I’m a product of the crazy eighties, you know, the decade of parachute pants, big hair, Boy George, and a variety of weird cultural trends. The decade when I came of age also produced music with some very misguided definitions of love. In her 1984 hit, Tina Turner inquired, “What’s love got to do with it?” Exploring the question further, she concluded that love is simply “a secondhand emotion.” Whitney Houston asserted in 1985 that “the greatest love of all” is not only easy to achieve, but is found inside each one of us. Phil Colins threw in his two cents when he sang about a “groovy kind of love” in 1988. The pop singers of the eighties definitely thought they had it all figured out.
There’s no doubt that people have always loved to talk about love, especially when led to believe that it’s no more complicated than the lyrics of a pop song. But love is not that simple, and the world has eviscerated its true definition. Hillary Ferrer calls this redefinition of words by our culture “linguistic theft” in her book Mama Bear Apologetics. She says, “Love used to be defined as ‘to will the good of another.’…Anything that makes someone uncomfortable is now deemed unloving. Today, to love someone means to blindly accept whatever that person believes, even if his or her belief contradicts reality.” But to knowingly allow someone to walk in untruth is anything but loving. In fact, 1 Corinthians 13:6 tells us that real love rejoices in the truth.
To define love correctly, we must go back to the source of love. Our Creator God possesses love as one of His essential attributes (1 John 4:8). It isn’t just something that He does, it’s something that He is, and so it’s impossible for Him to be anything other than loving. Defined correctly, love means that I truly want what is in the best interest of another person, even if that means it is not what is most accepted by the world around me. God’s love would not allow Him to look the other way when His chosen people, the nation of Israel, sinned against Him despite repeated warnings. He knew that their prideful and idolatrous rebellion would only hurt them by taking their eyes off of Him and causing them to gaze at themselves. Their sin came at tremendous cost, and ours does, too. Because of His great self-sacrificial love for them and for us, the incredible gospel story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration unfolded in history.
The greatest commandment instructs us to love God first; however, scripture tells us that there is something “of first importance” that comes before we are able to obey the greatest commandment. The gospel, or good news, is summarized in what is thought to be the earliest Christian creed. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” His death on our behalf met the demands of God’s justice, paid for our sins, and reconciled us to God. This singular event in history makes it possible for us, through an act of the will, to accept God’s gracious gift of salvation. “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14) Jesus’ love sent Him to the cross for us, and compels us to follow His commands.
The order is of utmost importance. Attempting to love without first receiving the life-giving gift of the gospel perpetuates a never-ending cycle of self-justification. Thaddeus J. Williams says in Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, “Without the gospel first, we become graceless in our truth telling, cheerless in our giving, and our neighborly love turns into self-righteous showmanship.” Because we have the moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:15), we know we ought to do good, but have nothing on which to ground this obligation. We look to the world for validation and become accountable to our fellow humans rather than the One who formed us all. Thaddeus J. Williams continues, “Today people are terror-stricken less before the Creator and more before creatures.” We exist in a perpetual state of trying to satisfy the demands of the culture that surrounds us, knowing we will never quite measure up. So once we have the order right, gospel first followed by love for God and others, we have a workable definition of love that enables us to carry out the greatest commandment and the other commands that flow from it.
Returning to Tina Turner’s definition, a mere second hand emotion does not compel me to behave in the self-sacrificial manner that Christ exemplified on the cross. It takes much more than the world’s definition of love for me to look someone straight in the eyes with whom I disagree ideologically, and decide that I want what is best for them and not what would make me feel vindicated in the short term. Should we believe, like Whitney Houston, that all we need to do is learn to love ourselves better in order to find the source of love within our own hearts? I know myself too well to believe that to be true. I know that within myself is a deceitful heart (Jeremiah 17:9) that left to its own devices wants what it wants. Only by looking to an external standard, God and His Word, can I truly know how to love others correctly.
Real love is defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “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.” Patient, kind, humble, truthful, self-sacrificial love is the standard to which God’s Word holds us as Christ followers. It may not always feel groovy, but it is what God commands.