We love to talk, think, and sing about love. But, what does it mean? We don’t often think deeply about what love really is. Often we just mindlessly say, “I love you” because it seems appropriate. We can leisurely toss the phrase around like we are playing frisbee at the park. It would seem that for a subject as important and enduring as love that we might want to have a handle on it and make sure we know what we are saying and then actually mean it.
This is especially true for Christians. Remember, we serve and worship a God who says that he is love (1 Jn. 4.8). He is the source and truest expression of love. Everything he does is loving. Further, God has told us that we can actually know what love is by looking at the doing and dying of Jesus for sinners like us: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us…” (1 Jn. 3.16). At its very core then our understanding of love must carry the gospel scent. It must be reflective of God’s love, particularly in and through the gospel.
What then is love?
Let me try a definition. Love is the willful and joyful sacrifice of ourselves in the service of others so that they might be blessed.
This definition takes into consideration that the love that was displayed in the giving of Christ was willful. That is, it was not under compulsion. There was a mental ascent to this. God willed this. Jesus took the mantle willingly. It was also joyful. The Son delights to do the Father’s will and joyfully looked ahead to the full accomplishment and expression of this love (Heb. 12.2). It is also sacrificial in that the Father sacrificed, he gave his only Son for us (Jn. 3.16). Jesus himself laid down his life for his sheep (Jn. 10.11, 14-15). Furthermore, the work of Christ was service. This loving Savior served his people by laying down his life (Mk. 10.45). The One who washed his disciples feet also washed and cleaned their wounds from sin and Satan. This he did for the glory of God and our good, that is, that we might be blessed.
Oftentimes when many people say, “I Love You” they mean something like, “I Like You” or “I Want You” or “I Need You.” The trouble with all of these is they all speak out of a lack. This is a restless craving for fullfillment from other people. Often times there is not a whiff of sacrifice or service without the overwhelming perfume of self.
On the other hand, Christians understand love in a completely different way. Love is a gospel-calibrated love.
The world says “love for the purpose of self” but the gospel says, “love at the expense of self”?
The world says, “what can I gain from you” but the gospel says, “what can I give to you”?
The world pursues love for the fulfillment of self, and is left empty. Christians pursue love at the expense of self and are made full.
I enjoyed the contrast established by CS Lewis here in Mere Christianity:
“Ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense – love as distinct from ‘being in love’ – is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself.
Whether we are talking about the love of friendship, sacrifice, or romantic love, it is always informed by and calibrated to the gospel. We are never out to gain personal meaning or identity by means of love because we have already gained this by being loved in Christ. Our love, like the gospel, is other-orientated, God-glorifying, and therefore personally gratifying and joy producing.
So as you say “I Love You” today and everyday, make sure to remember what it means. It is a weighty and wonderful phrase. It should be known, felt, and said in truth!