By Keith Storment
What is “this thing called love”? Our society bandies about the word “love” with careless abandon. We hear people speak of loving their dogs, their cars, their husbands or wives, and last night’s meal. Folks fall in love, make love, then fall out of love. Did the Bible writers have this in mind when they stressed the importance of love in our lives as Christians? A current song gets very close to the Bible definition of love when it states: “Love isn’t some- thing we’re in — it’s something that we do . . .”
True Love Is Active Goodwill
To arrive at this definition for Bible love, we need only look at love as the Bible writers use the word. The love that God possessed was not a gushy “butterflies in the stomach” emotion. Rather, God’s great love compelled him to act decisively for our salvation (John 3:16).
The love which God has shown us teaches us how to love each other (1 John 4:10-11). As with the love of God, our love is not to be a mushy sentimentalism expressed in flowery words, but an active force in our day-to-day dealings with others (1 John 3:18). Love would move us literally to give our life on behalf of another (v. 16). On a daily basis, love should compel us to put self on the shelf and open ourselves to the physical and spiritual needs of others (v. 17).
So, looking at both human and divine love, we see that love is not an emotion we fall into and out of. Rather, love makes a conscious decision to do what is best for others without regard for their worthiness or our personal cost. True love, biblical love, sees the needs of others and acts to meet those needs, if at all possible. As another popular song states, “Love doesn’t count the cost.”
Who Should We Love?
Matthew 22 provides a good outline on whom we are to love. Asked to name the supreme law, Jesus replied with the Old Testament command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind ” (vv. 35-37). Jesus then ranked a second command along with this paramount duty: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39). According to Jesus, human love knows three primary objects: God, our fellow man, and ourselves. We need to make certain we observe the right priority in loving each of these. Many spiritual problems arise in our lives when we place the interests of self or others ahead of pleasing God.
God: The Object of My Supreme Love
While on earth, Jesus taught that we must love him so strongly and deeply that the fondest of earthly loves becomes hatred by comparison. Otherwise we cannot be his disciples (Luke 14:26). But how can we show our love for God? After all, God does not need anything from us in the sense that he will be impoverished if we fail to provide it (Acts 17:24-25).
We demonstrate our love for God by placing the things of God supreme in our priorities. When I seek the kingdom of God (his church) and her interests first (Matt. 6:33), I am showing my love for God. When I love the word of God (Ps. 119:97), when I study, meditate, and learn from the Scriptures, when I seek opportunities to teach the gospel to others, when I am willing to defend the truth against its foes, I am evidencing the deep, supreme love I have for God. If I truly love God, I will seek to learn his will and obey that will in all things (1 John 5:2, 3).
Loving My Neighbor: The Secondary Objects of My Love
Who are my neighbors? Are they just the people who live next door to me? Are they only those people who are just like me, with whom I share a bond of common inter- ests, likes and dislikes? When a certain lawyer asked this question of Jesus, he turned the question around, and in one of his best known illustrations taught us to consider to whom we should be a neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-36). In the same way, the neighbor we are to love is anyone whose needs we are in a position to meet. Specifically, we are to love our fellow Christians. Jesus commands us to “love one another” (John 13:35). Paul strove to show the Corinthians this “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 13:30). Husbands are commanded to love their wives (Eph. 5:25), and wives should be taught to love their husbands (Tit. 2:4). Difficult as it may seem, Jesus even commands us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). This would be almost impossible to do if love were a warm, fuzzy feeling. We all would have a difficult time feeling warm and fuzzy about someone who has inflicted (or sought to inflict) some injury upon us. But if we understand love’s biblical meaning of active goodwill to others, then we all can strive to do good even for those who hate us (Rom. 12:19-21).
Loving Myself: The Final Object of Love
Are we really to love ourselves? Just recently in a letter to the editor of a religious publication, a man said he “found no command in the entire Bible to love myself.” He writes that to teach love of self contradicts Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 that one of the marks of the last days is those who are “lovers of self.” Certainly this passage presents some difficulties to the concept of loving self, and needs to be dealt with. But first, is there no command to love self in the entire Bible? It depends on how hard one is willing to look.
If one is seeking a specific passage that explicitly says, “You shall love yourself,” I agree. To the best of my knowledge, no such passage exists. But God certainly implies that we are to love ourselves. The Lord commands us to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Matt. 22:39). But if I am not to love myself at all, how am I to love my neighbor? Paul commands husbands to “love their own wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28). Again, if self-love is completely forbidden, how are husbands to love their wives? The same verse goes on to say “he who loves his own wife loves himself.” So perhaps husbands ought to stop loving their wives since that’s the same as loving themselves, and we all know how bad that is!
So by implication, God does command us to love our- selves. Now, have we found a contradiction with 2 Timothy 3:2 that condemns loving self? We find one solution in the lexicons where the word “love” in 2 Timothy 3:2 is not the same word “love” used in Matthew 22. We find the best solution in the context. In verse 5, Paul uses the phrase “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.” The phrase “lovers of pleasure” is identical in construction to all the other “loves” condemned in this passage. Paul now pinpoints what is wrong with each one of them. We do not sin in just loving money, self, or pleasure. We sin when we love these things more than we love God. When we take one or all of these things and make them our substitute god, we fail to observe the proper order in our love: God must rank supreme over all other loves in our lives, including the love of self.
How can I properly love self? I must not allow selfishness and greed to rule my life, but I do need to cherish and protect the life God has given me. Love demands that I sacrifice my life if faithfulness to God demands it. Love asks that I be willing to lose my life in protecting the life of another. But I certainly should not recklessly cast my life away either by suicide or by indulging in those practices that I know will endanger my health.
Love plays a critical role in the life of the Christian. The immeasurable, indescribable love of God has made it possible for us to have this wonderful life. With the thought of serving God ever foremost in our minds, we should reach out in love to those around us, seeking to meet their need for salvation through the gospel, and in all things seek to emulate Jesus in “going about doing good” (Acts 10:38).