Couples dating say it way too quickly. On average a young couple dating will say it within the first two months of an initial dating relationship. It is often said without much understanding of what love means. We mostly isolate the term to refer to emotional feelings. We apply it to people who make us feel “happy,” “special,” or who give us a desirable amount of attention. But “butterflies” in your stomach can be the result of a bad burrito, and “love,” according to Scripture, has less to do with how someone makes you feel and more to do with your committment to them.
What is love? The Bible speaks of love in a number of passages, often giving us clear pictures of what love looks like in action. You’ll note that in Scripture there is a remarkable silence of the relationship between “love” and emotions. 1 John 3:16 is a good place to start. Here John tells us how we can identify “love.” He writes:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
What is love? It is sacrifice, modeled most clearly in the death of Jesus and to be imitated by us. Likewise, Paul says in Ephesians 5:1-2 that we ought to “walk in love,” which is modeled again by Jesus who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Philippians 2:1-11 spells out even more specifics. It addresses the idea of humility, of thinking of others before ourselves, and once again roots it in the sacrifice of Christ who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Love is best understood in relation to the death of Christ on the cross. Love is seen in not claiming your own rights, not living for yourself, in sacrificing for others, and even, perhaps especially, in sacrificing for those who don’t deserve it. Throughout the New Testament this is the general idea governing our understanding of love: service to another. We root love almost always in how we feel, or in what others do for us. Even when I describe my “love” for another it’s usually a not a reference to my committment to them. But the Bible paints a service model of love. It directs love outward and away from us and our emotions, to service of another. This is why Jesus can command us to “love our neighbors,” because ultimately love isn’t about how I feel about them.
The latter part of Galatians 5:13 teaches us that “through love” we are to “serve one another.” Ephesians 4:2 says we are to “bear with one another in love,” meaning we are to be forgiving and patient with each other. That’s the description of love we have in the most famous passage on love in the whole Bible: 1 Corinthians 13. Here Paul speaks of an “others-focused” love, he says:
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Peter describes what “loving one another” looks like when he writes:
8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace (1 Peter 4:8-10)
Again we see that it is about humility and service. The Bible again and again describes a love that directs us to commit to the well-being of another.
In relationships this means that our “love” for one another is not primarily rooted in how I feel about them or what I get out of this relationship. Rather it is rooted in an earnest committment to see them grow and flourish, and to help them in that process. It’s not that love is totally devoid of emotion, but that should not be our guiding principle for “love.” As we come to understand this better it should guard us against rashly saying “I love you,” and it should help us to better understand how to continuing loving even when our relationship runs into difficulty.
What is love? Look to the cross to get your definition.