What’s Love Got To Do With It?

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.

The Greatest Commandment: Love God First

I know a little bit about talking to lawyers because I raised one. My home grown litigator could be hard-headed and frustrating at times. He could easily argue the paint right off the wall, and I imagine lawyers were much the same in Jesus’ day. The Messiah was in the middle of a cross examination by the prominent religious leaders of His time when a scribe asked Him to identify the greatest commandment. No doubt he thought this would be quite a challenge for the rabbi from Nazareth, and that Jesus would squirm as He decided which of the 613 commands was most important. Would it be one of the dietary laws, a law regarding sacrifices, or perhaps a sabbath regulation?

In a mic drop moment, Jesus answered the question. He declared that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is, Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other command greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) The scriptures tell us that the audience was speechless as Jesus’ words hung in the air. The self-righteous teachers of the law felt their egos being crushed beneath the weight of this scriptural mandate. They were confronted with the fact that this commandment is foundational to obedience in every area of life. So why does God want to be the boss of us? He made us. He knows what’s best for us. He knows what’s bad for us.

He made us.

“Come, let’s worship and bow down; let’s kneel before the Lord our Maker.” (Psalms 95:6) God commands us to love Him because He made us. Like a mechanic who builds an engine, or an architect who designs a structure, He knows how we function best, and is intimately acquainted with the purpose for which we were designed.

We were made to run on Him. C.S. Lewis explains this concept in Mere Christianity when he says, “Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (Book 2, Chapter 3, p. 50)

We will be most fulfilled when we use each part of who we are for the purpose for which it was designed. God made our hearts to worship, and stirs in them a restlessness that can only be satisfied when He is the object of our worship. Our triune God had perfect community within Himself, and created us to enjoy fellowship; therefore, our souls will never be content until they join in communion with Him. God Himself is a rational being, and so He created our minds to be able to reason and discover evidentially who He is. He designed our physical bodies to be vessels through which we can work with purpose and serve Him. Because He made us, He also knows how to best maintain His creation by providing what’s best for us.

He knows what’s best for us.

My older son has always harbored a disdain for green beans. I remember one particularly unpleasant showdown over his least favorite vegetable when he was about six years old. Having tired of playing short order cook and catering to his whims, I was determined that he was going to eat just one bite of green beans before getting up from the dinner table. He was just as determined to defy my demands. After about a two hour show down, he balled up his tiny fists and declared, “You’re ruining my whole life!” For the record, he did eventually eat one bite (score one for Mom), and has managed to live a productive and healthy life, none the worse for the incident.

Much like my son, we often ball up our fists and determine that God takes pleasure in issuing edicts designed to ruin our good time. We think God should prioritize our happiness, and simply allow us to consume whatever satisfies our appetites in the short term. We often forget that He is out for our eternal good. It’s the difference between gorging on chocolate and disciplining ourselves to eat our vegetables. Ultimately, He knows what’s best for us and He knows what’s bad for us. He knows it’s harmful for us to be filled up with ourselves rather than to love and be led by Him.

Thankfully, God’s Word tells us where to find sustenance. The Psalmist encourages us to satisfy our hunger and thirst through feasting on God’s commands. “How sweet your word is to my taste — sweeter than honey in my mouth.” (Psalms 119:103) “I open my mouth and pant because I long for your commands.” (Psalms 119:131) Jesus, the Word Incarnate, tells us that He is the Bread of Life (John 6) and the Living Water (John 4) and that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled (Matthew 5:6). When we love God first, we receive what is good for us, but we also avoid what is bad for us.

He knows what’s bad for us.

He knows it’s bad for us to be our own bosses. God knows that when left to our own devices, our hearts are inclined to churn out idols. Often those idols bear a strong resemblance to the person we see in the mirror, because it’s human nature to want to be in charge. My younger son invented an interesting word when he was about three years old. Having overheard us call him both strong-willed and independent, he merged the terms and declared that he was “wendapenda.” The same son, tired of being bossed around by his older brother, also once emphatically prophesied, “One day I’m gonna be the boss of somebody!” While this was sort of cute and even a bit amusing to observe in a toddler, it’s not so attractive as we get older. This is the same struggle humans have faced since the very beginning, recorded in Genesis 3, when the enemy convinced Eve that God was holding out on her by not allowing her to be her own boss.

God also knows it’s bad for culture to be the boss of us. The world we live in reverses the two greatest commandments. We live in a me-centric, selfie-obsessed culture that does its best to convince us that only by loving ourselves first can we truly love others. The truth is that we cannot love ourselves or others until we first love God. We have no definition for real love apart from Him. The culture also assures us that we will be happiest if we just follow our hearts and let our feelings lead the way. God’s Word warns of the danger of this approach in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” I know that my feelings will lead me astray in a hot second, so they are definitely in no position to be the boss of me. Following our hearts is a one way self-destructive path.

Love initiates action.

Love for God is a command that initiates an action. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” When we accept the free and gracious gift of the gospel, we are called to obedience in following His commands. Obedience to the first command bears fruit which flows over into the second, and compels us to demonstrate our love for others. Unless we embed the anchor of our faith deeply into the immovable bedrock of God’s steadfast love, we risk flailing about in the stormy sea of our emotions, grasping onto the drifting wreckage of things wholly unworthy of our worship. It is only by virtue of loving God first that we experience the transformation and renewal of our hearts and minds, and become equipped to change our world with the life-giving gospel.

Curing Heart Disease

The heart is universally recognized as a symbol of love, and the month of February is prime season for all the hearts as we fashion chocolate into hearts, scribble them on our Valentines, and emblazon hearts across our t-shirts. One of my favorite traditions when my boys were young was to prepare a giant chocolate chip cookie cake in the shape of a heart for them to eat for breakfast on Valentine’s Day. After all, what better way to express my love than to offer chocolate chip cookies for the most important meal of the day! On our very first Valentine’s Day as a dating couple, my husband demonstrated his love for me by wrestling a giant inflatable heart up the stairway to my second floor apartment. Songs tell of burning hearts, shattered hearts, and even achy breaky hearts. Our hearts are the source of life flowing through our bodies, contracting 100,000 times a day, pumping 2,000 gallons of blood, and delivering oxygen and other essential nutrients to our vital organs. So it’s no doubt that our hearts are of great importance.

God created our hearts with both physical and spiritual significance, and confirms the vital nature of the heart through the number of mentions in His Word. In the CSB translation of the Bible, the heart is mentioned 508 times. That’s almost ten times the number of mentions of the soul (55), and almost five times the number of mentions of the mind (111). Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, recognized the importance of the heart when he said, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.”  If this is true, and seeds planted in the heart grow into thoughts and actions, then it’s important to make sure our hearts are both physically and spiritually healthy. In fact, Proverbs 4:23 cautions us to “Guard your heart above all else for it is the source of life.”

Our Hearts Are Sick

Heart disease is the number one killer of people in the United States. According to the CDC, approximately 647,000 deaths occur each year as a result of heart disease. Physical heart disease can be managed through proper nutrition, adequate exercise, and appropriate medication. But what are we to do about our spiritually sick hearts? Spiritual heart-sickness has caused even more devastation over the millennia than physical heart disease. The first mention of the heart in scripture is in Genesis 8:21 when God promises after the flood to never again curse the ground because of man, “…even though the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth onward.” Later in the Old Testament, Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Thus, we are born with diseased hearts, spiritually speaking. As much as we may desire the cure, we don’t have the means within ourselves to provide it. We can’t reach inside and fix this ailment. Unfortunately, many times we are encouraged to just “follow our hearts.” Perhaps it’s not wise to let emotions guide us without the direction of the one who created our hearts in the first place. Proverbs 3:5-6 instructs us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways know him, and he will make your paths straight.” Only when God mends our hearts can we be assured that we will remain on course.

God Heals Our Hearts

So is there anything we can do to treat our spiritual heart disease? We can do nothing on our own. The cure rests in placing our faith in Jesus, who suffered, died, and was resurrected to pay the penalty for our sin. Romans 10:10 says, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Psalm 119:11 instructs us to treasure God’s Word in our hearts so that we will not continue to sin against Him. As God’s Word takes root in our hearts, sin becomes less appealing to us. But, as flawed humans, sin inevitably rears its ugly head, requiring us to cleanse our hearts through the regular practice of confession and repentance. The psalmist is an example for us in Psalm 51:10 when he pleads, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” As we strive to keep our hearts pure and live holy lives during our brief time on earth, God promises that we will live eternally with Him in heaven. Jesus assures us in Matthew 5:8 that the pure in heart will see God.

We Satisfy Our Hearts In Him

The first portion of the great commandment in Mark 12:30 says to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…” So what does it mean to love God with all our hearts? Does it mean mushy emotionalism, or could it mean something more? Psalms 24:3-4 says, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god.” We were made by our Creator to worship, and our hearts will never be truly satisfied or whole until we humbly submit our wills to His as an expression of loyalty and faithful worship. Augustine of Hippo said, “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” God’s Word promises in Jeremiah 29:13 that, “You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart.” As we journey on an earnest quest toward deeper fellowship with our Creator, we recognize who He is, and that He is the only one worthy of our whole-hearted devotion.

When my older son was about two years old, he made a Valentine in his Sunday School class. He brought it home, and we proudly displayed the lovingly crafted artwork on his bedroom door. As we went through our bedtime routine every night, we typically read a bedtime story, said a prayer, and went through the standard toddler stalling tactics. One night as he noticed the heart hanging on his door, he said, “There’s a heart on my door. Isn’t it pretty?” I’m not sure why, but we jokingly responded, “No. It’s disgusting, it’s horrible, it’s ugly!” Seeing the shock on his face, we then immediately replied, “No. It’s beautiful, and so are you!” He then said, “And so are you!” Hugs and kisses ensued immediately. For several months this became part of our bedtime routine, and we recited it exactly the same way every night. I admit it was kind of strange, but reflecting back on it, I think it gives a little insight into how we relate to God. We think there’s nothing wrong with our hearts and proudly put them on display. As we hold them up before a holy God, the ugliness within is revealed. Because He loves us, He provides the means to make our hearts beautiful and pure so we can enjoy His presence forever. And that will truly be a magnificent place to dwell for all who place their trust in Him.