Paul tells us that what we can know about love at this time is like looking at a steamed-up mirror. We may be able to see some sort of vague outline of love, but the details so far are hidden from us.
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
But of course, we being the type of people we are, even with all of this uncertainty of knowing about love, it does not stop us from speaking as if we were experts. We talk as if we have all of the insights and know the depths of what love is.
A teenage girl, who has just started dating, asks her mother, or a son his father, “How do you know if you love someone?”
The mom or the dad, with all the wisdom in the world, gives some sort of answer that sometimes is really just quite silly. They might say, “Well, if you have a dizzy feeling when you are around someone, or if you feel a kind of sickness in your stomach, it means that you are falling in love.”
Perhaps their answer may not be quite as nonsensical as that, but the point is, very few people have a clear idea of what love is. Despite all of the studies about love and despite many people making millions of dollars teaching us about finding true love, the subject of love remains for most a very mysterious concept.
Why is it that we have come to have such a misunderstanding of love, and why is it that we have come to equate it mostly with a feeling that is felt between two individuals?
Most of us may understand that the first crush that we had on someone was not really true love, but at the time of that first crush, it may have seemed like it was. And quite frankly, the first feelings of attraction that we have for someone may indeed grow and become a lifelong commitment. But even taking this into consideration, we usually make a distinction between what it means to be infatuated with someone, rather than truly being in love.
Our Love for God
The same is true when we begin to talk about loving God. Often, we associate loving God with certain feelings we must have, or with some kind of emotional experience. We see this in some worship services in churches, where the leaders try to work up the emotional level of the congregation in order to have them experience what they call “worship.”
The congregants also are looking mostly for some type of emotional experience for themselves. In their opinion, the measure of worship depends on the level of emotion that they felt.
Another example where “worship” is something totally tied up with an emotional experience is very evident in areas of the country such as our own, where hikers and campers and hunters and anglers love to spend time in the out-of-doors.
We often hear these people say, “When I am out in nature, I can worship God more than I can in any other place.”
I understand what they mean, for I am also someone who loves the out-of-doors. But by saying this, these people demonstrate that they do not have a complete understanding of what it means to worship God. To them, worshiping God is connected only to a certain feeling that they have when they are on a lake or in the woods.
Of course, this indeed may be true worship of God. But just like having that first crush on someone, if taken only that far, it is merely based on physical and emotional connection. These people are only in the beginning stages of knowing who God is, and they think they have reached the heights of knowledge. They are like a thirteen-year-old girl who has just had her first crush on a boy and who says, “Now I know what it means to love someone!”
This girl does not really know love yet. True, it might be that she is in the very beginning stages of learning about true love, but what she is experiencing is not yet love. We often call this “puppy love,” or infatuation.
In much the same way, people who say that they can know the love of God simply by being outside in nature may be in the beginning stages of knowing who God is. But they do not really know God yet. They are simply infatuated with God. They have been enthralled by what they see of God’s creation, but not necessarily by God himself.
Falling into Love
In these days we are inundated by people who claim to be “experts” on the subject of love, but no one teaches us more about the concept of love than does the Apostle John. He teaches us mostly about our love for God, but we can see that this has wider applications as well. Here is what he wrote in one of his letters:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8 ESV)
What John is telling us in this letter that he wrote long ago is that all true love actually emanates from God, for love is the very essence of God. “God is love,” John tells us.
We often hear that love is something that one falls into. “It was love at first sight. We instantly fell in love!”
But John says that love is not something we fall into. Rather, it is instead something that we receive. If we are to love, then that love must come from God, for “love is from God.”
When many people think of being in love, they see themselves as being driven along by love, like a ship that is driven along by gale-forced winds. It is as if they feel themselves influenced by something over which they have no control. Probably most of us can relate to this driving force of love in one way or another. We say that we have fallen into love, which prompted us to do something about it. We cannot rest until we ask that girl out for a date.
Again, I will not say that this is not love, but I think that it is important to see that this is only the emotional part of love and only the beginning stages. It is the part of love that is prompted by our emotions. That is why we call this “falling into” love.
No one intentionally trips and falls when they are walking. It is something that happens to them. Likewise, in the beginning stages of love, the infatuation part, this attraction just happens. We did not necessarily intend to be physically attracted to the other person. It just happened to us. And it is actually true that we cannot control it.
We Must Choose to Love
However, as we have seen in the words of John, a true love, a mature love, is not something that we fall into, but is something that we receive from God. This is the part of love that goes beyond mere emotion. It still includes emotion, certainly, because a mature love will involve every part of our being. But it also goes beyond that.
In the verse above, John told us to “love one another.” It is a command. Besides being something that we receive from God, love is something that we must choose to do. When we are infatuated by someone, it is primarily our emotions that are driving us to take action. But with mature love, it is less of emotion and more of the will. We choose to love.
Indeed, John sees that there is a need to instruct us to “love one another.” This is a level of action that does not come naturally to us. Even having received love from God, it is up to us to put it into use. It does not come automatically. Rather, it is something that we must initiate and sustain. We must do it purposefully.
Putting Love into Practice
All those who have remained married for many years know that the commitment to remain in that relationship must go beyond mere emotion. If emotion would be all that sustained a marriage, it certainly would not last many weeks.
When many people marry, they are merely seeking emotional and physical fulfillment, but nothing more. These marriages do not last unless the couple involved learns to move beyond that initial stage and learn to truly commit themselves to one another in a loving relationship.
This is not news to you. Any of you who have been married for an extended time already know this.
But this is also true in loving other people—those who are not our husband or our wife. Often, in the initial stages of a relationship, we do something for someone else because we are driven by emotion to do so. Perhaps they have suffered a tragedy in their lives and need help. We are so driven by pity for these people that we respond in some way.
This is good. It is good to act in such a way. But what happens if the people are not thankful or if they misuse what we have given them? We feel as if they simply took advantage of us and our kindness. We often then turn around and feel just the opposite toward them.
This change of opinion comes about because our own emotional needs were not met in the situation. When we gave, we expected those who received our gift to overflow gratefulness to us. We expected that we would in turn receive a warm and fuzzy feeling. But that did not happen.
I am not saying that we cannot learn some wisdom when our good deeds are misused by others, but what I am saying is that when we do something motivated by love, it is not done for reasons of what we will receive in return. It is done for the good of the other person. We are focused not on ourselves, but on the other person.
The same is true in our love for God. Just as many people enter into a marriage with unrealistic expectations, many people come to God with unrealistic expectations. They expect God to fulfill their every whim.
Like the man who says he best worships God while out in nature, as long as his emotional needs are met, he sees himself as loving God—“Every day is a clear blue day on the lake and every time I cast out my line, I catch a fish.”
But this is not loving God. This is not a mature worship. We are focused not on God. Rather, we are focused on the feeling within ourselves. It is what we are getting out of the relationship that is important to us. We are simply getting from God all that we can to fill our own needs. We are not worshiping God. We are using God.
Just as in our relationship with our own spouses, if our relationship with God only succeeds or fails on the basis of whether or not we receive our own emotional rewards, then that relationship has not yet become a true love. It is only an infatuation.
It is infatuation with God.
If our purpose for serving God is only for whatever benefit that we might receive from the relationship, then I am afraid that this is not love of God. It is more like love of self.
True love of God, true worship, means that we are focused on God. This is despite our own feelings and despite whether or not we think that we are receiving anything out of the relationship.
Demonstrating Our Love for God
This might all seem clear, but how then are we to put this into practice? It is easier to see this when we are talking about demonstrating our love to our wife or to our husband. We can do things to please them, to make them happy.
But how does one make God happy? How do we serve God in such a way that demonstrates that we are doing it only for him and expecting nothing for ourselves?
First of all, we can learn about love by seeing what God has done. God taught us love by example. He demonstrated love to us. We have that familiar verse in Romans that says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8 ESV).
In fact, John also mentions something of the sort in the same passage I quoted above when he says, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9 ESV).
That is how God demonstrated his love for us. Then how are we to show our love for God? How is our love for God “made manifest?”
Christ showed his love for us by dying for us. Does that mean that the way to show our love for God is best shown by dying for him?
As strange as it may seem to us, that is what many people involved with what they call “holy wars” believe. They believe if they die in battle, in what they see as a “noble cause,” it will show true love for God. But this is not love. This usually has more to do with pride than anything else.
What about showing love on the practical level? We know how we can demonstrate love to our spouses and even to other people. We see a need and we meet it. But with God, it is different. We cannot see God or approach him to do anything for him. Besides that, he has no needs.
John makes this very point. “No one has ever seen God;” he says.
But then he adds this point—“If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12 ESV).
This is the way! It is in the way that we treat each other that demonstrates our love for God. “Beloved,” John says, “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11 ESV).
We love God by loving one another. We serve God by serving each other. This is the way of the Christian.
Actually, loving one another is not an option for us. It is a command. Jesus said, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12 BSB).
And how has God loved us? We have seen that even when we were sinners, He died for us. That is the standard, and if we are seeking to have “God’s love perfected in us,” as John said, then this is also our standard.
After Jesus commanded us to love one another as he loved us, he told us this: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12 BSB).
Dying to Self
Loving one another does not normally dying a physical death as did Jesus, but it does involve a death. Galatians 5:24: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
Paul also writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
And Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Dying to self involves giving up our own desires in exchange for a higher calling upon our lives—that of serving one another. It is by serving one another that we show our love for God.
Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
If I asked you if you love God, probably you would say that you do, and I have no reason to doubt that you do love God. I also say that I love God.
But how are we doing in our demonstration of our love? Are we loving God just by what we hope to receive from the relationship, or does our love for God motivate us to do something for only for him?
“Beloved,” John says, “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
We love God by loving one another. We serve God by serving each other. This is the way of the Christian.