What is Love?

by Johnny Carlton

Copyright 2012 Johnny Giesbrecht

Johnny Carlton is a writer of suspense thrillers available as e-books at www.amazon.com

My dad was not a great philosopher or renowned spiritual leader, but he would sometimes come out with profound insights stated in simple words.  When I was a boy he once told me, “Love is the greatest thing there is.”  Not being much of a reader or church goer, I doubt that he even knew about 1 Corinthians 13:13 where it says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”  I certainly was not aware, at that time, of this scripture, but I’ve never forgotten that simple statement from my dad.

If love was that important I decided it must also be important to understand what the word meant.  I realized that it had peripheral meanings, but I was interested in understanding its basic meaning as used in the context of the statement made by my father.  I quickly came up with what seemed to me an obvious definition, and for many years after that I assumed that everyone else had just naturally arrived at the same conclusion; it didn’t seem like a matter that people would disagree about.

But one enlightening day in 1969 at the Decision Christian School of Writing in Minneapolis, I happened to bring up the matter to a small group of fellow writers sitting around a table over coffee.  I casually gave them my definition of the meaning of the word love–and was flabbergasted when not one of those present agreed with me.  It wasn’t so much that they felt my definition was totally invalid, but rather that it was insufficient.  However, they did not offer to fill in what they said was lacking.  Basically, they were saying that love is something too great for us to be able to understand well enough to be able to give it a satisfactory definition.

Although I agree that we can never fully understand anything–only God can do that–I do not agree that we can do without well thought-out definitions of the words we use; and the more important the word is, the more important it is that we have a clear definition for it.  The brothers and sisters surrounding the writers’ conference table gave me the impression that they were not at all concerned about their inability to come up with a definition for the word love.  This seems particularly ironic since they were all writers, supposedly interested in the clear communication of important spiritual matters of which love is central.

I have never found any reason to change my definition of the word love.  Keeping in mind that I am thinking here only of the word’s most basic and important meaning, please carefully consider my simple attempt at defining it:  Love is concern for the welfare of a conscious being, wanting that being to be happy.

Before you begin making a list of inadequacies in my definition, let me add some qualifications and clarifications of my own.  The above offers the core meaning; one of the main outer layers is: admiration of the qualities of the one being loved.  For when we say we love someone very much, don’t we usually mean that we think a lot of that person’s character?  But this outer layer can be removed entirely without taking away anything from the core, as is shown clearly by Romans 5:8:  “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (NIV)  We didn’t have the qualities of character that draw love, but he loved us anyhow.  This proves that the basic nature of love is not the admiration of qualities of character, such as goodness, intelligence, and beauty.  No, God loved us then, and he loves us now, simply because we are conscious beings capable of being happy or unhappy and he wants us to be happy.  And he expects us to learn to have this kind of basic love toward those around us–whether or not they have any lovable qualities.

I’ve been told that in the original Greek of the New Testament a variety of words, all meaning love, were used.  One word, agapé, expresses the love between God and man; another, eros, is sexual love between a man and a woman; storge is parent and child love; philia is love among people in general, or brotherly love.  In my opinion, the Greek language is inferior to English and most other languages in this matter.  Why?  Because a concept as important as the core meaning of love deserves to have a distinct word; and apparently Greek has no such one word but rather a variety of words indicating sometimes the outer layers of meaning and sometimes various versions of the basic.  But God decided that the Greek language was good enough to use for the New Testament’s original manuscripts, so I’m not going to complain too much.  Greek is not my language, however, and it is rightly important to me that I have a simple and effective way of communicating the meaning of this greatest of spiritual concepts.

The world and Webster have not been too helpful in this, and Webster is probably innocent in the matter since dictionaries are obligated to define words according to the common usage of the world.  I’m going to quote the whole entry from Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, and we’ll see what, according to this famous lexicographic institution, the English speaking world has made of the word love up to this point.  You’ll find that although some of the definitions are good in themselves, not one of them clearly expresses the basic concept of one conscious being desiring another conscious being to be happy.  3a comes close but confuses the issue by throwing in the matter of loyalty.  There is a similar situation with 3a (1) and 3a (2).  And with these near-hits lost among all the rest of the entry, I think that a foreigner learning English from Webster would not be likely to discover the Biblical concept of the word love.

love \1 v\ n [ME, fr. OE lufu; akin to OHG lupa love, OE leof dear, L lubere, libere to please] la: affection based on admiration or benevolence b: an assurance of love  2a: warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion (–of the sea>  b: the object of such attachment or devotion  3a: unselfish concern that freely accepts another in loyalty and seeks his good:  (1): the fatherly concern of God for man  (2): brotherly concern for others  b: man’s adoration of God  4a: the attraction based on sexual desire : the affection  and tenderness felt by lovers  b: a god or personification of love  c: an amorous episode : LOVE AFFAIR  d: the sexual embrace : COPULATION  5: a beloved person : DARLING  6: a score of zero in tennis  7: cap, Christian Science : GOD

As I was studying the above definitions I became hopeful that the word charity, which is sometimes used in place of the word love in the King James Version of the Bible, might be what I needed to fit my definition; but when I looked up charity, Webster informed me that this derived from a word meaning Christian love, which is certainly interesting but not at all helpful for my problem, and I was further instructed to look under the entry love, definition 3a.  I decided not to look in any other dictionaries, for I’ve always considered Webster to be the top authority in lexicography, and still do.

I decided, instead, to turn to the Bible to see if I could find passages that not only taught about the need for love, but also threw light on what love is.  The love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, was a good place to start.  Verses 4 through 7 tell us:

“Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (NIV)

The above tells us how a person will behave when he is motivated by love.  This is good for us to know, and these verses certainly suggest strongly that the person thus motivated is that way because he is concerned about the welfare of others.  But we are still left without a clear-cut definition.  Yet maybe the above scripture suggests the way to find the answer; maybe the only way we can come to a sensible conclusion about what the word love means is to notice how people in the Bible behave when they are described as having love.

When Jesus wanted to emphasize the importance of loving one’s neighbor, he told the story of the good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37)  The good Samaritan found a stranger wounded and bleeding.  There is nothing to indicate that the Samaritan could have been attracted to the wounded man’s qualities, for apparently he had never seen him before and was probably repulsed by the sight of a dirty, bleeding man lying there on the road.  But he bandaged up the man’s wounds, took him to the nearest town, found a bed for him, and left money to pay for his care.  There is not the slightest suggestion here of the presence of any the peripheral things associated with love–admiration, sexual attraction, loyalty, duty, or anything else.  We have a right to assume that the good Samaritan helped the wounded man simply because he felt sorry for him.  In other words, he found another fellow-conscious-being suffering and had a desire to change that suffering into happiness.

Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 KJV)  Not all love is sacrificing love, but much of it is, and sacrificing love is of the highest, most Godlike quality.  Usually the sacrifice is small, as when we decide to let someone else have the last piece of cake; sometimes the sacrifice is the greatest ever called for, as when, from time to time, someone will give up his life for someone else.  Although it is conceivable that a person can give up his life for insane non-loving reasons (Paul suggests this possibility in 1 Corinthians 13:3) this is obviously not what Jesus was talking about when he helped us to understand the meaning of love by telling us what is the greatest test of love ever required by humans.  Again, we find that the basic feeling involved in such great love is the simple matter of caring about the welfare of someone else.

This is what God felt for us when he made the ultimate sacrifice:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16 KJV)  This is what God the Son felt for us when he prayed, “. . . nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done,” (Luke 22:42b KJV) and went forward to meet the soldiers who would take him to the execution site on Calvary.  He wanted to rescue us from unhappiness and bless us with the joy of eternal life together with him.

People of the world deal out and withhold love as they choose.  They think they have a right to do this, but as Christians we cannot take this stand and expect to be pleasing to God.  He did not withhold his love from us while we were still obnoxious sinners, and we are not to withhold our love either, not even from our worst enemies.

I’ll stick to my guns, no matter how many of my fellow writers tell me my definition of love is audacious, and no matter how many of my brothers and sisters in the Lord keep mutilating this glorious word by “loving” their coconut cream pie, earrings, and favorite TV series.  We need to know what the word love means if we’re going to live by it and encourage others to live by it.

Think of it!  Love is the central quality of God’s own heart, for the Bible tells us that “. . . God is Love.” (1 John 4:8b—many translations)  Love is wanting someone to be happy, and wanting it so much that we’ll do something about that desire if we’re able to.  “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18 NIV)  Love needs no reason; it is its own reason.  You don’t love someone because of this or that; in fact, if your only reason for “loving” someone is because he’s a good person, or because she’s so pretty, or because he did something for you, or because she makes you feel happy when you’re near her, or for any reason at all, then you’re not really loving—you have only the entirely optional outer layers and not the core.  When you really love, you love—because you love.  What basic non-selfish reason could there possibly be for wanting someone other than yourself to be happy?  There is none, except the axiomatic one which is the wonder and mystery of love:  I want you to be happy simply because I know how good it feels to be happy and I want you to feel the same.  And that, dear fellow-conscious-being, is the motivating power that accounts for the existence of the universe.



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