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What love really is

What love really is

And why it is the essence of Christian living

What is love, when all is said and done?

We finished the first part our exploration of this surprisingly tricky question with more questions than answers. Perhaps Don Carson’s little book on The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God needs a counterpart: the difficult doctrine of the love of Christians.

But we did make some progress.

We figured out that love is deeply connected with goodness—with perceiving something to be good and reaching out to it, being inclined or attracted towards it, wanting to embrace it and enjoy it, and see it grow in its goodness or become the good thing it can be.

Love draws us out of ourselves to focus on some good beyond ourselves—whether that’s the good of a beautiful piece of music, or the good of seeing someone healed or fed or saved, or the ultimate good of the God who made all these goods. This is why love is the opposite not just of hate, but of selfishness and pride. Love rejoices in the truly good that we see beyond ourselves, for its own sake.

Good old St Augustine thought deeply about all this. He realised that love was really a kind of knowledge—an affective, heart-felt knowledge that not only understood intellectually that something was good but reached out towards it, yearned for it, and acted accordingly.

Love is of two kinds, he suggested: a rational (or affectionate) love that perceives and reaches for something good; and a benevolent love that acts upon that affection, that seeks the good for others rather than ourselves.

If this is the case, suggested Augustine, then true love depends on the true goodness of that which is loved. It depends on God’s own goodness, and on the good world that he has created, full of good things and good purposes. Love does not just arise within us as a sentiment or feeling; it relates to some real and good thing that we love. It requires an object or purpose that is truly good.

At a practical level we know this to be true. To be loving towards a person—to do something good or gracious or kind for them—requires us to know them and what would be good for them. The intention or motive to love, on its own, is not enough. To throw myself off a cliff to demonstrate ‘love’ for my wife is folly, not love. It seeks or achieves no good thing—quite the opposite. To throw myself in front of a bullet for her is indeed love, because it seeks to protect and prolong that good thing that I love so very much, which is her life.

For love to be real and true, it must constantly make judgements between good and evil. “Let love be genuine”, says Paul. “Abhor the evil, cleave to the good” (Rom 12:9). Without a true knowledge of what is good, it’s impossible to truly love.

This is why our world is so lost and confused about love. Our world has rejected the idea of something or someone being objectively good. Goodness now resides entirely in the eye and heart of the beholder. Whatever I love is good by definition because I have decided to love it, and who are you to tell me otherwise? Love is love.

But as Augustine famously pointed out, it’s impossible to truly love another person without understanding them as God’s creature, made in his image, made for his purposes, and made for fellowship with him.

“He truly loves his friend”, he wrote, “who loves God in his friend, either because God is in his friend, or that he may be so.”  (Confessions, 5.19)

Perhaps we are starting to see why faith is the foundation of love in the New Testament.

By faith, we receive in Jesus Christ a whole new understanding of reality. Our eyes are opened to comprehend what is truly good and evil, because we have left behind our nonsensical rejection of God, and the darkened mind that resulted from that. We come to see God and each other and the good (though fallen) order of the world all as they really are. We come to see God’s good purposes for the world in the kingdom of his Son, and to understand what we are for, and what other people are for, and what the world is for. We are released from our proud, selfish inwardness. We are set free to love—to love God and to love our neighbour.

Faith wakes us up to a new Christ-centred life that works itself out in love (as Gal 5:6 says). In Christ, God spreads a new table of true goodness in front of us, and invites us to love it.

Perhaps, after all this, we are getting closer to being able to say what love really is. How about this for a definition:

Based on and energised by faith in God’s revelation, love is the knowledgeable affection or admiration for a God-given good beyond ourselves, leading us to enjoy or participate in that good, and to act benevolently for its fulfilment.

You might want to chew over that definition at your leisure, and let me know how I could improve it. But here are some of its implications.

At the most basic level, it shows us what is happening when we love. We see someone lacking in some good thing—food, clothing, shelter, warmth, fellowship, encouragement—and because it would be for their good to receive that good thing, we gladly help them obtain it, even to our own cost. That is love. It sees a good, and acts to achieve it or fulfil.

In this basic example, the good we are seeking is a future possible good. It is something lacking or something in prospect. Benevolent love is like this—it acts to bring something good into being or to fruition.

This is why God’s love for the sinner in Jesus is the prime example of love for us to follow. God so loved the world not because we were already good but that we might become so through the atoning death of his Son. He was seeking a glorious good that he had planned since before the foundation of the world, when “in love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5). As the classic Easter hymn puts it:

My song is love unknown,
my Saviour’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.

Moreover, God’s love not only shows us what true love is like—it sets us on a new path of love by setting us free to love others, as he has loved us.

This understanding of love also clarifies why it is the capstone of Christian virtue, and why all the laws of the Old Testament and all the Spirit-given character traits of the New, are summed up by ‘love’. “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:10).

For example, patience is that aspect of love that is prepared to pursue and wait for the good over time, knowing that in this fallen world, it is often elusive or slow to arrive. Gentleness is that aspect of love that restrains and directs my strength for the good of others who might be overpowered by it. And so on.

When I think of the words ‘godliness’ or even ‘holiness’, I sometimes think of them (quite wrongly) as an almost solitary pursuit—as if they relate solely to the quality of my quiet time, the purity of my thoughts, the integrity of my actions, the truthfulness of my words, and so on. The primacy of ‘love’ reminds us that the holy and godly life we now seek to live is outwardly-focused. It’s a loving pursuit of what is truly good for all those around me.

And finally, this understanding of love shows us that there can be no artificial distinction between ‘love’ as the basic shape of Christian character, and ‘ministry’ as the basic activity of Christian fellowship. The gospel reveals the ultimate good that is found in God and in the kingdom of his crucified and risen Son—and so we speak the truth in love to everyone around us in order to build Christ’s body. We want to see everyone around us come to know Christ, and to become strong in faith, love and hope in him, because that is the great ‘good’ of all our lives. It’s what we were all made for.

Love is “the more excellent way” that shapes all Christian activity. It’s the zealous pursuit of love, according to Paul in 1 Cor 14, which should drive all of us to seek and practise mutually encouraging word ministry (of which prophecy is the classic example).

But I can see my ‘one-another-edifying-speech’ hobby horse sidling up to me at this point, and begging me to go riding, which means it’s time to conclude.

Love—rightly understood—is a superb summary of the new life that arises from faith in Christ. Faith without love is dead. And true love without faith is impossible.


Incidentally, I wonder if understanding ‘love’ more clearly in this way also helps us to understand hate—not simply as a visceral emotion but as a turning away from the good, seeking its opposite (harm or evil). To hate someone is not only to be repelled by them, but to act accordingly—to push them away from us (rather than try to embrace them), and to seek their harm. Like love, hatred is not just an emotion. It’s an ‘affection’ of the heart leading to malevolent rather than benevolent action.

Thanks for your ongoing support and encouragement. Please spread the love (so to speak) by sharing The Payneful Truth with others—maybe choose a post or two and forward it onto your Bible study group?


Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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