Five Things Love Isn't (And One Thing It Is)
One of my favorite things about the way that God has orchestrated human history is the fact that he ordained that Christ should come to Earth at a time when the New Testament could be written in Greek. Greek is probably the most specific language that has ever existed. Take the word "love," for instance. In English, we say things like, "Well, I love her, but I don't love love her." And while context often helps us to understand what people mean when they say things like this, it nevertheless stands to reason that if we could be easily clearer about what kind of love we have for someone else, we wouldn't have to say things like this in the first place. The Ancient Greeks solved this problem by having SIX DIFFERENT WORDS, which can all be translated into English as "love," to express the ideas of kinds of love.
Because of English's lack of specificity and clarity, we can end up being on the receiving ends of questions like, "Why don't you love me?" or statements like "If you loved me, you would..." when the things people refer to in such statements are rarely love at all. So, today, to offer a little clarity, we're going to state explicitly five things that love is not, and one thing it is.
Five Things Love Is Not
Love is not "liking" someone.
This one probably seems like the most obvious of the bunch. Obviously loving and liking are different. The confusion comes when people say things like, "Why don't you love me?" when what the really mean is "Why don't you like me?" See, liking someone is really about you. When you like someone, it doesn't do anything for them directly. It's about your enjoyment. I appreciate this person for the way they make me feel, and so I want to spend time around them. Being liked is obviously an ego boost, and so some people find it really important to be liked, whether it's by a romantic partner, a parent, a child, or what have you. But it is possible to love someone without enjoying their personality or enjoying spending a lot of time with them.
Love is not showing someone affection.
Like all of these things that are not love, showing affection to someone can certainly be a strong indicator that love is present. But it is not, in itself, love. Showing affection is usually a response to liking someone, a demonstration of the enjoyment you have of being around them. "You make me feel good and enjoy myself, and I want to show you that I appreciate that." This happens all the time, and in a variety of ways, without love being present. Affection is an outpouring, but it can spring from a variety of things beside love. There is one thing that will help identify whether the affection you're receiving is borne of love, which we'll talk about in a minute.
Love is not "wanting" someone.
Wanting someone, like liking someone, is self-focused. We don't want other people because of what we can do for them, but because of what we perceive they do for us. Whether we want them for their bodies, for their influence, for the comfort they bring in companionship, for their resources, for the sense of security they give us - wanting someone is ultimately about us. Again, the knowledge that you are wanted certainly feels good, and being wanted can be an indication that you are loved, especially if you have experienced the perception that you have been unwanted at some point in your life, and the person who loves you is going out of their way to demonstrate their desire for you. But desire is not love.
Love is not sex.
Sex can be loving. It is possible, even highly recommended, to demonstrate that you love your spouse through your sexual relationship - but sex has also lacked love as much as it has included it in human history. When the focus is on self, and how a sexual experience can pleasure, gratify, and edify me, sex becomes a shallow reflection of its true nature, and is antithetical to love.
Love is not obedience.
Honestly, I kind of want to save this one for after we talk about the one thing that love is, because this one is a little tricky. But I feel like that wouldn't be good blog form, so I'm just going to talk about it now and hope that you'll forgive me if it seems disjointed. Especially as a parent, the idea that love is not obedience feels a little off. I demand obedience from my daughters not for my benefit, because I enjoy having power over them or feel gratified by the sense of control. I demand obedience for their benefit - out of my love for them. I demand obedience because they're children and there are things that they just don't know that I do. When I say, "stop," or "no," I demand that they stop immediately, without asking questions first. Not because I'm a drill sergeant, but because I don't have time to explain to my one-year-old why she shouldn't stick a fork in an electrical socket while she's in the midst of doing it. I just need her to stop before she electrocutes herself.
But not every parent is like this. Not every spouse is like this. And certainly not everyone who thinks they know best for someone else and demands obedience because of it is right. There is a balance to respecting the autonomy of one we have authority over and exercising that authority wisely when necessary. Responding to that authority in obedience, likewise, can both be a demonstration of love, or it can be an abdication of it. John 14:15 says, "If you love me, (you will) keep my commands." And it's true, in the case of Christ. Our obedience communicates our love in that we give up our desires and preferences for his, and doing so justly glorifies and pleases him. But Christ is perfect, and his perfection creates a different dynamic than when we deal with other people. If someone is lording obedience over you that shouldn't be, we do them a disservice by acquiescing to their demands. We encourage them to continue in their bullying and manipulations, rather than confronting them in love, which, often, is the true sacrifice we can make for their betterment.
One Thing Love Is
Love is self-sacrifice.
When believers talk about what love is, they often quote 1 Corinthians 13, and for good reason. It's a long list of love's descriptors, each beginning with the phrase "Love is..." However, this list is really better described as a list of the things that love is like, or that love includes or involves. It's characteristics and attributes - but the list actually circles around the essence of love without ever landing directly upon it. There are a few other passages that hit the nail squarely on its head: 1 John 3:16, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us," John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends," and Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
The fundamental, most basic presentation of love is the willingness to give up your rights, your dreams, your desires, and your preferences for the betterment of another person. It's self-sacrifice, pure and simple (though, admittedly, not often easy). And it is the distinguishing factor that helps us identify where love is present in things we often mistake for love. Do I show affection because it's important to the person I love? Do I make an effort to demonstrate affection in ways that might not be natural or easy to me, but in ways that I know are meaningful and receivable for the person I love? Do I demonstrate my desire for the one I love as a means of ministering to her heart, which is wounded in that area? When we make love, am I interested in her pleasure above mine? Do I communicate that to her before, during, and after in my words and actions toward her? 1 Corinthians gets close when it says that love is "never selfish," though perhaps a better translation would be that love "can't be selfish." Hate is not the opposite of love - selfishness is. He who loves himself most can love no one else.
If someone is questioning your love for them, either behind your back or to your face, chances are excellent that whatever they think of as love is far too self-involved to be the real thing. Their statements are likely designed to guilt you or pressure you into meeting their needs, while giving little to no thought to yours. Now, by no means does this excuse you from loving them, but it does enable you to guard your heart against false guilt by discerning true love from one of its impostors. No one is perfect in their love, but, by the grace of God, we can continue to be better and better, as he enables us to learn to sacrifice ourselves more so that others might see Jesus Christ through us.