“Love is a verb.”

by K.W. Leslie, 29 April

From time to time you’re gonna hear a preacher claim love isn’t a noun, but a verb.

dc Talk singing “Luv Is a Verb.” Yeah, this was the state of Christian hip hop in the ’90s. Sad. dc Talk

Largely I blame dc Talk’s 1992 song “Luv Is a Verb,” in which they looked up love in a dictionary and were apparently gobsmacked to discover yep, it’s a verb.

Pullin’ out my big black book
’Cause when I need a word defined, that’s where I look
So I move to the L’s quick, fast, in a hurry
Threw on my specs; thought my vision was blurry
I looked again but to my dismay
It was black and white with no room for gray
Ya see, a big V stood beyond my word
And yo, that’s when it hit me, that luv is a verb

Lots to pick apart there.

  • Other Christian songs can talk about the death and resurrection of Christ, the atonement of humanity, the forgiveness of sins, and salvation itself, in one verse. But dc Talk needed the entire first verse to talk about using a dictionary. It’s not a deep song, yo.
  • Seeing as dictionaries list many common definitions of the word “love,” there’s plenty of room for gray. So what is there to be dismayed about?
  • Didn’t hit him that love is a verb till he saw the V, meaning “verb,” in its listing. So… he never used the word as a verb before? As in “I love this audience”? “I’d love another taco”? “I love Jesus yes I do, I love Jesus, how ’bout you”?
  • Apparently the dictionary’s the absolute authority when it comes to parts of speech. Not so much spelling; they kept using “luv.”

But enough mocking a 28-year-old Christian hip hop oldie. The song’s about how love is a verb, and we Christians oughta exercise Jesus-type love. But nowhere in the song does it say, “Love’s a verb, not a noun.” It never denies the nounhood of “love.” It only reminds us the word’s also a verb, and therefore oughta be practiced.

Leaping from “Love is a verb” to “Love is a verb, not a noun” is adding an idea to the song which isn’t there. You know, like we Christians too often do with bible verses. Next we wind up defending our additional ideas instead of the original text, utterly lose the point of the original text… and forget to be Christlike while we’re at it, which is a whole other article.

Yes, love is a verb. And a noun. It’s both. Elevate both.

You’re gonna see both in the bible.

Those of us who’ve studied biblical Greek, as well as those of us who’ve maybe cracked open a Strong’s concordance and dictionary, know Greek has both noun and verb forms of the word.

  • The noun, you’ve likely heard of. It’s ἀγάπη/aghápi (which Americans tend to transliterate agape). It appears 116 times in the New Testament.
  • The verb is ἀγαπάω/aghapáo, “to love,” which appears 143 times (142 in the Textus Receptus).

Basic grammar review: 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. Now, none of those four items are passive. Jesus, the airport, robots, and strength, all act. As does love. Love has patience; love behaves kindly. 1Co 13.4 Still a noun though.

When Paul and Sosthenes wrote 1 Corinthians, they used the verb aghapáo twice, but the noun aghápi 14 times. Nine of those times are in chapter 13, where they defined it:

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. 8A Love never falls down.

Note they defined love using verbs, not adjectives: How it behaves, not what its characteristics are. English translations tend to use adjectives, like the NIV’s “Love is patient, love is kind,” 1Co 13.4 NIV because English doesn’t have convenient one-word verbs for μακροθυμεῖ/makrothymeí, “has patience” and χρηστεύεται/hristévete, “behaves kindly.” My translation tried to avoid adjectives because the apostles didn’t use ’em.

And again: Just because we define aghápi with verbs, doesn’t make it a verb. Same as defining a noun with adjectives doesn’t turn it into an adjective.

Preachers wanna emphasize the active nature of love. As we should. But come on people, “love” is also a noun.

Love gone askew.

Whenever we claim love’s not a noun, we reveal two things.

First, and the most problematic of the two: We’re letting pop songs determine our belief systems.

That’s not a new problem; it’s a very old one. Music, especially for people who love music, gets into our heads really easily. As do the lyrics. People are regularly surprised to discover they actually know all the lyrics to pop songs—they can even sing along to it!—even years later. Those words managed to worm their way into our subconscious.

Sometimes that’s neat… and sometimes that’s disturbing, because there are a lot of things in our subconscious which we’ve grown to unthinkingly accept. Advertisers definitely take advantage of this, and try to make sure we’ve heard their slogans and catchphrases so they can influence us to buy their product.

When a Christian pop musicians write a bit of fluff, hoping it’ll get played on K-LOVE and sell a bunch of downloads, they’re generally hoping the same thing: They want the music and lyrics to be catchy, and make you want to listen to it even more, and buy it and play it on your phone or iPod all day long. And you might. But same as any pop song, those words’ll get in you… and influence you in unexpected ways.

I’ve already written on problematic worship music. I needn’t go into that again. I should just remind you to take those subconsciously-memorized lyrics out of your subconscious and take a good hard look at them: What are the musicians saying? And is it good stuff?—or is it really bad theology, which needs correction before it leads you in the wrong directions?

Second, and importantly: In our haste to talk about how love is active, we’re a little too quick to dismiss other things which are also love. It’s important for love to be a noun.

Certain teachings from the scriptures, from Jesus himself, require us to possess love, and hold onto it ’cause it’s important:

  • “The love you have with one another will prove to the world you’re my disciples.” Jn 13.35
  • “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 God’s love. Ro 8.35, 39
  • Our love oughta be sincere, Ro 12.9 do no evil, Ro 13.10 and build people up. 1Co 8.1
  • We should pursue love! 1Co 14.1

When we don’t possess love, we might perform some of the same acts which love does. It’s possible to act patiently, or pursue truth, even when 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 a criminal patiently waiting for his evil plans to unfold. Or a person researching the truth so she 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 himself is love. 1Jn 4.8, 16 And God may be almighty, but he’s no verb.