13 January 2016


I had to resist the temptation to title this after one of many, many musical clichés.

My pastor likes to sing Foreigner’s 1984 song, “I Want to Know What Love Is.” He thinks it’s a good example of how the wider American culture really doesn’t know what love is. He’s not wrong. When we hear people speaking of love—in movies, in songs, on talk shows, analyzed in books—it usually falls under one of eight categories.

Seriously, eight. A lot of Christians know about C.S. Lewis’s 1960 book The Four Loves. Haven’t read it, but they sure do know about it, which is why a lot of them are mighty surprised when I bring up eight loves. “Thought there were only four.” Nope. In The Four Loves Lewis went through four ancient Greek words—storgí, fílos, éros, and agápi— which we translate “love,” then analyzed those concepts from the point of view of—I’m gonna be blunt now—a rather bookish introvert who’s read more poetry than gone on dates. I expect this book would’ve been way different after Lewis’s marriage.

There’s actually a fifth ancient Greek word, xenía, which Lewis overlooked. It’s kind of an important concept, and I included it in the list below, as #5. But Lewis’s four first.

  1. Affection (storgí), the “natural love” we feel towards familiar people—how parents feel towards their kids, childhood friends feel towards one another, people feel towards friendly neighbors, owners feel towards pets.
  2. Friendship (fílos), the “love” we feel for people who share our interests—we like doing certain things with them, and like them because of it.
  3. Romance (éros), “being in love”—the intense pleasure taken in another person. Ranges from harmless crushes, to the extreme cases of lust and obsession—which see #8.
  4. Charity (agápi), unconditional, benevolent, self-sacrificing, gracious love. The sort of love God is, 1Jn 4.8, 16 the sort of love the Spirit grows in us, Ga 5.22 the love Paul describes. 1Co 13.4-8 “Biblical love.”
  5. Hospitality (xenía), conditional love, or as I like to call it, fake love. Looks exactly like charity. But it expects to be compensated—with gratitude at the least, profit at the most.
  6. Favoritism, the love we have for favorite things: Beloved foods, clothes, TV shows, cities we visit, sports, songs, musicians, politicians, etc.
  7. Narcissism, the love we have for ourselves, which comes from our self-preservation instinct. Can be used as a gauge of how we oughta love others, Lv 19.18 but more often than not turns into pure selfishness.
  8. Infatuation, lust or obsessive love. Whenever any of the above escalates into the jealous desire to possess the one they love. By this point outsiders, disturbed by how it looks, try to call this anything but love, but the infatuated person still calls it love.

Your own dictionary and thesaurus will likely list more than eight definitions. You may even look at my categories and figure I could’ve lumped them together even more. (Or less.) That’s fair. Some do overlap. Debate it all you like. My point is to show you the many things we English-speakers mean by “love.”

Paul’s definition.

Same as our culture, the ancient Corinthians had a bunch of definitions of “love” which slid off the mark. And they were pretty sure they did know. Corinth, y’see, was known for worshiping Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. So they, of all people, oughta know what love meant. Paul had to write his description in order to show them no, they really didn’t.

1 Corinthians 13.4-8 KWL
4 Love has patience. Love behaves kindly. It doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion.
It doesn’t draw attention to how great it is. It doesn’t exaggerate.
5 It doesn’t ignore others’ considerations. It doesn’t look out for itself. It doesn’t provoke behavior.
It doesn’t plot evil. 6 It doesn’t delight in doing wrong: It delights in truth.
7 It puts up with everything, puts trust in everything,
puts hope in everything, survives everything. 8 Love never falls down.

In most translations this passage is rendered, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” etc. 1Co 13.4-5 NRSV That’s not a bad translation, but using “is” so often gives people the sense Paul described love with adjectives. He didn’t. He used verbs. He listed things love does. English lacks a single word for the verb makrothymí/“has patience”; or the verb hristévete/“behaves kindly”—hence all the adjectives. Consequently we get the wrong idea that love is something, and not so much that it does something. Love is active, not passive.

Paul’s definition was corrective, ’cause the Corinthians, same as our culture, had the usual wrong ideas of love.

  • “Love has patience”—whereas our culture can’t wait. It’s now or never.
  • “Love behaves kindly”—we’ll do all sorts of rude and crude and thoughtless things in love’s name, and insist love means never having to say you’re sorry. And don’t get me started on “tough love.”
  • “Love doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion”—love is nothing but out-of-control emotion, wild and unstable, here today and gone tomorrow.
  • “Love doesn’t draw attention to how great it is”—whereas just about every single one of our pop songs extols the greatness and glory of love.
  • “Love doesn’t exaggerate”—whereas lovers offer to climb the highest mountains, swim the deadliest seas, and sacrifice their futures for love. And never really do.
  • “Love doesn’t ignore others’ considerations”—whereas people in love will ignore all their friends, and sacrifice those relationships for their beloved.
  • “Love doesn’t look out for itself”—of course it does.
  • “Love doesn’t provoke behavior”—we’ll lie, cheat, and steal for it.
  • “Love doesn’t plot evil”—we’ll ruin other people’s relationships and marriages for it.
  • “Love doesn’t delight in doing wrong”—but “if loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.”
  • “Love delights in truth”—whereas people will tell their loved ones all sorts of lies, just to protect their feelings, just to keep the romance going.
  • “Love puts up with everything”—until it doesn’t.
  • “Love puts trust in everything”—until you realize your lover is a lying weasel, and you decide you can’t forgive ’em anymore.
  • “Love puts hope in everything”—until reality sets in.
  • “Love survives everything”—tell that to our divorce rate.
  • “Love never falls down”—it wears off after a few years, and people end things because there’s just no hope of getting it back once it’s gone.

You see how our culture has love completely backwards? Corinth was no different. When you read the myths about Aphrodite, you discover she was flighty and unstable. She demanded ridiculous things for “love,” and her emotions turned on a dime. All throughout history, love’s been depicted the very same way. Even today. Watch any present-day romantic comedy.

And none of that is what Paul, or the scriptures, or God, meant by love. God is love, and we define love by God’s character: Love isn’t temporary or unstable, because God isn’t temporary or unstable. Love has patience, behaves kindly, acts hopeful and faithful, because God has patience, behaves kindly, and acts hopeful and faithful. The reason true Christians produce the fruit of love is because God’s own character overflows into our lives, and produces the very same behavior.

Love is a noun.

Thanks to the 1994 DC Talk song “Luv is a Verb,” you’re gonna hear a lot of preachers claim love isn’t a noun, but a verb. We don’t have love, but commit love. We love.

They wanna emphasize the active nature of love. As we should. But come on people, “love” is also a noun. Basic grammar, folks. A noun is a person, place, object, or concept. Jesus is a person, the airport is a place, robots are objects, strength is a concept. None of those four items are passive: Jesus, the airport, robots, and strength, all act. As does love. Love acts patiently. Love does what’s kind. Still a noun though.

Paul used the verb agapá’o twice in 1 Corinthians, but the noun agápi 14 times—and used only the noun in chapter 13. When he described love, he was describing the noun. He described it with verbs, but still: Noun.

When we claim “Love’s not a noun,” we reveal two things: First, we didn’t pay a lot of attention to our grammar classes. Second, in our haste to talk about how love is active, we’re a little too quick to dismiss other things which are also love—and in so doing, add to Paul’s definition, or take away from it. Which is never wise.

It’s important for love to be a noun. Certain teachings from the scriptures, from Jesus, require us to possess love, and hold onto it ’cause it’s important. Fr’instance: “The love you have with one another will prove to the world you’re my disciples.” Jn 13.35 Or “Remain in my love.” Jn 15.9 The Holy Spirit fills our hearts with God’s love. Ro 5.5 Nothing is meant to separate us from this love. Ro 8.35, 39 This love oughta be sincere, Ro 12.9 do no evil, Ro 13.10 and build people up. 1Co 8.1 And we should pursue it. 1Co 14.1

When we don’t possess love, we might perform some of the acts which love does. It’s possible to act patiently, or pursue truth, even though there’s no love involved. But here’s the problem: When we act without love, we botch things. 1Co 13.1-3 We do ’em for corrupt, self-centered reasons. Like patiently wait for our evil plans to unfold. Or pursue truth so we can use it as a weapon. Reducing love to a verb doesn’t take our motives into account, and our motives can be totally depraved. We need to possess love in order to act in love.

Lastly, God is love. And God may be almighty, but he’s no verb.

Love is an emotion.

Again, preachers will claim love isn’t an emotion. Because love, as Paul defined it, requires a certain amount of conscious thought, not the usual knee-jerk reactions our culture confuses with love.

They mess this up because most of these reactions are the wrong emotions. You know: Impatience, unkindness, jealousy, possessiveness, rudeness, and so on. Wholly inappropriate behavior for Christians. But the proper correction isn’t, “Love isn’t an emotion.” Rather it’s, “Love isn’t that emotion.”

Jesus felt compassion. Mk 8.2, Lk 7.13 The Greek word is splakhnídzomi/“feel it in one’s guts.” Obviously that’s an emotion. And it’s a form of love: You’re unhappy to see people suffering, and you wanna right the wrongs.

Love rejoices in the truth. Joy’s an emotion too, y’know.

There are all sorts of emotions connected with proper, godly love. We should feel them. I’d be downright disturbed by an emotionless form of love. So should we all. A person who claims to act in love, yet feels nothing—who’s only doing it out of obligation or duty—is clearly doing it wrong. Or lacks the Holy Spirit, ’cause where’s the Spirit’s joy? If we’re not tapping God’s joy, if we’re going through the motions under our own steam, that’s dead religion, folks. It ain’t good.

So love is an emotion. But let’s be careful about which emotions we’re talking about. We can’t trust our emotions. We gotta make sure our feelings aren’t getting confused with God, and tainting our good works. Self-control, people. If the “love” we feel doesn’t produce the actions of 1 Corinthians 13, or any of the other fruit of the Spirit, we still need to adjust.

But when the love we feel does produce all these things, we’ve calibrated our love rightly. Stay vigilant. Keep comparing your actions to the scriptures, and you’ll do fine. But “love isn’t an emotion”? Wrong. Love is a great emotion.

Stick with Paul’s definition.

I’ve heard a lot of loopy sermons based on the idea of overlaying our culture’s ideas of love onto bible verses. Fr’instance one preacher claimed “Love your neighbor” Lv 19.18 means we need to pursue a close, intimate friendship with every single one of the people in our apartment buildings or housing developments. We should all be the bestest of best friends. With everyone.

Frankly this is nuts. We should love them—be patient with them, kind to them, look out for them—but develop close personal relationships with everyone on the block? Can’t be done. Even if we had that much time and put in that much effort: Some of them are [asinine rectums] and are never gonna do any more with us than use and abuse. They’re not trustworthy. They’re not safe. Don’t befriend them.

Yeah, Jesus befriended sinners. Lk 15.2 But he wasn’t close with them, for he knew what sort of people they were. Jn 2.24-25 We need to exercise the same sort of wisdom when it comes to certain people. It’s far easier for sinners to lead us astray, than for us to lead sinners aright.

“Love your enemy” Lk 6.35 exposes just how dumb this instruction is. Then we see the foolishness of trying to have warm fuzzy feelings towards them. (Although some have tried. Like I said, I’ve heard the sermons.)

So how do we love our neighbors, our enemies—basically everybody? Stick with Paul’s definition. Behave like love does. Impatient? That’s not love; don’t do that. Jealous? That’s not love; don’t do that. Overwhelmed by passion? That’s not love; don’t do that. Shouting from the rooftops? That’s not love; don’t do that.

What’s more, don’t justify such behavior, like pagans will: “But I’m doing it out of love.” That’s not love. Love is self-controlled. Love isn’t possessive. Love doesn’t demand undue attention or outrageous devotion. When you see these non-loving behaviors, recognize ’em for the carnal desires they are. Ask the Holy Spirit for help in weeding them out of your life.

I realize for some folks, they’ll have to do a complete 360-degree turn in their mindset about love. It won’t be easy. But once you get the hang of actual love, the other fruits of the Spirit come much, much faster. Paul likely listed love first Ga 5.22 because the other fruits are so dependent upon it. When we’re deficient in love, of course we’ll be deficient in the others. So make it a priority.