What is Love?
I am aware that there are some Christians in the present day who almost refuse to look at anything practical in Christianity. They talk of nothing but doctrine. Certainly the Bible contains much about doctrine, but it also contains a great deal about practice, and one thing to which it attaches great weight is love. Indeed, the apostle goes as far as to say that “the end of what is enjoined is love out of a pure heart” (1 Tim. 1: 5, my emphasis)
Now there is no surer way of finding out truth than the old way of turning to plain texts. Texts were our Lord’s weapons, both in answering Satan, and in arguing with the Jews. Texts are the guides we must never be ashamed to refer to in the present day—“what does the scripture say?” (Rom. 4: 3), “What is written in the law? how readest thou?” (Luke 10: 26). Let us hear what Paul says to the Corinthians: “And if I shall dole out all my goods in food, and if I deliver up my body that I may be burned, but have not love, I profit nothing” (1 Cor. 13: 3). Consider what the Lord Jesus Christ Himself says about love: “A new commandment I give to you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13: 34). Listen to what Paul says to the Romans: “Owe no one anything, unless to love one another: for he that loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13: 8). Observe what the apostle John says: “Beloved, let us love one another; because love is of God, and every one that loves has been begotten of God, and knows God. He that loves not has not known God; for God is love” (1 John 4: 7, 8). Many other passages, could, of course, be referred to.
I make no comment upon these texts. I think it better to place them before my readers in all their naked simplicity, and let them speak for themselves. If anyone is disposed to think that love is a matter of light importance, I will only ask him to look at these Scriptures, and to think again. To my own mind, the evidence appears clear, plain, and incontrovertible. The texts prove that the subject of love has a right to demand the serious attention of all who call themselves Christians.
It is of great importance to have a clear idea of what the love in the Bible really is. Thousands delude themselves that they have it, when it is quite evident that their ‘love’ is not the love described in Scripture. Biblical love does not consist in giving to the poor. It is a common delusion to suppose that it does. Paul tells us plainly that a man may bestow all his goods to feed the poor and not have love (see 1 Cor. 13: 3). Of course, it is true that “whoso may have the world’s substance, and see his brother having need, and shut up his bowels from him, how abides the love of God in him?” (1 John 3: 17), and that the true child of God will “remember the poor” (Gal. 2: 10.) That he will do all he can to assist them and lighten their burdens, I do not for a moment deny. Yet this does not make up love. It is easy to spend a fortune in giving away money and soup, blankets, and clothing, and yet to be utterly destitute of the love that is described in God’s Word.
Another common delusion is to think that love consists of never disapproving anybody’s conduct. Thousands pride themselves on not ever condemning others, or calling them wrong, whatever they may do. Someone may be a drunkard, a liar, or an adulterer. Never mind! ‘It is not love’ they tell you, ‘to pronounce him wrong’. You are to believe that he has a good heart at bottom! This idea of love is, unhappily, a very common one. To throw a veil over sin, and to refuse to call things by their right names—to talk of hearts being good, when lives are flatly wrong, to shut our eyes against wickedness, and say smooth things of immorality—this is not Scriptural love.
Again, the love that the Bible speaks of does not consist in never disapproving anybody’s religious opinions. Your neighbour may be defective as to the Lord’s person or adrift on the Gospel, but the ‘love’ of many says that you have no right to think Him wrong! Provided he is sincere, it is uncharitable to think unfavourably of his spiritual condition! At this rate we had better close our Bibles! Everybody is right, and nobody is wrong! This kind of love is a monstrous caricature. To say that all opinions are equally valid, though these opinions flatly contradict one another is madness. ‘Love’ like this pours contempt on the Bible, and talks as if God had not given us a written test of truth. True loves cries, “believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, if they are of God” (1 John 4: 1).
I have dwelt upon the negative side of the question at some length because of the strange notions which abound today. Let me now turn to the positive side. Having shown what love is not, let me now show what it is. Love is the first of those fruits which the Spirit causes to be brought forth in the heart of a believer: “the fruit of the Spirit is love.” (Gal. 5: 22). Real love will show itself in a believer’s actions. It will make him ready to do kind acts to everyone within his reach—both to their bodies and souls (see Gal. 6: 10). It will not let him be content with soft words and kind wishes. It will make him diligent in doing all that lies in his power to lessen the sorrow and increase the happiness of others. Like his Master, he will care more for ministering than for being ministered to, and will look for nothing in return. True love does not want wages. Its work is its reward. It will make the believer patient under provocation, forgiving when injured, meek when unjustly attacked, silent when slandered. It will make him bear much and forbear much, put up with much and look over much, submit often and deny himself often. It will make him kind, unselfish, good-natured and considerate. It will make him gentle and courteous, thoughtful and tender, and more anxious to give pleasure than to receive. True love never envies others when they prosper, nor rejoices in their troubles. At all times it will be full of pity, mercy, and compassion.
It is in the Gospels that we see love perfectly exemplified. It shone forth in all the Lord’s actions. His daily life was an incessant going about “doing good” (Acts 10: 38). He was hated, persecuted, slandered and misrepresented, but He patiently endured it all and no irritable word ever fell from His lips: “[when] reviled, reviled not again; [when] suffering, threatened not” (1 Pet. 2: 23). The law of kindness was ever on His lips. Among weak and ignorant disciples, among the sick and the sad, among tax gatherers and sinners, among Pharisees and Sadducees, He was always one and the same—kind and compassionate to all. And yet, despite this, our blessed Master never flattered sinners, or connived at sin. He never shrunk from exposing wickedness in its true colours, or from rebuking those who cleaved to evil. He never hesitated to denounce false doctrine, or hypocritical practice. He called things by their right names. He spoke as freely of hell and the fire that is not quenched, as of heaven and the kingdom of glory. He has left on record an everlasting proof that perfect love does not require us to approve everybody’s life or opinions, and that it is quite possible to condemn false doctrine and wicked practice and yet to be full of love at the same time.
That love found its highest expression in the cross of Calvary. There the sinless Son of God was “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5: 21), dying the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. He has prepared a place in the Father’s house and is coming again “that where I am ye also may be” (John 14: 3). As the recipients of such love, we also ought to love, hence: “Hereby we have known love, because he has laid down his life for us; and we ought for the brethren” (that is, any believer), “to lay down [our] lives” (1 John 3: 16).
Love, such as I have described, is certainly not natural to man. It will never be found except in a heart prepared by the Holy Spirit. You may as well expect grapes on thorns, or figs on thistles, as look for love when the heart is not right. The heart in which love grows is a heart in which the love of God has been shed abroad (see Rom. 5: 5), and which has been made a partaker of the “divine nature” (2 Pet. 1: 4). What is that nature? “God is love” (1 John 4: 8). And if a partaker of the divine nature, then I must exhibit love, for love will produce love.
I freely admit that, every now and then, one sees am unconverted person who seems very charitable and amiable. Probe a little beneath the surface and you will soon find, however, that all is not as it seems. Press on them their responsibility towards God, the corruption of man’s natural heart, and the inevitable end of a life without Christ, and you will soon find that their amiability is but a mirage. Hundreds will praise philanthropy, good works and concern for others, who hate to be told of the blood of Christ, and of the inward work of the Holy Spirit. Natural love exists, as in the love of a mother for her child, but it is an imperfect plant of an altogether different species from that love which is of God. To “love thy neighbour as thyself” can only come as the fruit of loving the Lord thy God “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy understanding” (Matt. 22: 37, 39).