This is true love. You think this happens every day?
—Westley, The Princess Bride (1987)
So This Is Love?
I recently did an Internet search for “love” — and got 8.6 billion results. As you can imagine, the definitions and descriptions of true love are all over the place. Most say love is an overpowering emotion and relentless existential passion. A few say that love requires commitment and self-sacrifice. A few distinguish romantic love from the merely sensual or sexual love. And a few make long-term love vs. short-term love distinctions. Then there are the websites filled with pictures of princesses and queens (mostly Disney) which perpetuate more misconceptions about love.
Here are some of those myths:
- Love is always spontaneous. It comes unbidden and often under the strangest circumstances. A stroll through the marketplace, a glance across a crowd of strangers, a single dance at a royal ball, or a magic carpet ride.
- Love comes suddenly. “Love at first sight” is common, even likely. Love that develops slowly lacks fire and excitement.
- Love can flourish on shared experience alone, however short or vague that experience might be. True love doesn’t require much conversation or discussion.
- Love creates “magical” transformations. With predictable consistency, love almost always changes a beast into a prince or a criminal into an honest man.
- Love is unconditional. True love will always be passionate love, even if one of the lovers turns into a sociopath, a molester or a serial killer.
- Love knows no rules. There are no requirements. Love does what it wants, and no one has any right to criticize its choices. “Who are you to tell me how to live or love?”
- Love knows no boundaries – no gender or species rules, either. Real love could mean falling deeply in love with a colony of bees or an amoeba.
- Love is forever … until it’s not. We want to believe that true love is undying, but when love does die … we’re quick to say it’s dead. That’s it, all done, over. We lack the magic to rekindle it. We might believe that fate, destiny, or blind chance might get a fire rekindled, but there are no guarantees. When in doubt, it’s always best to move on … no matter how many wrecked lives are left in the wake.
The roots of these myths go a lot deeper than Disney or Hollywood. They go further back even than Western Romanticism. Ultimately, these myths stem from our desire to play God and to deify some aspect of His personality. (In this case, His emotions.) We believe love is divine because we use our own emotions as an infallible standard for love. We believe love is divine because … in a sense … we think we are divine. And if our love is divine, then it is ultimately beyond anyone’s criticisms. A psychologist or sociologist might raise a nervous warning about the importance of secular self-denial and self-sacrifice in any relationship, but ultimately … my love is my own and no one tells me what to do.
In the Beginning Was Love
Scripture, on the other hand, grounds true love in the Being of God Himself. The Triune God of Scripture is Father, Son, and Spirit … three distinct Persons, one divine essence. From eternity the Father loved the Son and delighted in Him. From eternity the Son loved and honored His Father and rejoiced before Him. And from eternity the Father and the Son breathed forth the divine Spirit to one another as the personal bond of their love. Within this Triune community there was and there is perfect transparency, commitment, faithfulness, communication and of course, love. The Father delights to honor His Son. The Son delights to honor His Father. The Holy Spirit comes into our world and into history to glorify the Son so the Son can glorify the Father and the Father can glorify the Son (John 14-17). This divine love is wholly complete and completely self-sufficient … yet it is eternally overflowing. God is love, and He delights to set His gracious, undeserved love on sinners. We know that God so loved the world that He gave His Son for sinners (John 3:16).
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:9-10).
Now, God does call sinners to know and love Him. He calls sinners by the gospel … the message of Christ’s death as a penal substitute and divine sacrifice for sin. He empowers that gospel message by His own Spirit, so that those who believe, being indwelt by the Spirit, are filled with the very love of God (Rom. 5:5). And yet God does not leave that love without direction or description. God tells us in His Word what love looks like.
Law and Love
Jesus “connected” true love with God’s law when He said that the two greatest commandments of God’s law are “love God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, He said that all the other commandments, indeed all of prophetic revelation, hang on these two great commandments (Matt. 22:34-40). Or, to put it the other way around, love works itself out in terms of the law of God revealed in all of Scripture.
We often have a hard time with this. I know I do. Our culture is relentless in demanding that love always be connected with spontaneity and wild-eyed passion … and almost never with obedience and duty. Think about it. When is the last time you went to a movie or heard a song on the radio that emphasized real love in a biblical sense? Not just that, but how can a two-minute song or a two-hour movie demonstrate what it takes to be married for 40 years? The very structure and nature of our entertainment mediums make this a challenge.
But consider what God’s law actually requires. The Ten Commandments, for example, tell us that we are to keep the vows we make to one another. That we are to give those under our authority rest one day in seven. That we are to honor those in authority over us. That we are to protect the life, marriage, property and reputation of our neighbor. The Tenth Commandment tells us that we are not even to harbor ill attitudes toward our neighbor. This is why Paul says, “Love worketh no ill toward his neighbor: Therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10). Love serves others and so fulfills God’s law (Gal. 5:13-14).
Paul also describes love at length in 1 Corinthians 13: “Charity” or love (agape) surpasses all the gifts of speech, knowledge and supernatural faith. It even surpasses acts of martyrdom and public service (what we usually call “charity”).
“True love suffers long; is kind; does not envy; does not put itself forward; does not behave itself in an unseemly fashion; does not seek its own interests; is not easily provoked; does not think evil of others without just cause; does not delight in wickedness, but rather delights in the truth. Love doesn’t fail.”
There is nothing in these ‘love passages” that demand 50 shades of anything … sexuality, sensuality or any uncontrollable passion at all for that matter. True love … agape love … seeks the best interests of the one loved, even at great personal cost. (For Jesus, love meant the Cross.) Love plays by the rules. Love keeps the commandments of God (1 Jn. 5:2-3). For Scripture, love is clearly more than a feeling, however pure, noble or strong. Love has a “fruit of the Spirit function” (Gal. 5:22), placed in the human heart by God’s grace through the gospel.
Scripture, of course, does recognize that love has a few different manifestations. We love our friends, our parents and our kids. These all have an important place in God’s kingdom. But romantic love should be the fiercest and toughest of all human loves. And for this reason, it stands in need of great grace. Romantic love is never easy to maintain over the long haul, no matter what the poets and producers of Hallmark movies may say. Love requires time, effort, patience, commitment and self-sacrifice. But such love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is like fire … fiercely alive with God’s power and energy (Song of Solomon 8:6-7). Such love doesn’t have commercial value and is beyond any earthly cost, because it not only mirrors God’s love for us … it is His gift to us born out of His own love.
True love is rooted in and modeled after divine love. First, the love shared among the Persons of the Trinity. Second, God’s love to His people in Christ. Third, God calls on his people to actively play this love out, albeit in a temporal and imperfect playing field. The Bible explains what this means in very clear and practical terms. The Spirit-empowered gospel makes such love possible and real. That gospel points us to Jesus.
Roses, red pajamas and Shari’s Berries are all fun and certainly romantic blessings. But how can anything compare to a love grounded in covenant and bearing the image and economy of the Trinity?
This Valentine’s Day, let’s make sure we teach our kids and grandkids how to love. Let’s do it by reading Scripture and by example. Don’t think for a second that the devil takes Valentine’s Day off. My guess is it’s a pretty busy day for him. He has lots of “classes” planned to teach your children and grandchildren that love is only in the moment. So listen… it’s never enough to simply criticize the enemy. We must have a positive plan to teach our kids about true love.