What do we mean when we talk about love?
A great deal of our understanding of love comes from media— movies, songs, television shows, and so on—and from nearly every popular representation of love we can generalize this: Love is defined culturally as an intensity of desire and longing. In essence, the more I want something, the more I love it.
Jesus defined love differently. He described the epitome of love as a person giving his or her life away.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
The apostle John agreed with Jesus:
“But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:17–18 NASB)
For both Jesus and John, the measure of love was far different from what our culture tells us—for them it was focused on others rather than self. And for Jesus, the metric of love is sacrifice.
The irony, then, is that without our noticing, the meaning of love has been replaced with the definition of lust—measured by intensity of desire or longing.
When I first realized the subtle cultural change in the meaning of love—to make it more like the definition of lust—it was a paradigm shift for me. Love has been slowly hollowed out over time, and what remains of its meaning carries, in many contexts, the converse of its original significance.
Our culture’s concept of love is primarily self-driven and pleasure-seeking. Jesus’ formulation, rather, expects and anticipates sacrifice. That may sound threatening, or too difficult, but isn’t sacrificial love—and not temporary lust—the kind of love we want from others? We want people to love us through the bad times as well as the good times; year after year, we want to know we are loved and will be loved, even if it doesn’t fit an intense longing or desire of theirs.
If that is the kind of love we want, Jesus says, then it must be the kind of love we give others. Love is less about a focus on self than a deep and abiding concern and focus on the other.
I once heard someone teach a Mother’s Day message on the nature of a mom’s love for her children where the point was made that “motherhood is a call to suffer.” This, of course, can be expressed more broadly as “parenting is a call to suffer.” A parent’s love for a child—one of the purest forms of love—shows in tangible, everyday ways that true love means serving the one loved.
Loving another as I love myself means sacrifice or suffering—it is a continual pouring out and giving up. It is a continual concern for and attention to the one loved. It binds our joy and our sorrow to the joys and sorrow of the beloved.
Serving and suffering in obedience to God or in response to your calling, however, is no bleak thing. It is the sacrifice love willingly chooses, and it cannot imagine another choice.
Love that is identified primarily by the intensity of its longing or its desire isn’t love—it’s lust. And actions that demonstrate an ongoing willingness to sacrificially serve others are, by Jesus’ definition, love.
Put another way, love does, love works, and love gives.
When we think about sacrifice, the call to give our lives away on behalf of others and the command to pursue justice—Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” Deuteronomy 16:20 NASB—we learn that, instead of being at odds with love, justice can correct and inform how we understand love. It can begin to help transform selfish ambition into just pursuits.