September 24, 2023

What is Love?


A Divine Description of Love

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is often quoted at weddings and framed to be hung on the wall, but rarely is it really understood. In it we find a divine description of love and some general observations that may come as a surprise.

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Well, let’s take our Bibles and turn to First Corinthians, Chapter 13. First Corinthians 13. This past week I did a Google search, a simple Google search, asking the question, What is love? And besides getting the top result of that early 90s, one hit wonder by that title (that’s been stuck in my head ever since), the results yielded no lack of pop psychology sites with authors that are more than willing to take their shot at defining love. One article identified love as a set of emotions and behaviors characterized by intimacy, passion, and commitment. It involves care, closeness, protectiveness, attraction, affection and trust. Love can vary in intensity and can change over time. It is associated with a range of positive emotions, including happiness, excitement, life satisfaction and euphoria. But it can also result in negative emotions such as jealousy and stress. Love is most likely influenced by both biology and culture. And although hormones and biology are important, the way we express and experience love is also influenced by our personal conceptions of love. Another article said that love is an emotion that keeps people bonded and committed to one another, and from an evolutionary psychology perspective, love evolved to keep the parents of children together long enough for them to survive and reach sexual maturity. One site approached the definition of love from the perspective of the man on the street and offered ten different people’s perspectives on love. Here’s just a sample. A person named Ash believes that love is security. For me, love is the most secure feeling. Love is having a companion, a best friend, a lover, partner, sounding board, cheerleader, advisor, and cuddle buddy through every avenue in the journey of life. Skyler thinks of love as respect. To me, a healthy relationship is built on respect for one another. Each person understands the commitment they’re making to the other person. Adam defines love as commitment. The key to success in a healthy relationship with someone is actually the terrifying but necessary effort of commitment. Being there for someone is what a real relationship needs. When we neglect to put in the effort or when things don’t work out with someone that could have been perfect for us, if you put in that extra effort for someone, that can feel reciprocated. Love can be the greatest feeling one can ever feel. Now, there may be a kernel of truth in each of those answers, but what they all have in common is this one thing, and that’s an emphasis on emotion–that love is a feeling. And we have to grant that part of the reason the world has such a difficult time defining love and getting their hands around this concept is because love in the English language is an all-encompassing term. We say things like, I love my dog, I love my car, I love my wife. And these are obviously different kinds of affection. At least I hope so. But we still all describe the way we feel about something or someone, typically as love. And the fact is that when we focus on love in regard to other people, as opposed to things, or dogs, or whatever, the world operates out of the idea that whether it be a product of evolution (as the one definition said), or a cultural conception, or a personal bent, or a combination of these, and maybe some other factors, love is an emotion that just sort of overtakes us. And as one author said, something that you only fully understand when you experience it yourself. 

You know, everyone who has ever lived has their own idea about love, because love is one of the communicable attributes of God, or one of those things that makes God who he is and that he has shared with us as those made in his image. He’s communicated that to us as we are made in the image of God. But due to the fall of man into sin, that image has been marred. It’s been distorted, it’s been polluted. And therefore, fallen mankind is left with a confused and twisted, perverted idea of love. Love is at the center of all relationships. Love is a defining factor of what it means to have a relationship, and therefore people talk about love all the time. People write poems about love. They write stories about love. They write songs about love. The list is endless. And the longing for true love is something that always lingers, but the reality of it seems to be always elusive, just past our grasp. And tragically, while everyone in the world not only has their own personal ideas about love, but acts upon those ideas in ways that cause all sorts of confusion and heartache, they ignore the fact that the one who is the very embodiment of love has described for us what it is right here in his word. What is love? 

Love is patient and kind. Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

You know, these four short verses are among the most beautiful words ever penned by any human being, and that’s because they’re the inspired words of the Holy Spirit of God. These words are read at weddings, they’re quoted and framed and hung on walls. But few give attention to their meaning. Despite their beauty and symmetry and lyrical, almost poetic flow, these verses are not some conglomeration of some sweet, sentimental thoughts about love, but they are a divine description of what love is that is meant to instruct us about the way that we are to think about love and behave in every area of our lives, and in context, remember, particularly in the way we use our spiritual gifts. The Corinthians viewed the more spectacular gifts, and particularly the gift of tongues, as the most significant, and therefore those who had this gift of tongues were viewed as the most important in the congregation. And those who were thought of as lesser had those lesser gifts that were viewed as inferior by others. And Paul corrected that understanding, you remember, through his teaching about God’s priorities of gifting and by driving home the point that each individual member of the body of Christ, which is the church, is essential and indispensable to the whole. That’s what Chapter 12 was all about. But this understanding was not enough. What was really lacking among the Corinthians, and really at the core of every one of their many, many problems that we’ve seen throughout this letter, was selfishness. And therefore, Paul opens the subject of Chapter 13 in verse 31 of Chapter 12 with the announcement that he is going to show them a still more excellent way, which is love. And before unpacking that more excellent way, he showed them that it doesn’t matter what you do, at the end of the day, unless it’s done in love, it is nothing. That’s what verses 1 through 3 were all about:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Now, as we turn our attention to this divine description of love in verses 4 through 7, we find in these few short verses something that is just packed full of truth. Each of these descriptions is sort of like a gold nugget that you find scattered across the creek bed, and they just point to the fact that there is indeed a deep vein of truth beneath the surface. And so, we dare not gather them up quickly and ignore that great truth that lies beneath in its totality. So, what I want to do this morning is just take a survey of the description here of love and glean some general observations about love–just kind of an overview, kind of a fly over–and just pulling out some general observations that we find in this text. And the first thing we note is that, contrary to our natural understanding of genuine love, love is not first and foremost of feeling. Rather, love is a choice. Love is a choice. There are 15 descriptions of love in this passage, in verses 4 through 7, and they come across to us in our English versions primarily as adjectives. But in actuality, every one of these is a verb. A verb. And because they’re verbs, some would say that love is an action. And that certainly encompasses what love is, in a sense. But remember that our actions arise from the seat of our will. Our actions can be deceptive. That’s what Paul warns about in verses 1 through 3. We can do all sorts of good things with bad motives. Everything he says in verses 1 through 3, even though he’s speaking in hyperbole, are all good things. And yet, he says, if they’re done with wrong motives, if they’re done without love, then they mean nothing. And so, love is an action, but it’s more than an action. Actions are actually the expressions of a settled conviction in the heart that moves us to act. And so, what we have in these verses is not necessarily a definition of love, but a description of what love does. This is what love looks like. And if we were to define love, it would be more accurate to say (I believe) that it’s a choice. Each of these verbs that describe what love does or does not do is in the active voice. There are different voices in grammar, so you know, if you like grammar, you know that the active voice is obviously action, and then there’s the passive voice which talks about something that’s done to us. And so, these are the active, which means that God is telling us that love is not something that overtakes us as emotions do. Not at all. It’s something that I choose to do. It’s active, an action that’s predicated on my choice. And this is not to say that love can’t have feelings attached to it. Certainly, it can. But when love is genuine (get this right), feelings follow the choice, not determine the choice. And this is undoubtedly the case, because each of these descriptions of love is not only a verb in the active voice, but in the present tense. Again, grammar–we can have present, we can have past, we can have future tense. This is in the present tense. Every one of these in the present, which means that love always acts in these ways. It never changes. We say we fall in and out of love. Well, those are feelings, but true love never changes. It’s always consistently an expression. It’s not based upon our circumstances or how someone treats us, or how someone responds when we seek to love them. It is always the same. 

A second aspect of love–a general observation here that we see in this passage–is that love is not only a choice, but it’s a choice to humble myself. It’s a choice to humble myself. It’s interesting to me that right in the middle of these fifteen almost lyrical descriptions of love that are given in a sort of chiastic manner (which means they sort of intersect in the middle), the one that’s right in the middle is that phrase that love does not insist on its own way. Love does not insist on its own way. Literally, it does not seek its own, and the translators here in the ESV have filled in the blank for us, and I think correctly. The Proverbs is filled with warnings to avoid going your own way. There’s a way that seems right to a man and the end of that way is the way of death. It’s my way. It’s the selfish way. And this is the natural bent of unredeemed humanity. It’s the root of the cancer of sin within each and every one of us. If we could put sin in a pot and boil it down, what would be left is self-selfishness. It’s all about me. And this is the mantra of our culture, isn’t it? You do you, right? Our culture has this tenacious quest for self-exaltation, and we just see it more and more in our culture, don’t we? I want to do my thing, and don’t get in my way! This one negative characteristic of love, that love does not insist on its own way, strikes at the heart of every issue Paul has addressed with the Corinthians, from arguing over their favorite leader, to suing one another in the civil courts, to tolerating sexual immorality among them, and even being arrogant about it, to problems with marriage and divorce, to steam rolling over one another in issues of conscience, to the wealthy members disregarding the poor members in the observance of the Lord’s Table, to the perversion of spiritual gifts, as we have seen most recently, as symbols of status. And you know, the human heart hasn’t changed in the slightest in the last 2,000 years. And that’s why, even to this day still, we have so much strife and division in churches. As I’ve said before, if you’ve been a Christian for any amount of time, you’ve seen some ugly things in churches. We all have stories to tell. There is strife at every turn, not to mention in families and marriages and society in general, right? I mean, where do wars and conflicts of nations come from? And while the application of these verses is universal, the focus, though, is on the church. Rarely do church conflicts arise from doctrinal issues. Every now and then that’s the case, but typically they arise over issues of preference of selfishness: the style of music, or the order of the service, or the programs that are offered or not offered. And yes, even the color of the carpet. That’s literally happened in churches. James asks, what causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, and so you murder, you covet and cannot obtain, and so you fight and quarrel. That’s the issue. Selfishness. I want my way, and you want your way, and therefore there is constant conflict. And in stark contrast to this natural inclination of selfishness, Paul says, love does not insist on its own way. And you know, this is something that does not come naturally to us–to die to ourselves–is it? Not at all. We’re naturally selfish, and therefore we have to make the choice to deny that selfish inclination. This is a choice. Like Paul says in Philippians 2:3, we are to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than ourselves. We’re not going to do that based on feelings. Ever! No, we’re to have the same attitude as Jesus had, Paul goes on to say in that chapter, who, though he was in the form of God (which means that he was God from all eternity) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (which means that he didn’t hang on to that–he didn’t say, I have to hang on to my glory–he wasn’t selfish), but instead he emptied himself of that glory, and he took on the form of a servant. And he was born in the likeness of his creation as man, and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, which was the most humiliating death that could have been given. And so, love is a choice (listen) to humble ourselves, to get over ourselves and to put others as the focus instead of focusing on ourselves. 

Here’s a third general observation about love that we glean from this description, and it’s this: that love is a choice to imitate God. Love is a choice to imitate God. You know, the first two descriptions of love here, patience and kindness (of which I’m convinced the seven which follow them are the negative contrasts that flesh out what it means to apply them in the context of fallen humanity), these two, patience and kindness, are actually attributes of God. They’re things that make God who he is. Without them, he wouldn’t fully be God. The word translated patient is the same word used in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Hebrew). And the translators used this same word to translate two Hebrew words, which mean slow to anger. Slow to anger. You still see that in some of our English translations. When Moses asked God to show him his glory in Exodus 33, God responded in Chapter 34 and verse 6 by passing before him and proclaiming, the LORD the LORD, a God merciful and gracious (here’s our word), slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. And it’s interesting to me that as you trace the Old Testament, that same description of God is given no less than twelve more times throughout the entirety of the Old Testament. God is constantly telling us, I’m patient. I’m merciful. I’m kind. And the word here is used in first Peter 3:9, which says, the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. The word kind is also found in the Septuagint to speak of God’s goodness. I love that that term, the goodness of God. It’s a sort of all-encompassing term. It’s the Hebrew word tov. Good. It’s the word that God used to describe his creation when he was finished. It’s good. It’s very good. Kindness is goodness. And we see it in Psalm 25:7. We see it in Psalm 31:19; 68:10, 145, verse 7. When you come into the New Testament in Romans, Chapter 2, verse 4, we’re told that it is the kindness of God that is meant to lead us to repentance. Titus 3-4 says when the goodness (there’s that word)–when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us. Ephesians 2:7 says that God saves sinners so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness (there’s that word again)–in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 

And beyond these two individual descriptors of God’s love is the motivation of God’s love that moved him to act on our behalf. You see, the choice that stands at the heart of genuine love is the choice that God made in purchasing our redemption. And not only have we been given this divine description of love here in our passage, but we have a divine demonstration of love in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel, the cross, is the ultimate display of God’s attributes. It’s like a beautiful prism where they all shine through and we see there the love of God meeting the justice of God as Christ is punished in our place, and it’s love that motivated the Father to crush his Son. Romans 5:8 says that God shows (the word there is demonstrates)–God manifests, he puts on display his love in that while we were still sinners, the enemies of God, Christ died for us, in our place. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4–5). To genuinely love others is to imitate the love that God has shown us. In fact, we’re commanded to do that very thing in Ephesians Chapter 5, verses 1 and 2. We’re told, be imitators of God as beloved children, and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. The love God calls us to, brothers and sisters, is the same kind of love that motivated him to act on our behalf. And that’s why Jesus can say, love your enemies, because God loved us when we were his enemies, when we were still sinners. What stood behind his choice to willingly send his son to die in our place was his love. What motivated the Son of God to willingly step down into humanity and walk those steps down in humbling himself and to go to the cross and to follow through, even though in his humanity he was struggling with that? He did it because he loved us. And he says now you love one another like that. That’s a tall order, isn’t it? And when we get that Godward-oriented, gospel-centered view of love, we begin to see the beauty and joy that only come through it, like the writer of Hebrew says, that it was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross. And we feel that joy. You see, the feelings follow; the joy and the peace and all of those wonderful things that we experience are a result of genuinely loving others. 

Well, not only is this a choice to imitate God, but a fourth general observation we find in this passage is that love is a choice to define love on God’s terms. Love is a choice to define love on God’s terms. Note verse 6 there. There’s this contrast. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. There’s a personal application of this, but I believe that what Paul is doing under the inspiration of the Spirit with that statement is putting some guardrails on the idea of love. As we said at the outset, everyone has his or her own ideas about love. And we expect that from the world, but there are many who profess the name of Christ, who call for a sort of love that has no boundaries. Anyone who names the name of Christ is to unite as one and love regardless of difference in doctrine or practice. And anyone who denies that is just narrow minded and bigoted, right? We’re just we’re not with it. But love and truth go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. In fact, turn over to Philippians 1 with me for a moment. Philippians chapter 1, and notice this beautiful prayer that Paul prays for believers there. Philippians 1 and verse 9. He says, and it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and discernment so that you may approve what is excellent and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God. Paul is saying there that I want your love to grow, but I want it to grow in truth. We can’t allow the world to define love for us. We can’t allow our own sinful bents to define love for us. We have to renew our minds with the truth of God’s word and allow it to define love for us, to learn to be patient and kind and yet never compromise and wind up calling evil good and good evil as the world does, and as so many professing Christians are doing even today. When we deal with one another in the context of the Christian community on a personal level, even there we are to speak the truth in love, right? It’s always love, bound by truth. We could put it this way: that true love should be always abounding, but always within the bounds of truth. 

Here’s a fifth and final general observation about love I want you to see this morning: that love is a choice to be filled with the Spirit. Love is ultimately a choice to be filled with the Spirit. Those two positive descriptions of love that are attributes of God, that head this list, patience and kindness, are actually found in the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. You remember that love heads that list, and I believe that just as this list of descriptors here in First Corinthians 13, 4 through 7 enlarge on our understanding of love, so that list in Galatians 5:22 are like overlapping circles that fall under the broader heading of love. As you study the New Testament, and really, Scripture as a whole, you find that love is the fountainhead of the fruit of the Spirit. It’s the fullest expression of Christ’s likeness possible. It encompasses all the other fruits of the Spirit. It’s the crowning virtue of the Christian life. Love is made up of all of these various fruits and we see this spelled out in statements like our Lord’s in Matthew 22, where the Jewish leaders cornered him and they said, what’s the first and greatest commandment? And what did he say? He says that the entire Old Testament, both the law and the prophets, hang on these two commandments: the first is that you love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and the second is that you love your neighbor as yourself. Romans 13:10 says that love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Galatians 5:14: the whole law is fulfilled in one word, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. James says that it’s the royal law–to love your neighbor as yourself. This is love. But love is only possible when we choose to put off the deeds of the flesh and put on the deeds of the Spirit. Romans 8 tells us that we’re able to fulfill that law because we have the Spirit of God living within us. That’s the only reason. The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us, and therefore it’s the love of God that controls us. But Galatians 5:16 through 17 says that we have to walk by the Spirit. That’s what Paul means in Ephesians 5:18: be filled with the Spirit. That’s a command. It’s not to seek some extra, you know, experience of grace, where something miraculous happens. No, not at all. It’s simply to be obedient to the Spirit of God. It’s to allow the word of God to renew our minds and then to be led by the Spirit to do what God commands us to do in his revealed will in whatever given situation we find ourselves. Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. We have to put to death the deeds of the flesh and put on the deeds of that new man who is being renewed in the likeness of its creator. The Christian life is not passive; the Christian life is active. That’s the point here, right? Remember Philippians 2:12 through 13, that we are to do what God says: we are to put it on. We’re called to action and when it comes down to it, folks, there’s really only two choices on the shelf, like they say: pleasing God or pleasing self. How we respond to other people has to do with whether or not we’re going to obey God. And listen, the whole context of this chapter is spiritual gifts. And Paul’s emphasis is that no Christian has every spiritual gift. We need each other. We’re indispensable. No Christian has every spiritual gift. But every Christian can bear the fruit of the Spirit and exercise our gifts in light of that. That’s the more excellent way. That should permeate all of what we do in the church, not only spiritual gifts, but everything, and it should permeate our homes, our marriages, and it should bleed into our culture, as Jesus said, that this is how people–the world will know that you’re my disciples, if you have love for one another. 

We’ve done just a fly-over of this rich, rich passage and I want to come back to it again in a couple weeks ahead and dig in and really look at these things in depth. And I want to pull out a lot of really rich application for us here. But this morning. We need to settle in our minds that love is not based on a feeling. Feelings may follow love. In fact, I could go so far as to say, they will follow love if we are loving the way God has called us to. But love is first and foremost a choice. It’s a choice to humble myself. To reorient my focus, my natural bent upon myself to other people. To stop wanting my own way, my own interests, my own preferences, and start putting the needs and desires and preferences of others above my own. It’s a choice to imitate God. To be like him. To be patient. To be kind. Ultimately, to treat others the way he treated us in Jesus Christ and the way he still treats us. Even after all the grace that he’s lavished on us, how patient is God with you? If we could just get that in our minds. If we could just think about how patient God is with me. And yet I can’t be patient with my brother? It’s a choice to define love on God’s terms and not my own or anyone else’s. To commit to permit the truth of God’s word to serve as the guardrails of love so that, listen, brothers and sisters, when we look at this in depth in the weeks ahead, we’re going to find that sometimes that means that love has to be tough. It means that I have to confront that brother. It means that I can’t fellowship with those people who are outside of the bounds of God’s truth. It doesn’t mean it’s not loving; it doesn’t mean I can’t be patient and kind as I do that. And it’s ultimately a choice to be filled with the Spirit. To say no to the flesh, which is that indwelling sin, that keeps clinging on, that we are to be putting to death, putting to death, putting to death in this lifelong journey of growing more like Jesus; putting that off and putting this on. That’s maturity. That’s Christian growth and love is the crowning part of that growth. 

You know, all of this goes without saying that unless you know the Lord Jesus Christ, unless you’ve placed your faith in him, it’s impossible to love the way that God commands. If you’re here today and you don’t know Jesus, it’s hard to say this to you, but it’s true: that you have never really loved. And none of us has ever really loved the way we ought. But if you’re to even begin to pursue this list, then you have to have the Spirit of God, and that means you have to put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. You must be born again. Your heart is dead in trespasses and sins. And the God who was so loving and merciful and gracious will make you alive. That’s his work. God says, simply, to you, repent and believe. And repentance doesn’t mean that you’ve got to clean yourself up and, you know, be perfect this morning. I hope not. I mean, I’m about 20 years into this thing, and I’m not even there yet, okay? What it means is that you realize that you’re going your own way. When I was a youth pastor, I was the king of the wrong turn. Every time we would go somewhere on a trip as a youth group, I would be driving the van or directing the bus, and I would either turn here or, say, turn there. And almost every time it was the wrong turn. So, what did we have to do? Well, we had to turn around, right? We had to do a U-turn and go back and turn the right way. And that’s what repentance is. It’s recognizing I’m going my own way. I’m insisting on my own way. And I say, oh, there’s Jesus. And I turn from my own way, and I turn to him. That’s repentance and faith. Two sides of the same coin. I turn from my way, and I turn to Christ, and I trust in him fully and I receive his forgiveness. And I say yes, Lord, I’m going to follow you. And then I just live the Christian life and I do what we’re calling all of us to do this morning is to put the deeds of the flesh to death and put on righteousness. Jesus says come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is kind (that’s that word). My yoke is easy. It’s kind, it’s good, and my burden is light. Let’s bow together. 

Father in heaven, we feel like we’re climbing to the summit of something wonderful in this most excellent way. And it’s as if we’re finding it hard to breathe as we think of ourselves in contrast to what it means to really love. This is a tall, tall order. And we will never accomplish it perfectly. And yet it is what you call us, to. You don’t lower the bar. And you tell us we have everything we need for life and godliness. We have your Spirit indwelling us. We have your word before us. There’s no doubt about what it means to love. Father, this morning, as we each examine our own hearts against this beautiful description of love and the demonstration that we see in our Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf, the cross. We ask that you would give us grace to turn, to repent, whether it’s for the first time, turning to Christ in all his glory, or whether it’s once again recognizing how far we fall short and turning away from that and committing to choose to love. When other people come up against our way, may we choose to be patient and kind. To not insist on our own way. May we speak the truth in love. And may we do all of this for your glory through Jesus our Savior, Amen.