The word “love” has lost all meaning in today’s society. In some respects, I would almost say we need to remove it from our language. It has become a near useless word, something thrown around and used so readily that, if words had value in the supply-and-demand system, the word “love” would be dirt cheap.
Some of our flawed understanding of love comes in a flawed understanding of God. Many today have turned God into a squishy Being who loves all unconditionally, and has the same love for all people everywhere. This mentality might do wonders for therapeutic religion, and it might help a church win converts, but it doesn’t survive under biblical scrutiny. If God loves all people the exact same way, why did He intentionally spare Noah but destroyed all those outside the ark? If God loves all people the same way, why did He bless the Jews and punish those in the land of Canaan? Atheists are quick to point out these inconsistencies, and though I would argue they’re just responding to straw men, that straw man is the most readily accessible version of Christianity available in western society.
Some of our flawed understanding of love comes from a flawed understanding of love between one another. How many times have we encountered someone who was staying in an abusive relationship because they “loved” the other person? How many times have we encountered people who believed it was OK to enter an immoral lifestyle simply because the two people “loved” each other? (See my post here). A popular argument today, mostly in the context of homosexual marriage, is “equal love equal rights.” Of course, most who hold to this view aren’t consistent with it: some who uphold same sex marriage with “equal love equal rights” will immediately backtrack when asked if a brother and sister in a relationship is also “equal love equal rights.” All of these are examples where the word “love” is treated as a shallow, superficial thing that can be used to stir emotions and justify a certain position.
Obviously, speaking from a biblical perspective, we are commanded to love on varying levels. We are told, first and foremost, to love the Lord (Matt 22:37) We are told to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44). The Lord told believers to love one another as he loved them (John 13:34). A husband is commanded to “love his wife as himself” (Eph 5:33). We are told to pursue, among many other things, love (2 Tim 2:22).
Let us note quickly that love, contrary to popular sentimentality, is not always the same. A man loves his wife differently than he loves his children. A believer loves his best friend differently than he loves God. This realization, that a person’s love differs from subject to subject, avoids the mindset mocked by atheists, which we described earlier. Obviously Christ had love for all eleven disciples of his who were faithful, and yet John is identified at least five times as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 20). Even in this situation alone we find that God has a variation of love.
Let us also note that, while we are commanded to love, we are at the same time told not to love certain things. We are told to stay away from the love of money (Heb 13:5), and told not to “love the world” or “the things in the world” (1 John 2:15), something the apostle Paul faulted Demas for (2 Tim 4:10). The apostle Paul likewise warned against those who were “lovers of self,” “lovers of money,” and “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:2, 5). Christ himself said that we must love him more than our parents (Matt 10:37) – not meaning we should hate our parents, of course, but that salvation was more important than family acceptance. While we are told to love, we are likewise commanded to be discerning with our love. Clearly, there are some things we cannot love, and there are some forms of “love” we should seek to avoid. This is why our Lord warned us that “no servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other” (Luke 16:13) – you cannot love all things equally without, at some point, becoming inconsistent. This is why creating the concept of “love” into a vague thing that is applied equally across the board is so dangerous.
The problem is that “love” today has been the quintessential trait to have, and has been made equal with “anything that is pleasing,” and hence anything that is displeasing cannot be love and therefore must be avoided. This is why whenever someone attempts to review what a false teacher believes or they criticize another person’s theology, many people jump out and accuse them of not showing enough “love.” Upon what basis? If a friend you cherished told you, in a state of intoxication, that they were going to go out and drive, wouldn’t you stop them? Wouldn’t you warn them of the error they were committing? Wouldn’t you take a stern position if they became defensive towards you? Why is that showing love, but rebuking someone for their (perhaps damnable) error is not?
The apostle Paul told the Philippians that he prayed not only that their love would abound all the more, but that it would abound “with knowledge and discernment” (Phi 1:9), yet no one today seems willing to exercise this knowledge and discernment. The apostle Paul likewise commended Timothy not only for following his love, but likewise his “teaching,” “aim in life,” and “faith” (2 Tim 3:10), but many people seem to desire to forgo such things for the sake of a superficial concept of “love.” Such people do not fit the model of love as scripture teaches it, but rather those who Paul described as having “refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 The 2:10).
The question is, where does this true Christian love come from? Is it something we instill in ourselves? On the contrary, Christian love is in and of itself a gift from God.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. [1 John 4:7]
The apostle John, writing to believers, says that we should “love one another,” and this is possible because “love is from God,” and “whoever loves has been born of God.” We do not love to be born of God, but rather those who are born of God love. This is why the commandment to love God comes before the commandment to love our neighbor (Mark 12:29-31), for how can one love their neighbor the way God intended unless they first know God? Hence the statement by the apostle John that those born of God likewise know God, and hence they love. In here we have two revelations: 1) love is not something we create or produce, but something granted by God; 2) there are varying levels of love (God for man, man for God, man for man, etc.), and hence we are able to discern the differences between various levels of love, as well as an ability to discern between true love and false love. Therefore we are able to realize that the love between God and man is different than that of between husband and wife, and we are able to understand that criticism of falsehood is not a lack of love for another person, but an example of love for the truth.
The problem with many today is that they have separated themselves from a concept of love that bears distinction and discernment. Perhaps, therefore, “love” is not entirely dead, but it needs only be discussed on a much more mature manner. For Christians, it shall have to be discussed within the context of how God Himself has defined it, and by nothing else.