“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And [Jesus] said to [the lawyer], “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39)
But what is love?
How many times have you heard First Corinthians chapter 13 used at weddings? It is the go-to passage describing love in sixteen ways. But is it really a thorough definition? I suggest it is not the whole picture. Each statement in it is true, but love can only be defined after looking at the heart of God revealed in Jesus and throughout the Bible.
The world has established a confusing, fallen equilibrium around “love”—even the Christian world. We tend to muddle it with liking people. Weddings remind us of the romantic kind. Then there’s the idea of tolerance. So long as we avoid the most obvious sins and abuses we can accept little weaknesses, can’t we? After all, doesn’t First Corinthians say, “love is patient, love is kind . . . does not take into account a wrong . . . endures all things.”? You are free to do your peccadilloes so long as I am free to enjoy my peccadilloes. If you “love” me you must accept that agreement. You are even free to become more like Jesus, but don’t challenge me or, well, I might have to crucify you.
Surely love does better than that popular version. I would suggest that healthy love focuses on what’s best for the other person. That is not to say that we know the best for them. Love’s context is always relationship; two people approach a knowledge of each other’s best through dialogue. Only God really knows.
So, I suggest a definition: Love is seeking the best for a person with the understanding that the best is always found in relationship with God.
Love often gets frustrated. Not everyone trusts us. The sixteen points of First Corinthians are foundations; practicing them builds trust and smoothes relationships. But, even if people trust us, not everyone wants God’s way. And love never forces the best.
The definition also applies to loving ourselves. What is best for me is found in relationship with God. I am alert to some obstacles. Sin and self-abuse obviously distance me from God. What about the cloud of unknown factors whose influence could be healthy or unhealthy? That is where we need to live Jesus’ way, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8). Instead of blindly grabbing for what somehow seems best, we should surrender to the Lord and invite Him to give His best. Sadly, God’s love often gets frustrated, too.
The definition works for God loving us, and for us loving ourselves and other people, but not for us loving God. He does not need our help and cannot improve anyway. Instead, our love is shown by obedience. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Full obedience requires heart, soul and mind; it indicates that we give Him the highest place and trust Him. That allows God’s desire for our best to bear fruit. Our receiving His love and becoming what He intended delights Him. We love Him by accepting His love for us.
Jesus modeled love for God. He gently refused to follow the world’s way. He lived in childlike dependency on the Father. He embraced what the Father was doing as the best for Him. “Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.” (Phil. 2:9)