likely to hear something about being nice and letting people alone to do and be whatever they want.

The most succinct definition of love in the Bible is found in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” It’s important to note that it doesn’t merely say God is loving. In other words, love is the essence of the totality of God’s being. It is not just what He does, it is what He is.

Some are drawn to this definition because it allows us to call out anyone who does something that we consider insensitive or unloving as working against or opposing God. The logic appears to be sound: if God’s essence is love and we claim that His Spirit indwells us, then love is what we should be all about. And someone who isn’t loving is thus “Godless.”

However, if we’re going to take this definition seriously, it seems to me that we first must determine what God is like so we can then know what love is really like. Only then can we conclude whether what we feel love ought to be fits with what has been revealed about who God is. To be faithful to this definition, we must start with God. If we begin instead with what we personally believe love is or should feel like, we end up shaping our image of God, and love, after ourselves. Thus, we would be saying something more like, “My idea of love is God.” We would then be on the pathway of worshiping an image rather than the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth.

This possibility should concern any follower of Jesus.

What is God like?

This is a big question. Moses asked to see God while he was on Mount Sinai. God agreed to let the man see only His backside (not sure exactly what that means). But the way it’s played out in the story is this: “And [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished’” (Exodus 34:6-7, NIV).

This self-disclosed description of God is an interesting mix of kindness, mercy, and justice. The first three quarters fits easily into my natural picture of the loving, tender character of God. That last phrase about not leaving the guilty unpunished, however, is a bit jolting. Yes, when God describes Himself, He starts with His compassion and graciousness. But the picture isn’t complete without also reminding Moses that He is unique and holy. Sin does not find a resting place in His presence.

If then God is love, love must be composed of who He is: compassion, grace, faithfulness, forgiveness and the execution of justice and righteousness. Can love really be all of that? If we’re talking about the kind of love the Bible speaks of, it doesn’t always feel pleasant and isn’t necessarily always “nice.” But if it’s the love that describes the essence of God, then it is good, compassionate, sacrificial, pure, and never gives up calling its recipients to a higher standard of becoming more like Him.

What kind of definition of love do I live by?

The Highest Good

One expression that has been used for many years to describe love that digs deeper, requires more, and asks penetrating questions is “tough love.” I don’t always agree with how this idea is acted out—I’ve seen it used to justify coercion and force. But it does push me to think of love as something that is not always warm and fuzzy—something of substance that can even be controversial.

A definition we have often fallen back on in our YWAM training is “choosing the highest good for God, others, and myself.” Due to the corrupting nature of sin, the “highest good” is not always something people can see clearly on their own, and it is not always something we want to see. God’s highest good has to do with our original purpose and what He designed us to be. It reveals our true worth and destiny to be members of His divine family. When we don’t see ourselves or others through the lens of what God had in mind when He created us, it’s difficult if not impossible to comprehend His love—which must be our standard as His children and followers of Jesus.

God is love. Do we know what He is like in the fullness of His character so that we can recognize and embrace the good He has for us and others?

Love is not God. Our natural feelings of what love ought to look and feel like do not always tell us the truth. Let us not “carve” a new image of God’s love to match what feels more comfortable or fit shifting cultural norms that we then worship and look to for guidance. That is the definition of idolatry. We must study Him so that we can intimately know His ways, His purposes, His heart. It’s the only way for a follower of Jesus to carry and express a right and robust definition of love in a way that brings transformation.

As the celebration of Valentine’s Day approaches, focusing on one of the ways our culture commemorates and worships “love,” let us reexamine what such a day ought to be honoring. May Jesus followers learn to love like God does as well as like He is.


  • How might I define love if I depend only on my personal feelings to determine what it ought to look and feel like?
  • How does God’s self-definition in Exodus 34:6-7 match or oppose my definition of love?
  • Why might fashioning my own definition of love be like carving my own image of God?
  • What do I understand the “highest good” to be for me and those around me? How does it fit God’s character and purposes?
  • Jesus, what does it mean to genuinely love you and those around me?  

(Edited and reposted from October 19, 2020)

One Comment on “Choosing God’s Definition of Love

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