What is love?
As I write this, it’s hard for me to not think about the dance track “What is Love” written by Trinidadian-German singer, Haddaway. I was 16 when this chart topping song hit the airwaves. I never thought much about the lyrics despite the song being played everywhere at the time. This track eventually ended up as part of a skit on the popular television show “Saturday Night Live” in the late 90s. The skit was centered around a couple of male, adult losers who sought out women in night clubs only to be constantly rejected. It was later followed by a film version called “Night at the Roxbury”. While I have to admit the film and the skit were both beyond ridiculous, the question what is love is a very serious one. There’s a saying that there’s always a sliver of truth in all jokes. And I believe it.
When you really think about it, this question can be very hard to answer. And depending on who you ask, you may receive different answers. For some, love is a willingness to sacrifice or put others first. Love can also be perceived as only an abstract concept humans developed to define a certain set of behaviors. These behaviors, such as being kind, sacrificing and giving are necessary for a society to thrive. And so at the end of the day love isn’t a real thing. Instead it’s a necessary behavioral asset required to thwart off extinction. If you’re a Christian you may define love as what Yeshua (Jesus) accomplished by going to the cross. Then there are those who believe love is nothing more than an intimate feeling initiated by the limbic system in the brain. And if you were to ask a young child they would most likely be dumbfounded as they search for a coherent answer.
Now here’s the thing. When we think about love it’s typically through the perspective of our nature as created beings. Meaning our understanding comes from our experiences as humans. Which to no surprise is a very narrow perspective. I think this makes it easier for us to put love in a nice little box and slap a bow on it. We toss the word around as if we fully understand what it means with all of its implications. But the closer I’ve grown in relationship to God I’ve learned my understanding has always fallen short. Like everything in life, I attempt to view things rationally; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But true love teeters on the edge of irrationality. It’s not as neat, rational and simple as we make it out to be. And perhaps we as humans perceive love this way because we like neat, rational and simple things. Or maybe we do it because we don’t fully understand the true depths of love. In fact I'd argue true love can actually be terrifying.
If you’ve been around the Christian Faith long enough you’ve undoubtedly heard the word love associated with the greatest sacrifice on the cross. The following is most likely very familiar to you:
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life - John 3:16 (ESV)
Here’s another that may be just as familiar:
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. - John 15:12–13 (ESV)
While I agree that sacrificing your own life for another is the pinnacle of expressing one’s love, I’ve come to learn this doesn’t fully do God justice. In fact I believe if we attempt to define love solely on the basis of God’s sacrifice on the cross we’ll fail to fully understand God’s love. Reason being is because this familiar narrative only speaks of God’s love as one dimensional. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in any way minimizing the sacrifice on the cross. That’s foolishness. What I am saying, is that there’s even more to understand concerning God’s love than this great sacrifice. And that is mind-blowing! There is simply no end to learning about God!
When you think about love I don’t want you to only go long; thinking of the single greatest act to hang your hat on. I want you to also go deep. I want you to think about love from God’s perspective and its impact on Him. Not just you. Think multidimensional. Christian or not, we all often think about love as a one-way street between God and us. In my experience speaking with Christians and those who are not, God’s love falls into two distinct categories. God loves humanity because He’s God and He should since He kicked off this whole thing called life. Or, God loves humanity because He’s a Father and fathers should love their children. In both scenarios God is the very essence of love. And in both scenarios it’s all about us. But now, I’d like for you to view God’s love from His perspective so you can begin to maximize your understanding of love. We’ll just cover a couple of scenarios to keep this short.
Love is optional
When God kicked this whole show into orbit He did something that wasn’t required. He kicked the whole show into orbit! There was a time when the Heavens and Earth didn’t exist. God made a conscious decision to bring life into existence and with that, choice. When God created life with choice He did it with the willingness to be rejected. Meaning, God was willing to allow His own creation to reject Him.
Do you remember the forbidden tree in Eden? God gave specific instruction to Adam and Eve not to touch it. He was willing to allow humanity, the very creation He breathed life into, to rebel against Him. God could have set Himself up to be the perfect helicopter parent; ensuring Adam and Eve were nothing more than robots, doing only what’s programmed within their genetic code to secure their safety and promise of a nice cozy life. But that wouldn’t be love. Forcing others to behave as you want when you want isn’t love. So here is God in the beginning, making Himself vulnerable to lesser creatures. If you had the ability to create the Heavens and Earth, how far would you have gone to ensure you were never rejected or rebelled against? If we’re honest with ourselves most of us strive to be accepted as much as possible. We loathe the idea of being rejected. The very thought of rejection tears at our insecurities and can leave us paralyzed by fear. If you’re a parent, you know this to be true. You spend your days and nights trying to protect, shape, direct, lead and train hoping your child will love you and keep your commandments. You want the best for them and the last thing you’d ever desire is to be rejected after all you’ve given.
Let’s keep going.
There is one single thread that is the most important thread, running through the Bible. It is the thread of Faith. Everything that is anything meaningful is woven together by it and points to God. We see the first test of Faith taking place in the Garden. Adam and Eve didn’t believe God’s word and we all reaped the consequences. The second test that most are familiar with is God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham believed God’s word and passed with flying colors. Because of it, Abraham is known as the father of the Faith (Romans 4:16).
Throughout the entire Bible God is challenging humanity to keep faith as that is the way to Him. The Old Testament is filled with stories of epic proportion where God is flexing His might to establish His superiority to lesser gods. For thousands of years He ushers a rebellious Israel forward only to bring about the Son of God who will crush the head of all divine enemies; while delivering one final plea for God to forgive them. All by choice.
God, manifested in the flesh, makes a conscious decision to live amongst His creation. Many who reject and hate Him. He does this to give us choice. A choice to love Him or reject Him.
See, many people believe God demands love, perfection and obedience lest you be tossed into Hell for all eternity. But the truth is God offers relationship with Him as a choice. This is clearly seen in John 14:15.
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. - John 14:15 (ESV)
Yeshua (Jesus) delivers a conditional statement using an “if” clause. If you love me. We have a choice. Our love is expressed by following His commandments, ultimately following Him. Let this sink in. Here you have God Himself in the flesh, humbling Himself behind an if clause with lesser humanity. I’m often perplexed at those who shake their fist at God and claim He is some sort of narcissistic, maleficent being who demands we bow down to Him or burn in Hell. This could not be further from the truth. God doesn’t force us into relationship with Him. For that wouldn’t be love. Forcing someone to love you will not cause anyone to love you. In fact it would have the opposite effect.
But this God, the Lord of all creation, has been dealing with rebellion and rejection from the beginning. And not just from us, but also from the divine beings He created. This very God, after dealing with a rebellious Israel for thousands of years visits Earth only to be brutally flogged and hung up on a cross by humanity. He does all of this knowing it’s going to happen. No one in their right mind would do this. This is practically irrational! God, allowing His creation to crucify Him because of His love. The fact that He loves us - showed by giving humanity choice in the Garden - is what got Him crucified to begin with.
I hope you’re tracking with me. It wasn’t just that God sacrificed Himself because He loves us. The very reason He shepherded Israel, calling nations to repent, fought for those who had Faith, visited Earth in the flesh only to be viciously flogged and crucified was because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). It was His love back in Eden that put Him on the cross outside of Jerusalem.
What God has done and what He continues to do out of love for creation just about borders on insanity. Who of us would go through such lengths for such sinful, broken people? God kicked this whole show off simply by choice. Nobody compelled Him to do it. His love is immeasurable and non-quantifiable. God’s love can be incomprehensible yet we can comprehend it. It is deep and yet wide. It is simple but complex. It is irrational yet perfectly rational. For who willingly sticks their hand in a fire knowing they have the power to first put it out? Who willing builds a perfect house knowing a storm will soon come to tear it apart? Who creates a story and inserts themself into it as the villain who must be brutally tortured and murdered?
I’ll be honest with you. When I think about this word “love” it causes me to wrestle with all that I know about God. He did not have to do what He did. It isn’t like God showed up after creation came into existence and decided to play the hero. God went into this assuming the roles of creator, villain and hero; all because He desired a relationship with us.
God’s love is nothing like our love.