What Is Love?

“And still, after all this time,
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe Me.”

Look what happens with
A love like that,
It lights the Whole Sky.”

Anon

The central tenet of the Bible is that God is Love, and it’s guiding principle is to love; your neighbour, as well as yourself. This sounds so simple, but in practise it is tremendously difficult. What is love, anyway?

Perhaps the best way to begin is to think about what love is not.

Hate is commonly pronounced as Love’s opposite, but love’s opposite is not hate; it’s fear. It is fear which produces hate, along with almost all other negative emotions. This is because fear is concerned with it’s own survival; where fear is anxious of loss, love joyfully gives. Fear tends towards cowardice because it seeks to protect itself above all else, whereas those who are loving are brave, because love implies a willingness to sacrifice yourself for the sake of something else. Real love is not a fair-weather friend – it is made most manifest during hard times.

The Bible tells us that God is love, and that God (Love) requires a sacrifice – this is written several times throughout the old testament. The jews erroneously believed this referred to an animal or a child sacrifice, until Christ came and demonstrated to the world that it was SELF-sacrifice with his work on the cross.

Love doesn’t think of what it can take for itself, but what it can GIVE to others. Love doesn’t try to control others – love instead exercises SELF-control. Therefore, the ‘Kingdom of God’ which Christ describes as being within us can be understood thus: it is a process of transformation which takes place within each person. When carnal man (Adam) tries to create a utopia by mandating changes to society, there is almost always an outcome which is flawed at best, or dystopic at worst. This is what Jesus was trying to tell us when he proclaimed:

The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
Luke 17:20-21

Therefore, the perfect world can only be achieved with perfect people – when people are transformed into the image of Christ by working on their character, there will be no need for police, because there will be no crime, there will be no need for money, because people will freely give what is needed to help their communities flourish. ‘Render unto Caesar what it Caesar’s’ indeed…

To consider in more depth the qualities of love, lets look at the description given by Paul in 1 Corinthians. He distinguishes love both by what it is, and what it is not. We’ll break it down… (Thanks to http://jacobisrael.com for inspiring the format of this – please visit his brilliant website)
1) Love is patient

When you are patient you able to accept delays, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. You are peaceful, despite outside circumstances. The external world is in constant flux, and patient people realise this and instead opt to find their peace in exercising self-control. People who are patient are in control of their emotions instead of their circumstances. Those who are impatient (like me!) always suffer. As you are never truly in control of your situation, however much you may want to be, you never find peace. You can’t enjoy life, because you are always worrying and erroneously trying to change the external world through external, worldly means – the most extreme manifestation of this is violence. Violence is usually what happens when a person feels so frustrated at the lack of control they have over themselves, that they lash out in an attempt to control another person. Jesus never endorsed violence – he was a pacifist who taught that you should resist evil with good. He condemned Peter’s violence towards the roman solider who came to lead Jesus to death. What did Peter’s violence achieve? He cut off the soldiers ear (how poignant) – symbolically limiting the soldier’s ability to hear Christ’s message. When we are aggressive, we lose people’s ears – love is what makes people listen to us, and it took Christ’s love to heal the roman soldiers ear, and thus his ability to hear the gospel (which itself preaches love).

2) Love is kind

Kindness is just love with its work boots on. – Shelley Darlingson (Anna Faris) The House Bunny.

A closed cup can never be filled, even when it is directly under the tap, but an open cup will overflow. Kindness is this overflowing. People who have truly made peace with themselves and love themselves are kind – because their inner voice is tolerant, they are tolerant of others, because they are in tune with their own feelings, they are in tune with other people’s. Because they realise their own need for mercy, they are merciful. Kind people have a level of emotional intelligence which makes them tolerant of others – like a mother who understands that babies and children need to make lots of mistakes in order to learn. Kind people are grateful and know they have everything they need. They give freely without expecting anything back not because they are BEING good, but because they ARE good. True kindness is love in action – it is magnanimous and unconditional. Kindness is not only a means to an end (love), but it also an end itself.

3) Love does not envy…

Jealousy is focusing more on what you don’t have than what you do have. It is a pessimistic spirit, which finds its roots in selfishness. When we dwell on what we don’t have, the result is unhappiness, and that unhappiness motivates us to use our energy to try and acquire more for ourselves. This is a trap, because jealousy is a bottomless pit which can never be filled. Envy makes us ignorant to what we have, and so many of us lament that we ‘don’t know what we’ve got, till it’s gone’. Jealousy focuses us on ourselves, and prevents us from living in the present. Conversely, gratitude allows us to be fully present in our lives NOW, and experience it joyfully. We all know the happiest people are not necessarily the richest, most famous, or best looking – the happiest are usually those with the best attitude, and gratitude is central to this.

5) Love does not boast…

Boasting is what happens when we base our self-esteem on what others think of us. We want others to like us and validate our existence, because we do not feel confident in ourselves. We are blown about by the changing winds of opinion, and live unhappy lives because we have become reliant to others to give us the love that we owe ourselves. Boasting is what happens when we are ignorant our of own intrinsic value, and when we live in insecurity and fear. A person who boasts is addicted to the drug of approval. When people try to impress others, they become enslaved to social expectations – hence, a person might spend their life working a job they detest just so that they can ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Those who turn themselves inside out trying to please other peoples idea of how they should be, invariably start expecting the same of others – hence, the need for approval turns quickly into judgement. The person who can love others without needing their approval is not a slave, but has instead been ‘set free’ by the truth.

6) Love is not proud…

Pride is another ‘sin’ (mistake) which, like all sins, results from selfishness. Pride thinks only of itself, what it is due, and is willing to sacrifice harmony with others to ensure it gets its own way. Pride is also ignorant, because in order to learn, we have to be humble and accept that we do not know it all already. A humble mind is an open mind, a proud mind is a closed mind. Pride has no interest in equality, but instead believes itself superior and entitled to more than others. Pride robs us of all the things which make life magical – it robs us of opportunities to learn because it makes us think we know it all already, it robs us of relationships with others because it makes us easily offended and inflexible to the compromise that relationships require, and it robs us of peace of mind, because we go through life in a state of angry, righteous indignation, sensitive to even the subtlest perceived slight. To be proud is a serious error in judgement, which taken to the extreme, results in a very lonely, frustrating, anger-filled life. This strong desire to ‘save face’ is actually the very thing which makes us look most foolish. Humility is understanding that we are no better than those around us. Humility would sacrifice its image to save a relationship. Because humility knows it is not better than anyone else, it is tolerant of others.

7) Love does not dishonor others,

When we dishonour others, we are really hurting ourselves. The desire to criticise other people usually comes from a highly self-critical inner voice. Because we do not allow ourselves to make mistakes, we become highly intolerant of mistakes in other people. Because we really think very little of ourselves, we think poorly of others. Fear produces a critical spirit – people who are critical are usually terrified of making a mistake themselves. People who are judgemental of other people usually hold themselves to a ridiculously high standard. But love cannot co-exist with fear – indeed; ‘perfect love casts out fear’.

8) Love is not self-seeking
Love is an entirely generative force, hence God, the supreme creative force of the universe, IS love. Without love, there is no life. All living systems rely on co-operation and sharing – working in harmony and ‘passing forward’ from one unit to another. An ecosystem requires energy to be passed on from one organism to another, the body requires that proteins, amino acids, sugars, and oxygen are passed from cell to cell, pumping blood from organ to organ, each organ only taking what it needs to function and giving life to the whole body. Living systems, when they are healthy, are very efficient and economical. No-one takes more than they need, and nothing is wasted. Selfishness is parasitic, and what it does is create a blockage – as the ‘selfish’ component hoards what it should pass on, it cuts off circulation, and starves the other components it ironically needs for its own survival. Consider cancer: most of the time, the our cells work together harmoniously, each contributing to the greater good. Cancer cells, however, prosper at the expense of all the other cells in the body – as they divide and colonise the body, they seal their own fate by eventually killing the host. Think about this next time you are in the car – traffic flows much better when people selflessly let each other in. It’s contagious too – when someone lets you in, you are much more likely to ‘pass it forward’ and let someone else in. To be self-seeking is to ultimately destroy yourself, hence ‘whoever wants to save their life will lose it’ (Matt 16:25). So you see, selfishness is fundamentally ANTI-LIFE. Selflessness – the willingness to use your energy for someone or something else’s benefit – is the very principle on which all life is founded. Hence love is fundamentally selfless.

9) Love is not easily angered
Anger is a condition which often finds its source in pride. To be easily angered is also to put too much stock into what others think, and it also equates to a stressful life. We really have no control over the world around us, so the correct way of living is to exercise self-control – this is what Jesus taught. To be easily angered is usually the result of the feeling of a loss of control, but desire to control situations and people outside ourselves is erroneous, and will only lead to frustration.

10) Keeps no record of wrongs.

The Bible tells us that the ‘The merciful man does himself good, But the cruel man does himself harm.’ (Proverbs 11:17). When we keep records of wrongs and criticise others, it is only because we are inwardly self-critical and filled with guilt and self-condemnation. But as human beings, we are not perfect, and we should be able to love and accept ourselves despite imperfections. Keeping a list of wrongs is like looking in the mirror and finding an inventory of faults. If love is the truth, then anything which is not love must arise from a place of ignorance. Keeping a little black book of wrongs does nothing to motivate or inspire positive change. We only ever see in others that which is in us. The one who is critical of others is ill-at-ease with himself. Mistakes are a natural and essential part of learning – most parents intuitively understand this as they observe their children. We must be permitted the freedom to make mistakes in order to learn, and as we would hope for tolerance and acceptance from others, we must model tolerance towards ourselves. People who have self-insight tend to be more understanding towards others, for ‘by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.’ (Matthew 7:2)

11) Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

There can be no love without truth, because truth always leads us to love. Truth is instructive – truth gives us insight into one-another, and insight and understanding precede love. Truth directs itself towards love, and love directs itself toward truth. Love rejoices when truth is spoken, because truth always draws us back to love. Truth informs love. When you understand why a person behaves in the way they do, it is much easier to love them. However, if a person’s behaviour is self destructive, it is not always in their best interest to tell them what they want to hear – love always considers the best interest of the other person, and sometimes this means telling them the truth is painful. When we are coming from a place of love, we will find a way to communicate painful truths without doing harm to the other person. The difference between criticism and loving feedback, is loving feedback seeks the welfare of the other – to lift them up and improve their life, whereas criticism seeks to put the other person down and exert power over them. Though in my experience, the most painful kind of truth is that which you discover about yourself…

9) It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Think of a garden. Love is like a perfect gardener –everything blooms in its presence. Everything this gardener touches is nourished, filled with life, and grows to it’s full potential to be uniquely itself – the daisies are daisies, the roses are roses, the grass is grass. The perfect gardener not only respects, but embraces the rich diversity of life – he knows all the plants intimately, and anticipates the varying conditions they will need to thrive. Some need sunny spots, some need shade, some need lots of water, some need very little. The perfect gardener knows which plants need pruning, and which plants need to be left alone. He knows which plants will flourish together, and which will suffocate one another, and places them accordingly. The gardener is concerned primarily with things GROWING not just as a single unit, but as a WHOLE beautiful garden. The world is the garden, we are the plants, and the Gardener is love, which is God. And without his light, we would all surely die…

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