No other word above it
We begin a new series this week, and it’s title has only one word … LOVE. This is a critical series where we’ll explore the true definition of love, how God defines it. We define words or concepts based mostly on the context in which we’ve heard it used or where someone else attempts to explain or show it to us. The biggest of the concept words is “love.” This is partly because there is no other word above it. There is no other word which encapsulates or summarizes love.
At the same time, I believe our definition of this word or concept is so limited and broken. We have sought and accepted its definition from sources who did not author it. God created love. God IS love. And doesn’t it make sense that only He could truly define what it is and can be in our life? We’ve observed and experienced forms of it, but have we ever seen the real thing?
God IS love
The beginning and end to the definition of love is God. He authored it, and He IS it. The Bible says this:
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
1 John 4:8
Pretty strong statement, right?! Guess it’s important that we know what love really is, right?! Because taking our broken and limited understanding of love and applying it to that verse will not work. The definition we have of love will not, in many cases, resonate with the stories of God in the Bible. We’ll do our best to read the story and match that up with the truth that God is love. I’m guessing there would be a measurable amount of times you’ll be left thinking, “Well, that doesn’t look very much like love.” or “that doesn’t feel very loving.” Except that it is and was, and it’s just our broken definition of love that keeps us from seeing it. There’s a great story in the book of Numbers which Grant tells about five and a half minutes into the sermon video above, which really illustrates this. At the end of that story, God’s actions don’t really match up with what many people’s definition of love is. But what God was and did in that moment in the history of His people was absolutely loving and was best for them.
“Just scrap it”
If there’s one thing we hope you do as we begin this three-week exploration into God’s definition of love is that you’d take your own definition of love and “just scrap it.” Take everything you’ve learned in the context of your own experiences and just throw it away. Does that mean all of it is worthless or doesn’t contain elements of truth of the real thing? … No. But I can guarantee you it is, at best, incomplete and more likely, completely broken. And if you are to arrive at a true understanding, it is best to scrap all of it and rebuild it from scratch in the light of God’s truth. To understand love, we must first understand and know God. And that is what our desire is in these next three weeks.
Love is not
In beginning this journey in the direction of God’s definition of love, it can be helpful to define what love is not. No matter what you think, or have experienced in your life, love is not:
- a feeling
- an emotion
These are, perhaps, the two most fundamental pillars to what most people believe about love … or at least of how they would explain love to someone else. That’s because we “feel” love far more than we “know” love. When we love someone, or someone shows love to us, it’s almost always expressed or received with emotion. Now, let me be careful to say that love can be felt, but also quick to be clear that the feeling is not “the thing.” Love may produce a feeling, but it is not a feeling. As an illustration, you may have attempted to show love to a homeless person by giving them money, or going the second mile of serving them in some way. Your motivation feels right and it makes you feel good, but did you really love them as God defines it? You may have given them something, but did you invest yourself in a way that knew it was what they really needed. Did you meet their need, or did you meet yours? The same could be said of parents with children and caregivers with those whom they are caring for. Are you loving them as God defines it?
Love is a decision
If love is anything that can be boiled down into a single word, love is a decision. Love is not something you feel, it is a decision of the will. A decision best illustrated in the most “famous” verse in the Bible:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Was this God looking down at humanity and becoming overwhelmed with a feeling? Did God feel bad for us? Was He being driven by emotion when He set the plan in motion for our salvation? I don’t believe this is anywhere close to being true. Did God’s love for us in sending Jesus to die on a cross produce an emotion in Him? I suppose that’s an interesting question, that supposes that God experiences emotions like we do. And while it’s interesting to consider, and even if He does, His decision was the love, not the feeling. God knew we needed to be rescued and He made a way. God looked at the horribly sinful people we are and decided to make a way to reunite himself with the object of His affection … us.
The Peter principle
One of the most compelling illustrations of love can be found in the story of Jesus and his apostle Peter. The back story (Cliff Notes style) is Peter was one of the first to follow Jesus. He was very close to Jesus. He was in Jesus’ “inner circle.” Peter loved Jesus with a passion that few, if any, could match. In the course of Jesus’ final meal with His disciples on the night before He was to die, He shared with them that He was about to be betrayed. Jesus explains that He is going to leave them and where is going, they cannot follow.
Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Jesus quickly responds to Peter that before the sun rises again, he will deny Him three times. Without God’s plan of redemption and forgiveness, this would have been the defining mistake and event of Peter’s life. To deny he knew the Savior he loved so deeply was the ultimate betrayal. But this was not even close to the end of Peter’s story. In rising again, the angels at the tomb told Mary to go and tell the disciples, and Peter the incredible news … “and Peter.” In one of the several appearances Jesus made after His resurrection, He had the following exchange with Peter:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
In a beautifully intentional way, Jesus asks Peter the same question three times. I believe Jesus restores and heals the deep hurt and shame Peter feels having denied Jesus three times, with the very intentional questions. What is also true of these questions of love, is what Jesus says about the definition of true love. Jesus does not give Peter the command to feel love more deeply, Jesus uses commands like feed, care and follow. To love Jesus, Peter would make decisions to carry the Gospel to the world, to sacrifice his own life in serving Jesus and to follow His example in loving as Jesus did. It wasn’t ever a question of how much love Peter felt for Jesus, it was Peter’s decisions which showed and defined his love for Jesus.
Love is a decision.