The world misunderstands love more than most any other concept known to man. It's ironic that they also consider love one of the most important things that exist. How can something so important be so misunderstood?
If we would live Christian in an unchristian world, we must understand the concept of love. The first lesson reminds us that God is love. As we continue to build the principles based on the character of God, the Bible reminds us that one of the core attributes of God is love. The apostle John declares this truth in no uncertain terms in I John 4:16. "And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him." John tells us that as we have experienced the love that God has for us, demonstrated in Jesus Christ, that work reveals the character of God, that He is love.
We remember that the reason the character of God is so important is because we are made in His image. As those who bear the image of God, we are called to imitate God. We are called to live like the one who made us. His character of love defines how we are to live before Him.
This ought to radically change our understanding of love, the source from which we define love. We cannot allow the world to define love. We cannot allow book, music, movies, or television to tell us what love is. We cannot trust our feelings to instruct us in love. God alone defines love. We have the capacity to love because God made us in His image. We have that character within, because He put it there. Knowing what love is then must come from our study of God not something else.
How then does God define love? John points us to the definition in the verse quoted before. We know of love, because we have experienced it in Christ. God demonstrates love in redemption. Paul wrote, "But God commendeth (to demonstrate by action) his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Ro.5:8) If God demonstrated love in redemption, then redemption best defines what love looks like.
In another place, we will examine redemption and its ramifications on the question of how to live Christian in an unchristian world. Here, we want to understand what redemption tells us about love. Redemption tells the story of how God saves His people through the sacrifice of Jesus. This simple statement reveals much about love. First, we discover that love involves a relationship. Love doesn't exist in a vacuum. Love requires a relationship between persons. God by His nature demands this concept of love. God does not reveal His nature to man as a single unity, but as the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are one, but also love one another. ("Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again." John 10:17)
If love requires relationship, then also that relationship requires something of love. Better expressed, you cannot separate love from the relationship and the relationship will conform to love. You cannot simply claim a relationship of love based on subjective standards. Love and its attendant relationship have certain necessary criteria.
This takes us to the second concept of love that we find in redemption. Love seeks the good of the other, not the self. If A loves B, then A will seek B's good, even if it does not benefit A, even if it costs A. It cost God to love us. His justice demanded satisfaction and since we could not satisfy His justice, God had to do it Himself. It cost Him something to justify us.
Love is not self-seeking. In the most famous Biblical text on love, we read these words. "Charity (love) suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil." (I Cor. 13:4-5) Patience, lack of envy, lack of pride, not seeking its own--all point to the reality that love is not self-focused. We cannot assume that love has no self-benefit. Rather, love recognizes that doing good to others as our cost increases our good. In love, if we serve others, we find ourselves reaping benefits. The stability and enjoyment of the relationship increase as we focus on the good of the other rather than on ourselves.
Thirdly, love does not trump other duties. In redemption, the love of God cost Him because His justice required satisfaction. Love did not trump justice, but redemption fulfilled both. This concept means that people cannot avoid obedience by a claim of love. Love never requires us to violate God's law. Love is God's law and any claim of love that opposes God's law is not love. Entering into a relationship God forbids using the justification of "love" is not love. When someone does something God forbids because of love, the motive is not love. It is something else. Love never annuls our other duties to God, for love encompasses all our duty to God and man.
Fourth, love requires sacrifice. Redemption required Jesus to sacrifice Himself upon the cross. Love is costly. What it will cost often conflicts with our expectations. Sinful man will exchange the true cost of love for a different price. How many husbands have paid a cost in gifts, instead of a cost of time, or vice versa? How many Christians would try to make up in the offering plate what they lack in worship? Sacrifice normally means giving up something we would rather not. In Paul's instructions to both husbands and wives, he strikes at what each probably least wants to sacrifice. Husbands have to sacrifice self-interest. Wives have to sacrifice self-rule.
Finally, and most importantly, redemption teaches that love is unconditional. Paul reminds us that while we were enemies of God, the Father sent Jesus to the cross. God's love for His people must be unconditional. He could not love us in any other way. There was nothing in us to love. We were the unloveable, and in a sense, still are. Unless God loves unconditionally, humanity is lost forever. That He loves us, since He died for us, we must conclude that His love is unconditional.
As we define love according to redemption, we must step back and remember, that, like most words, the word "love" has a wide semantic domain. "Love" can be used to describe a number of things beside the origin of love found in the character of God and describe in His work of redemption. In the Bible, while "agape" normally appears as the term for "love," "philos" and its derivations also is used for "love". We use the term "love" to describe our relationships with father, mother, pet, car, and hot dog. Each relationship requires a different concept of love.
Most often, when the world uses the term "love," it means a feeling of attraction. This appears in the sentence, "I love him/her." In other uses, "love" means the absence of hate or animosity. "All we need is love." This unusual expression gives voice to the belief by the world that man's problems are solved by love. What "love" is here is incredibly uncertain, other than the absence of hate. Here love is not an affirmative ideal, but the absence of a negative concept.
It is not illegitimate for the Christian to use the term "love" in various ways. It is a problem when we adopt those uses into our conception of love as the core of our duty. We cannot allow these uses to infect our understanding of our relationships.
Jesus said something very demanding when questioned by a lawyer. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matt.22:37-40) The divine character of love defines the whole duty of man. The totality of the Ten Commandments can be summarized in loving God and loving our neighbor. This means that all people have a relationship with God and their neighbor. God requires us to have a self-less focus in both relationships. God expects us to sacrifice for both relationships.
For our relationship with God, this concept is static and absolute. Nothing will change our duties before Him. For our duties to our neighbors, they will vary by relationship. We do not have the same relationship to all people. Some of our neighbors, live no where near us and our duties are relatively light until they come into proximity to us. Remember that when question on the definition of neighbor, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan,(Luke 10:29ff) reminding us that our neighbor may normally be far from us, but if near and in need, we have a duty to aid. Some of our neighbors live across the street. Some live in our homes. Some worship with us. Our relationships determine what our duty to love looks like, but the general duty remains.
I would regularly tell people, "love is always the wrong answer unless it is the right answer." The reason I would make this absurd, circular, and redundant statement arose from our modern culture. Love is the answer, the world tells us. This love has no content as we have seen. It generally means the absence of hate. This concept has been used to corrupt the teaching of the Bible, to devalue sin, and to promote worldliness. This idea of love fails. God's love shown in Christ always wins.
As we endeavor to live Christian in an unchristian world, we must take this concept of love into our daily lives. This principle of love will apply to many of the situations we will encounter in this world. It must be the love of God, not another "love" that we use to guide us to live as unto the one who first loved us.