The word ‘love’ in English is quite pliable. I can say that I love my wife and I love pizza, and most people will not accuse me of reducing my spouse to a mere piece of pepperoni nor seeking to marry an Italian meal. The word can refer to a need (a plant “loves” water) or enthusiasm for a particular thing or activity (my son “loves” the Vikings). It can also describe a profoundly tender affection for another (I love my children). In addition, it can reference almost every positive feeling between the two extremes. This flexibility, however, can sometimes lull us into not thinking about what we mean when we use the word. For a follower of Jesus, care in what we say we love and particularly in what we actually do love has important theological, and eternal, implications.
When I talk about the concept of love with others, I like to point out that it is much more than a feeling. It’s a choice. Most people agree in theory but then get a bit uncomfortable when we examine how we actually apply the term. When we use phrases like “falling in love,” or “falling out of love” there’s no getting around the idea that we’re talking about an emotion that can be there one moment and gone another. Such usage leaves the impression that we are helpless victims to this thing we call love. So much of today’s relationships, romantic and otherwise, are centered on what we feel about a person at any given moment, which is in constant flux. And that stirs some deep insecurity in relationships, not to mention the cynicism associated with the word love.
A More Durable Understanding
The biblical presentation of love, however, talks about something more reliable than good and affectionate feelings. How else should we interpret Jesus’ command to “love one another” (John 15:12)? He tells His followers to do it, no qualifications or exceptions. Most people realize that feelings cannot be commanded to come or go. Instead, feelings tend to follow our choices and what we focus our attention on. The love Jesus is talking about, therefore, is something we choose to do. It’s a matter of obeying Him.
A definition I find helpful for this understanding of love is choosing to give the highest good to another. It’s what God does for us and what he tells us to do for others. Sometimes the words that carry the meaning of love the best are I still choose you.
When we love, we typically look for the good or worth in another and focus our attention on that which we can appreciate. We then give our highest good with that worth in mind. Granted, there are people who are very difficult to love because it’s challenging to see much, if anything, good in them. Yet, with the understanding that all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), we Jesus followers are offered help from the Holy Spirit when looking for that good in others – even if at times it is thickly clouded. God, through the fog of sin and rebellion that covers humans, sees worth in each of us. We’re told, afterall, that while we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8). He saw something good to focus on, even if it was His own obscured image within us.
Seeking and Giving the Highest Good
As God’s image bearers here on earth, we too then have the ability to love and to learn to do it like our Heavenly Father. Our natural feeling-oriented ideas of love fail with most people. And yet we know that loving is what we are supposed to be doing. A question then is, does everyone and everything deserve the same level of love from us?
Because the very essence of God is love (1 John 4:8), He has wired us, His creation, with the capacity to not only give the highest good to others but to also seek the highest GOOD. Thus, there is something in me, and every human that has walked this earth, that searches for love – what I believe to be good enough to completely give the focus of my heart to. Everyone is on this hunt. We look for it in people, in experiences, in beauty, in politics, in power, and in God. And what exactly we zero in on depends on our interpretation of what is good. What we love, in the end, is what rules and directs our lives because it is what we will pursue and to what we will give the very best of ourselves.
What am I loving?
Is it worthy of my heart and my life?
And where will this love lead me in the end?
Jesus said it clearly: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38, NLT). God is the ultimate GOOD and therefore the One to whom we are to give our ultimate love. We are called to spend our lives exploring what that means and letting our love for Him deepen and solidify.
Loving to the Right Degree
But what about the other loves in my life? If God says I should love only Him because He jealously desires to be the one who receives my deepest attention and affections (Exodus 20:4-6), what does that mean for my relationships with my wife, my children, and other things and activities in my life that are good? Surely it’s not wrong to have other loving relationships? Of course there is the other great commandment: “A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, NLT). A Jesus follower is called to love people. And yet it is possible to love a person more than God, that is, to seek my highest good from relating to another human, expecting him or her to satisfy my deepest understanding of what is GOOD for me. There is no human relationship, however, that can actually do that.
I believe God will always want me to seek out and love the good I find around me. But the difference, as I see it, is that I love people and things for what they are. People are made in the image of God (and should be loved as such), and temporal things and experiences are finitely limited (and should be loved in a limited way). I love God, on the other hand, as my ultimate source of GOOD and fulfillment (because He is). When I get these confused, however, seeking to draw from people, experiences, and things my ultimate GOOD and satisfaction, I then create idols. And I will not be able to become what, or end up where, God intended with idols at the center of my life.
What I love and how I love it has eternal ramifications.
Merely knowing about God as my highest GOOD is not enough. I can memorize scripture, explain theology, and preach amazing sermons. But none of that is what will rule and direct the core of my being into Him. It’s only what I have allowed my heart to love (what I have given my highest good to) and from where I have sought the highest GOOD that will shape me in this life for eternity. He is the only One who can give me the GOOD I long for.
The word “love” can be used in many different ways. But there is only One you and I are called to love with all our hearts. Let’s not settle for a lesser love.