What is Love?

December 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13:1-13 NIV)

What is love? It’s an age-old question with a usually elaborate answer. In fact, there are many definitions for love. I just looked up the definition on dictionary.com and found about 28 entries on the definition of love. Love is an abstract concept, like trying to describe the taste of water. People say that even if you can’t describe it, you’ll know it when you feel it. It can be instantaneous, like the love a mother feels for her newborn child, or it can take years to form, like that between lovers or close friends. But what is love?

But here’s another definition that’s seldom thought about about when people think of love (it was actually the eighth entry on dictionary.com); “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7, 8 NIV). I’ll repeat, God is love. He doesn’t just give love or show love or embody love. He is love. His very character is love. Everything He does is out of love.

Now, understanding that love is of God, let’s return to how we as humans should experience love. 1 Corinthians 13, aka the “love chapter”, is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. Recently, I’ve asked myself about love. For those that I say I love, whether out loud or in my head, do I really love them? Or is it just a nominal love? How do I know when I love someone romantically vs. platonically? Is there a change somewhere? Can someone tell that I’m “in love” before I even know? With all of these questions in tow, I was led to read 1 Corinthians 13, multiple times.

Paul starts out the love chapter by outlining the necessity of love. He described all these magnificent and heroic actions: giving all his possessions to the poor, having the gift of prophecy, suffering for His beliefs, even having enough faith to move mountains. But all of those things are meaningless without love. He would be useless noise, he would gain nothing, he would be nothing, if he does those things without love. And of course, it’s the same with us.

He then goes on to describe what love is. He doesn’t give one definition, but several definitions or characteristics of love. And it’s this part that helps to know if you truly love someone. Are you patient and kind to them? When it comes to that person, are you selfish or selfless? Do you easily anger when they do wrong, or hold grudges against them? Are your feelings fleeting or do they last in the midst if trouble? These questions can apply to romantic or platonic or familial love. In answering them, I saw my imperfect definition of love; I mostly thought of it just as a feeling, a feeling that comes during certain times. A feeling that’s only noticeable in certain, mostly favorable, circumstances. 

But it’s not just a feeling. It’s an action. It’s a mindset. 

It’s not just a funny feeling or butterflies in your stomach or a tolerance for someone’s presence or occasional gifts. It’s being patient, kind, selfless, forgiving, trusting, honoring, persevering, and protecting. That’s love. And because God is love, He displays all of these characteristics to His creation. He also calls us to love as He does (see 1 John 4:7-8). 

The third part in this passage is a bit confusing, at least to me. I remember that I would keep reading this passage to make sense of it. Paul seems to talk about something else besides love. But love is still in the background. Paul writes, “But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” He is saying that many things will pass away or will cease, but love won’t. What we do here on Earth we do in part, or without seeing the whole picture. We may not know how our actions influence others. We might not know just how much a small act if kindness affected someone until the “completeness comes”. As children, we demand attention and love. We are selfish in our actions and we want to be gratified now. But as we grow older, Paul encourages that we act as men and women who love selflessly and put selfish, childish ways behind us.

Paul ends the love chapter in a remarkable way, in my opinion. There are many virtues in this world, and Paul chooses to focus on three, faith, hope, and love. These three virtues are essential to the Christian life; you need faith in God, hope in His promises, and love for Him and for those around you. But love is the greatest. For it is with love that we have faith in God, that we trust in Him. And when we trust Him and know that He loves us unconditionally, we can hope for and claim His promises. Love is most important thing to have, and it leads to everything else.

So about those questions that I asked myself about love. An incomplete answer to them would be to analyze my intentions and motives for my actions and make sure they are selfless. A better answer would be to look at how God loves us and emulate that love, the agape love. And I have to admit, having shown agape love to people is quite wonderful.

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