Friday, September 20, 2019

What is Love?

What is Love?

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. [1 John 4:7-8 (NKJV)]

What is Love? A simple four-letter word that confuses. Because of its misuse, it can result in conflict, heartbreak, and disaster when it should be ushering in peace and joy. The word love, itself, may be the most misunderstood word in the English language.  

What does it mean to you? 

It depends upon your experience. How do you explain a rainbow to a man blind from birth? The rainbow is more than a colorful arch in the sky. When you hear the word dog, what images come to mind? Some will imagine a cute puppy with
a wagging tail, while another might be stricken with fear as they imagine an angry vicious animal prepared to attack.

Words are merely symbols - elements of a language - that we use to communicate. Communications is a two-way street. One person - the sender - wishes to express an idea to another - the receiver. Each has a secret code ring. The sender encodes his idea or thought into words he feels express his thoughts accurately, but then the recipient must decode those words into his own thoughts. If the sender’s idea is to be interpreted accurately by the recipient, they must both be using the same code book. This seems like a simple process, but just look at the political climate in the world today.  Different people seldom use the same codebook. Codebooks are learned through experience and  personal history. A simple act of a gentleman opening the car door for a lady may become an utter disaster. While the gentleman believes that he is showing love by his actions, an emancipated woman may see it as an insulting stereotypical action of a male chauvinist.

So it is with the word love. We have attempted to define love in popular songs, motion pictures, and romantic fiction. But, if we are truly honest, most of us would define love in terms of getting our own needs met. Even generous acts of giving to others are often based upon an expectation of what we will receive in return. When someone offers us attention, significance, or pleasure, we eagerly give with the expectation that we will get what we so desperately need. But that is not love - that is selfish and manipulative. How can you understand love if you have never experienced it?

Early church monastic, St John Climacus, examines the means of ascending to the highest degree of religious perfection by a series of thirty steps, which recall the thirty years of the life of Christ, the most holy example of religious perfection. From step thirty we read;

"The angels know how to discuss love, but even they are only able to do this according to their level of understanding. God is love, so the one who desires to describe this, attempts with dim eyes to weigh the sand in the sea. Love, from its very essence, is the likeness of God. As much as it possible for humans, in its action it is intoxication of the soul, and through its unique characteristic it is a spring of faith, and abyss of long-suffering, an ocean of lowliness. Love is fundamentally the exile of all opposing thoughts, for love thinks nothing evil."[1]

In the Gospel of John,[2] Jesus reveals the Father's love as He encounters a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Jesus asks the woman for a drink. Jewish religious leaders were not permitted to ever speak to women - especially women who were immoral. This particular woman had had five husbands and was living with a man that was not her husband. She had failed utterly in her search for love.

Jesus initiates a relationship with her for the purpose of showing her real love. He describes His loving presence as "Living Water" that will satisfy and become her spring of love welling up to eternal life. As they talk, Jesus reveals that He knows her sin. But more importantly he knows her hunger for love. He points out her five failed marriages, and her current live-in boyfriend, but does not use her sin and brokenness against her. He sees her as a person with a true and deep hunger for a love that won’t fail her. Jesus knows the true desires of her heart. He seeks to satisfy her desire with a love that comes from heaven. That love from heaven is more real and relevant to her needs than any human could provide.

Jesus declares, "I am the bread of life, he who comes to me will never be hungry, and He who believes in me will never be thirsty.

The Apostle, Paul, wrote letters of instruction, encouragement, and correction to the churches to which he had oversight. To the church at Corinth he wrote on love;

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails[3]

If you dare to assess your ability to give and receive love insert your name in place of “Love” and read this passage.

 _______ suffers long and is kind; ______ does not envy; ______ does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. _______ never fails.

A good definition of love is "Giving to someone beyond what one is getting in return." Love involves giving beyond oneself. It means putting another's needs ahead of our own. Love is "the freedom to see beyond oneself in order to see another." not to see them as an object to meet my personal need. Love sees another as a person worthy of love.

Growing up in a family with stoic Northern European ancestry, there was little outward manifestations of love. Showing emotion or affection, while not discouraged, was not modeled. The word “Love” itself was reserved for things like chocolate cake and ice cream. Acceptance was given when you worked hard, obeyed, and stayed out of trouble. You worked hard to gain acceptance. I do not recall hearing the words, “I love you.” addressed to me, and I don’t recall speaking them to someone else.

The first time I said, “I love you” was to my future wife. Recently on the occasion of our anniversary, my wife asked me if I remembered when I first told her I loved her. It would have been an outstanding event because it was the first time I said those words and meant them. But, I still had no idea what love really meant. 

How can you understand love if you have never experienced it?

If our idea of "love" is restricted to an unhappy, dysfunctional or abusive relationship, then the fact that "God is love!" presents a false image of God. However, understanding true love presents a more realistic vision of God. 

Jesus, as God, presents us the reality and true definition of love!  

[excerpted from my forthcoming book, "Love Like Jesus."]

[1] The Ladder of Devine Ascent, St John Climacus
[2] John 4:1-26
[3] 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (NKJV)

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