What is this thing called love?

“Love” is a simple word, yet the idea of love is among the most complicated and confusing ideas known to men and women. What is this thing called love? What good is it? And who really needs it, anyhow? I do not pretend to be an expert on the topic of love (or on much of anything else, for that matter), but in my years of living and learning, I have discovered certain truths about love.

First: love is central to the Maker of the universe, which means it is a central power of the universe as well. The Bible never says that God is power or that God is knowledge, although it does say that God possesses all power and all knowledge. Yet in I John 4 the Bible says twice that God is love. Love is at the very center of the reality that is God. God does not merely love the things that he created; outside of space and time, God still is love. No Unitarian believer in God could comprehend this truth, but the eternal and unchanging love among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are essential to the true nature of God. The universe could be regarded, in a way, as a gift of love from the Father and to the Son.

One consequence of that reality is that, since men and women are created in the image of God, men and women are created for love. We already know that we are commanded to love God more than anything else and to love our neighbors as ourselves; but this understanding makes those two commandments more than just requirements. The entire reason and purpose for the existence of each and every one of us is love.

Second: love is defined by the fact that the Lover cares more about the Beloved than about its self. True love always puts the Beloved first. Poets and songwriters and movie makers have largely missed the boat on this fact. The culture around us trains us to think of love as the good feeling we have that is caused by another person. He makes me feel good, so I must be in love. I no longer feel good around her; we must have lost that loving feeling. The opposite of love is not hatred, as many people assume; nor is it apathy, as some have suggested. The opposite of love is selfishness. Whenever I use a person and my relationship with that person to make myself feel good, I am selfish; I am not in love. When I care about that person and want that person to be happy, even at some cost to myself, then I truly love that person.

Here is an example: parents do not change the diapers of their babies because they like changing diapers. No one likes changing diapers; changing diapers is a disgusting experience. Parents change the diapers of their babies because they love their babies. The comfort and well-being of their babies matter more to the parents than does their own happiness.

Third: love makes the Lover vulnerable. Once one cares more about the Beloved than about the self, the Beloved is able to hurt the Lover. That hurt may come through total rejection, through thoughtlessness, or through various other shortcomings. The Lover does not stop caring about the Beloved, even when the Beloved hurts the Lover. The Lover is willing to forgive, because the Lover cares deeply about the Beloved. The Lover is willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the Beloved, whether or not the Beloved deserves the love and the sacrifice of the Lover.

I suspect that the devil rebelled against God because he did not understand love. He understood power, and he understood justice, but he saw love and mercy as weaknesses of the Creator. The devil thought he could run the universe better than its Creator was running it precisely because the devil planned to stick to power as the guiding force of the universe. The devil never realized that power and even justice could be overcome by love and by sacrifice.

I know that when one of us hurts because of a rejected love, we share the pain God feels when the people he loves rebel against him. God could spare us that pain, but he chooses to let us experience that pain so we will sense the love he has for each of us. Whether one grieves over a broken relationship on the first day or the one-thousandth day, one is in tune with the heart of God.

Fourth: love is the focus of an appetite that all people have, but love is not the appetite. Children need the love of their parents, and husbands and wives crave the love of their spouses. God created us with an appetite for love, just as he created us to hunger and thirst for nourishment of our bodies. These appetites can become twisted and can be used to lead us into sin. Hunger can be twisted into a craving for unhealthy food, or it can motivate a person to steal food that person cannot afford. So the appetite to be loved can drive people into many thoughts and actions that are not healthy.

The arts in our civilization cannot discern the difference between true love and the appetite for love. Often the poems and songs and novels and movies of our culture picture only the craving for love and its satisfaction without ever showing true love. It is not wrong to want to be loved. This desire is healthy; it is part of the good plan of our Creator.

Fifth: love comes in many forms. Parents love their children and children love their parents, but that love is not the same. Romantic love draws two people together, perhaps producing a marriage and a family. The love of two friends for one another can be even stronger and more meaningful than romantic love. People love their pet cats or dogs, they love pizza or chocolate, they love their hometown and their country, and they love God. All of these loves are good, but they are not all the same.

Even the President of the United States and the Supreme Court have become confused about the different kinds of love. Love is good; nothing is better than love. I never want to love my cat the way I love a pepperoni and onion pizza. Many teens and young adults cannot distinguish the difference between a close friendship and a romantic attachment. They are still learning who they are, and they are easily confused. The answer to their confusion does not come from hate, nor does it come from repeating God’s commandments over and over. The answer to their confusion comes from love: loving them, and modeling for them in appropriate ways the beauty of love in all its forms.

Truly, love makes the world go ‘round. What the world needs now is love, sweet love; all you need is love. May each of us find it where and when God pleases to grant it to us.

J.

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