What is love?

Love is in the air. Either love, or the sound of cash registers at local flower shops; I’m not sure which. I kid, of course, about the cash registers. But there is confusion about the word “love,” and the confusion is not because love, with air-quotes around the word, has become so commercialized with Valentine’s Day, but because love, with air-quotes around the word, has become so watered-down or outright redefined that we no longer know what true love is.

What is love?

Is it just the feeling of physical attraction to someone, and the desire to romantically pursue that attraction? Is it something that someone quickly falls into and then just as quickly can fall out of? Is it a feeling, or an action? And if it’s an action, is there any feeling involved at all?

What is love?

One way we learn is by considering the opposite of something. If we consider what something isn’t, then we can learn about what that something is. Preschoolers learn that the opposite of short is tall, and the opposite of up is down, and the opposite of near is far, and the opposite of hard is soft, and by that they know some truths about what short means, or the meaning of up or near or hard.

So what is the opposite of love? The answer may surprise you.

From the great love chapter in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, we learn that the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is pride. Pride is seeking my own good, but love is seeking the good of others. Pride is putting myself first, but love puts others first. Pride is lifting myself up, but love lifts others up. Pride wants things my way, right now, but love is patient, and love doesn’t insist on its own ways. Pride gets upset when others have what I want, but love isn’t irritable, and love does not envy. Pride is boastful when my enemies fall, but love does not boast and love does not rejoice at wrongdoing. Pride takes the easy route, but love bears all things and believes all things and hopes all things and endures all things. Pride will quit when something is no longer benefiting me, but love never quits, love never fails, love never ends.

Consider these verses from 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

1 Corinthians 13:4–8

To be sure, 1 Corinthians 13 was written with the church in mind. This chapter is not about romance. It’s not a script for Hallmark movies, nor is it just meant to be words for a special day, like a wedding day. It’s words for every day. It’s a script for our lives. Primarily, it’s about how we live with one another in the church. To see that, we just need to remember who this letter is addressed to: “the church of God that is in Corinth” (1:1).

That said, it does have much to say about what we should mean every time we say the words, “I love you.” When a wife speaks these words to her husband, when a husband speaks these words to his wife, this is what they mean: I love you. I’m committing myself to be patient and kind toward you. I am committing myself to seek your good above my own. I’m committing myself to believing the best about you. I am committing myself to remain hopeful in all things pertaining to you and our marriage. I am promising you that I will endure in this love. My love for you will never end.

There are feelings in love; desire and passion and romantic feelings are a good thing in marriage. But one of the reasons marriages fail at the rate that they do is that we tend to believe the lie that marriages are built on those feelings. We practice for that as teenagers and young twentysomethings by building dating relationships on those feelings, casually throwing around the word “love” like it’s the same thing as “attraction” or it’s just a temporary relational phenomenon. But marriage is not built on feelings, because love is more than feelings. Feelings are good, but love is about a humble commitment to another. Love is about seeking the good of another. Love is about enduring.

The definition I’ve used along the way for love—and I believe that one could make the case from Scripture that this applies to love within the church community, love within the broader community, love within families, and love within marriages—is this: Love is a sacrificial commitment to another for his or her good as God defines it.

  • Love is a commitment, and it requires sacrifice. Love costs something.
  • Love is focused on the other. It is not self-serving. And it is a commitment to specific individuals. A vague idea of “I love everyone” without practically expressing that towards individuals is not love.
  • Since it is focused on the other, love seeks the good of the other person.
  • And love, if it is true love, seeks that person’s good as God defines it, not necessarily by that person’s desires or wishes in the moment.

All of this, marked by kindness, by warmth; marked by patience; marked by humility. When we say “I love you,” this is what we should mean.

Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.

Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash