There is no question that our culture is totally wrong about love. Cultural influences, politics, and the personal-fulfillment movement has so changed the thinking of Americans about love that what we believe to be significant is often not love at all, but is, in fact, antithetical to genuine love.
THE BIG PICTURE ON LOVE
People often confuse love with a complex of feelings (attraction, pleasure, devotion, respect, even pity) that are, unfortunately, changeable. That popular culture often portrays love in terms of happiness, great sex, or self-fulfillment encourages them to equate love with good feelings. The problem is that good feelings never last – so while love will certainly have good feelings accompanying it, if our devotion to another is not based on more than good feelings, our relationships are doomed to be as temporal as our good feelings.
In the Bible, good feelings are rarely associated with the concept of love. Rather, the common ideas associated with love in the Bible include sacrifice, submission, and loyalty. And even the most basic reading of “the love chapter,” I Corinthians 13, reveals a basic difference between the modern conception of love and the Biblical conception: while we tend to think of love as being all about self-fulfillment, Biblical love is all about serving another.
Love is sacrificial:
I Corinthians 13 is called by many “the love chapter.” It is the most extensive treatment of the concept of love in a single passage in the whole Bible. It is instructive that, when the King James Version translators attempted to capture the “flavor” of the chapter, they translated the Greek term for “love” (agape) in a unique way in this chapter. Instead of using the English word “love” in this chapter, as they had throughout the Bible, they chose to translate the Greek term with the English word “charity.” They did this because they reckoned that in this one chapter, love is revealed to be not so much about what one gains, but rather about what one gives.
Charity/Love gives patience to others (13:4), gives due regard to others (13:4), gives higher priority to the needs of others (13:5), gives others the benefit of the doubt (13:5), and charity gives what it gives forever (13:7-8). Charity/Love then, is not about what we get out of something, but it is rather about what we put into it. So it is legitimate, in a Biblical sense, to speak of love in terms of “investment.”
God Himself demonstrated his love for us by what He gave (John 3:16) – and note that in this passage He loved with no reservations; He gave his only begotten Son. No sacrifice is too great for love then, right down to the giving of our whole lives for the object of our love (John 15:13). But love is reciprocal – the one who gives all in love to another has a right to expect that the object of his love will also live his/her life in such a way as to please him (compare John 15:13-14).
Love is submissive:
The Biblical concept of love is intimately bound up with the idea of submission. While the concept of “submission” is looked upon with disdain by feminists, the Biblical concept of “submission” is NOT that women are submissive to men – but rather that women are submissive to their husbands who are in turn submissive to their wives (Eph. 5:21-33).
The Biblical concept of submission does not demand that either party be a doormat for the other party, but rather assumes that neither party is seeking their own good, but rather is focused on the good of the other (I Corinthians 13 says that “Charity seeketh not her own [benefit]”, and the submission of the wife in Eph. 5 has as its ultimate goal the husband’s sanctification of the wife [5:25-28]). At its root, Biblical love assumes that the one who loves places the needs, wishes, and desires of the other above his/her own needs, wishes, and desires (John 15:13, I John 3:16). Love is not a feeling, it is rather a complex of actions (I Cor. 13:1ff, John 15:13).
Love is loyal:
Biblical love demonstrates its loyalty to its cherished object in both a positive and a negative sense. First, the negative – love separates itself from any interest that may compete with our love for the cherished object.
By way of example, Jesus speaks of ultimate loyalty to him as being demonstrated by his disciples being willing to abandon their families and mundane lives and pursue him alone (Luke 14:26). Similarly, the marriage relationship has a negative element – we are told that marriage consists of leaving our father and mother and holding fast to our spouse (Genesis 2:24, Eph. 5:31). That we are told to leave father and mother is a circumlocution which indicates that we should be willing to leave everything – the most important obligation in the ancient world was the obligation of a child to his parent – so when the Bible tells us that we leave father and mother for spouse, it in effect means that we must be willing to abandon everything and anything for our spouse.
There is also a positive element to the Biblical concept of loyalty – in our abandoning everything else, there is a need that we cleave to (the Hebrew term means to “be fused together with,” think of being “glued”) our spouse. In abandoning all, we free ourselves to pursue the development and riches of a one-to-one relationship based on a complete giving of ourselves to another, and complete reception of another.
In fact, the relationship between spouses in the scriptures is so close that the two individuals that comprise a marriage to an extent lose their identity in the marriage, and the marriage is figuratively spoken of as becoming a third, organic entity that is larger and more important than the two individuals that comprise it. The Biblical language is that, in marriage, the two spouses “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24, Eph. 5:31). That this third, organic unity is more important than either of the two persons who comprise it is revealed in the general rule given by Christ that the marriage relationship is so important that neither individual (nor the rest of society) has the right to dissolve it (Matt. 19:4-6).
The marriage relationship is thus revealed to be the most important relationship in a person’s life – more important than the relationship with parents, children, friends – so important that society itself must leave the workings of the marriage relationship to the two people involved.
This is by no means an exhaustive look at the Biblical data on love, but I do think these are the big-picture principles that both help us define what love is, and hopefully help us to see how far we (both as a culture and as individuals) have strayed from the ideal.
Biblical love is therefore shown not to be self-centered. It does not even consider what it can get, but rather what it can give. Biblical love is an unselfish, self-sacrificing desire to meet the needs of the cherished object.