What is Love? Part I – Definitions

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The world has a lot of definitions for love. Deep affection, fondness, tenderness, warmth, intimacy, attachment, endearment; devotion, adoration, doting, idolization, worship; passion, ardor, desire, lust, yearning, infatuation. Compassion, caring, concern, friendliness, friendship, kindness, charity, goodwill, sympathy, kindliness, altruism, unselfishness, philanthropy, benevolence.

When I see the Jesus of the Gospels, I see the best of these definitions displayed, his deep affection for John, the tenderness toward Peter after his denial. I see his compassion and goodwill poured into the woman in John 8, and that little man Zacchaeus. I also see his anger toward the Pharisees, a love for sinners turned upon the self-righteous weapons of comparison and self-vaunting used to destroy lives.

But central, always central, is his adoration for and wholehearted committal to his Father, a passion that spilled out in a flood to redeem a world of men and women cut off from God.There is a reliant trust flowing from the Jesus of the Gospels, which except for the wilderness and Gethsemane seems to flow spontaneously, easily, richly. There is an awareness of total weakness and ability: “I can do nothing of myself,” and an admission of total strength: “The Father in me does the works.” The paradox of humility and boldness within the same Man.

The word “agape” has been often spoken of as “God’s love.” But in John 3:19 Jesus said, “…this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved (agapao) darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.” To hate light is to love darkness. To love light is to hate darkness. Within the believer’s inner core is a new motive power; he is a partaker of the divine nature; it is the opposite of the Eph 2:2 spirit, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience” (apeithia, literally, the obstinately unconvinced). The Love which laid down his life for his enemies is now a pulsating light within the believer which has the ability to conquer darkness. This Power within us is for others, even at the expense of himself.

Does that mean we never feel the desire to self-protect, or to strike back at those who hurt us, that we are never tempted? Of course not. Like Jesus, we are human, with all the capacities of feeling he possessed and displayed. We are temptable; it is a built-in characteristic of our humanity. Temptation is the very thing which gives rise to choice: So-and-so hurt me. I want to strike back. Do I? Well, who am I? I am a partaker of the divine nature. As such, I am energized and empowered at my core to forgive, to be for others, no matter what the cost. To plug into that Power  by faith brings life and peace through us to others. To fail to do so is to deal death to others.

The agape which produces love for God and others, then, is a whole-hearted commitment to faithing in the Lord within us, trusting that his grace, his love, his power to love God and others inside us is sufficient for the job. It is trusting an inner Power for the needs of the moment.

Does loving light and hating darkness mean we can never sin? No. What it does mean is that we can’t live there. Something eats at us, a sense that we are not being everything we are meant to be, a sense of failure, a sense of wrong that we cannot shake. 1John says if we are abiding in Christ we are not sinning, and if we are sinning we are not abiding. To abide, trust, rely, is to turn on Love’s switch and let the power flow that lights up the world.

What is this love of light, then? What is agape?

If it can be distilled down to one sentence, it would seem to me love is a wholehearted committal of oneself to something or someone, no matter what the cost. It is the love of a good mother and father for a child. It is the best of the love of lovers when divested of self-love. It is the love of Hudson Taylor for the people of China. It is agape, whole-hearted commitment-love which gives itself for the best of the beloved thing or person. It is not intellectual, or springing merely from feeling. But it engages the intellect, and awakens the other loves within the soul.

To be continued.

 

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


18 Comments

  1. David Sebald

    Thank you for the simplicity. Breaking down love is a daunting task with all its definitions. Looking forward to the continuation of this thought.

  2. David

    A good introduction to the greatest of all things, Mr. Block.

    “A wholehearted committal of oneself to something or someone, no matter what the cost” — resonates with St John on Christ Himself, from the beginning of Jn 13: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end [or “to the utmost,” or “to completion”].

    My only quibble (and given your proviso that love “engages the intellect,” this is truly a quibble) is with one phrase in your second-to-last sentence: Love “is not intellectual.” It may not be, in that we cannot justify loving in terms of any other (lesser) logical or practical consideration. But given that the Christ who loved His own to the end was also the incarnate logos of His Father, we might say that love in true expression is the intellect in full bloom — and the denial of love, irrationalism in the extreme. No matter how many sophisticated arguments the love-denier might heap up.

    Cheers,
    David

  3. Debra Henderson

    Thank you Ron!

    I love this idea you’ve expressed of bringing life or death to others…what a high calling, responsibility, a mantle we are to wear as image bearers. God help us!

    So much of what I read here in the Rabbit Room is like leadership training. You call me to be more than who I am and make me want to be a better person – thank you for that!

  4. mike

    Thanks Ron. I appreciate the idea that love is a whole-hearted committal. That makes sense with so many definitions of love out there. The problem with me lies in the fact that I can understand that on a personal level; loving my wife, kids, or the students I teach, but its hard to understand it when I speak of loving God. I want your whole-hearted committal to look like mine. That somehow validates that what I’m doing must be loving God. Would you agree that my committal might not look anything like yours or is love something we can write manuals on?

  5. yankeegospelgirl

    Interestingly I don’t strike back at people who hurt me, especially if I trust them. I try to explain away their hurtful actions and words keep being their friends. But that just leads to more hurt, so I’ve learned the best option is forgiveness from a distance.

  6. James Witmer

    love is a wholehearted committal of oneself to something or someone, no matter what the cost.

    Got it in one! Thank you for acknowledging the challenges, then slicing through to the core.

    It reminds me of CS Lewis’ observation that modern society treats the passive virtue of “unselfishness” as supreme, neglecting the vital, active virtue of charity [love].

    We too often aim too low.

    This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. – 1 John 3:16

  7. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    David,

    Love does not spring from our human intellect – maybe that is a better phrase than I used. The love of God within us, when we faithe in him there, engages our whole humanity and makes every aspect of our being to be rightly used. Our reason, emotions, will, imagination, all become subject to the Father by faith.

    This is true of every virtue; none springs from the fountain of human intellect. True eternal virtue belongs to God alone – the warm, flowing, unselfconscious kind. When we get in contact with that, faithe in it, it flows. When we try to strive ourselves into loving others by the fume and fret of human resolution and exertion of our human will, we will either fail entirely (sinning), or succeed in the way which gives us a current of self-satisfaction (thus sinning).

    Mike, “Would you agree that my committal might not look anything like yours or is love something we can write manuals on?” I think there are some absolutes of love – husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church, do your work for your employers as if for Christ, etc. But there are also specialized ways in which we each love God and others. Sometimes that means I sit down and honor the gifts he has given me by using them. Other people have other gifts.

    I have come to see that some things are absolutes, but they are interpreted through our subjective perceptions and experiences. For example, “Husbands, love your wives.” Loving my wife will be different than someone else loving his wife. Why? Because love is object specific. The love of Hudson Taylor for the people of China doesn’t look the same as my love for my wife. My wife has very specific life experience and humanity which requires a certain manifestation of love. She will likely be unmoved by me wearing strange hats and clothes and sleeping on the hard floor. My manifesting Christ to her by inner reliance won’t look the same as others, though there likely will be underlying principles running through all.

  8. David

    Thank you, Ron; the first sentence of your reply clarified everything, and amen to the rest of it.

    Also, this is probably as good a place as any to thank you for your body of recorded work, and for your commitment to your art, not regarding the cost of that commitment. Not to put too fine a point on it, your songs have talked me back from spiritual self-destruction more than once. I am much obliged.

  9. Eowyn

    I’ve been thinking about the nature of love a lot recently, and what the phrase “God is love” really means in the face of a God who, sometimes, doesn’t act very loving. Or rather, He’s not very “loving” according to my standards, which are quite inadaquate and often completely wrong. That’s what I realized. “God is love” but Love (our definition) is not God. GOD is love. He defines it. My ideas of love (which are shaped by my own bias, often enough) do not truly define what pure love, God, is. He is love, and everything He does is love, because He defines it.

    Anyway.

    Complex philosophical rant over. In the meantime, that was a great article! I’ll be looking for the follow-up. 🙂 Hudson Taylor makes me start thinking about Jim Elliot and the Waodani…those men really loved.

  10. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    David, yes, good, and thank you.

    Eowyn, yes, sometimes God’s love doesn’t seem love at all. A surgeon doesn’t just apply healing concoctions to the outside of the skin; sometimes he must cut all the way to and even through the bone. It was the love of Jesus for sinners that spoke the razor sharp phrase, “Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” and the sledgehammer sentences against the Pharisees. Vipers from hell! How will you escape the flames? Whitewashed tombs!

    It was love, expressed through his anger, that took the premeditated time to make a whip to drive out the money changers. It was love that flung the heavy tables of coin and cage to bring idolatry crashing to the ground.

    Love is the essential nature of God, shown in Jesus Christ – in his kindness, his anger, his weeping, his cutting words, his enjoyment of feasting and wine. “If you see me with my face all black, don’t be frightened…you must believe I am doing my work. Nay, Diamond, if I change into a serpent or a tiger, you must not let go your hold of me, for my hand will never change in yours if you keep a good hold. If you keep a hold, you will know who I am all the time, even when you look at me and can’t see me the least like the North Wind. I may look something very awful.” George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind

  11. Daniel

    “4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

    8 Love never fails.” 1 Cor 13:4-8

    I want to reflect a love like this.

    Without love nothing is gained.

  12. mike bates

    Love can not be an isolated notion. If I sit in my home alone and have ‘great love’ for humanity and never display that love it is false. Love must be displayed and acted out. Love is an action verb or it is merely my attempts to feel better about myself.

  13. Joseph Morse

    Ron, ah, you wear funny hats and sleep on the floor? Would there be any more discussion on that??? Thanks for the post. You got me on a few points.

  14. Africa S

    Nice to see that you’re posting, Mr. Block!

    Love is such a big and complicated subject to tackle for many, but you do it so well!

    I can appreciate your comment about loving different people different ways. No two people are the same, and some require different kinds of love. But still love, none-the-less.

    An interesting book that I’ve read is the 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Ever heard of it?

  15. Tony Heringer

    Ron,

    Nice post. I saw it a while back, but didn’t have time to soak it up. It came out pretty close to a message our pastor, Randy Pope, gave as a part of a series on marriage. What’s been great about this particular series and this message specifically was the conviction it laid on my daughter.

    He spent a good part of the sermon sharing his own journey to discover the meaning of love. It really started for him when his father left their family while he was away at college. He was crushed because this man had been such a pillar in the home and community. So that crisis led to a determined search for the meaning of love. His definition from that search is this:

    “Love is a commitment based on the will of God undergirded, most often, by an emotion.”

    If you all want to hear that message, go here:

    It is one story that he tells that resonates in our home because my wife had a similar experience.

    Now, back to the post, loved this term “apeithia” – “the obstinately unconvinced.” The seems to describe some young men I’m dealing with here in Atlanta; including my own son. It is a great grief to see young men walk away from the faith they grew up with and at one time professed — leaving their first love like the Ephesians (Rev. 2:4). I continually pray they would return and ask you all to join me in that prayer.

    The other term or phrase that jumped out is wholehearted. I spent a season of reading Scritpure where I’d underline that term whenever it cropped up. It crops up a lot. That term used in this post also reminded me of an interview I heard recently where one of the folks mention the term integration in realtion to God. He made the point that most of us in America think of integration as being bringing different things together, but in the relam of God integration is wholeness, purity, unity, etc. and not a disparity.

    That last point touches on one of the comments that followed the original post about the passage “God is love.” In theology we develop lists of God’s attributes and that is a good thing to do, but it is always reductionist as God is wholly just and wholly loving. Its incomprehenisble to us because we do not see all ends. God is able to act with full or wholehearted knowledge whereas we are only working with part of the picture — i.e. “we see in a mirror dimly..” (1 Cor. 13:12 – the love chapter).

    Looking forward to reading part II today. That’s one of the great things about playing catch up here, I don’t have to wait for the next episode. 🙂

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