Thank you for the wonderful question. We will consider this subject by looking at what love is not, what love is, and the character of love.
DIFFICULTY OF DEFINING LOVE:
Love is one of the hardest words to define biblically. For one thing, it is a very complex concept and cannot adequately be explained in a simple definition. For another, the concept of love has been so perverted by the world that we have to spend quite a bit of time showing what love is not in order to understand it. It is often confused with emotional feelings and physical acts that are not love. In order to understand love from God's standpoint, we must go beyond our human opinions and seek the teaching of God's word. Another reason for the misunderstanding of love comes from the fact that many people have not fully experienced biblical love and have little personal knowledge of it. For these reasons, we have to approach the definition of love carefully.
WHAT LOVE IS NOT:
Sometimes it is best to begin a definition by establishing what it is not. This is especially important when there are so many misconceptions of the meaning. Using the letter, L, we will look at five things love is not.
- Love is not Lust. Lust is a physical craving for something or someone. It is often fired by hormones and just about as often leads to sin. James 1:15 states, "Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death." What many people call love today is nothing more than lust. We must distinguish between the two.
- Love is not Like. Like refers to the act of finding enjoyment in something. To like someone is not necessarily a lower level of loving them. Like and love are really referring to two different things. Although I normally like those I love, it is not necessarily true. Because of a family relationship, we may love someone who we do not like to be around. I may care deeply for a family member but find that I do not enjoy their company. In reverse order, I may like someone (enjoy their presence) and still not love them. We confuse this by stating that we love things we really like. We like ice cream or baseball, but we may say that we love them. We will probably continue to say that we love these things, but we should at least realize that we really just like them.
- Love is not Longing. By longing, I am referring to the emotional feeling that often accompanies love. I may long to be with someone and that may be the result of my love to them, but the longing itself is not love. It is one of the natural outcomes of love. For instance, I have heard people say that they did not want to continue in a marriage because they no longer loved their spouse. What they mean is that they no longer feel the emotional attachment to their spouse. But love is not emotion. It results in emotion. God commands a husband to love his wife. A command is either obeyed or disobeyed and this is the result of a decision or choice. It is not to be ruled by emotion.
- Love is not Language. I include this because of the many gullible souls that have identified love with a bit of sweet talk. Sometimes true love is accompanied with the language of love and sometimes it is not. And sometimes it is just talk. John warned the believers, "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth" (1John 3:18). Bible love is that which follows through in deed and in truth.
- Love is not Leniency. To be lenient is to not hold others fully accountable for their actions. The worldly 'christians' of today see God's love as the act by which He overlooks our sins and does not hold us responsible for our actions. Just as bad parenting is often excused by the statement, Boys will be boys, so we envision a god who excuses our wickedness with, Well, sinners will be sinners. But one who loves holds those they love accountable for their actions--not to be bossy and overbearing, but to help the one loved become what they are capable of becoming. Love challenges the loved one to grow.
WHAT LOVE IS:
So, what is a definition we can use for love? Generally speaking, dictionary definitions are not much help here. They define the word as people use the word today and that is fine for common understanding, but they do not define the word as God sees it. So, although my definition certainly falls far short, it is the best I could come up with. Here it is: Love is the choice to cherish and hold a thing, a person, or a group of persons above others and to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the one loved. This definition falls far short, but it gets us moving in the right direction. In order to make better sense of this definition, we will look at seven characteristics of biblical love.
THE CHARACTER OF LOVE:
- Love is a Choice. That is, we are not drawn into love as by an invisible force. Rather, we choose to love. The proof for this is found in the scriptural commands to love. We are commanded to love God with all our heart, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to love the brethren as Christ loved us. Husbands are commanded to love their wives. If love must wait on some overcoming emotion before it can operate, why did God give us commands that we cannot obey? If I can love by obeying God's commandments, then love is a choice I make. A man who says he no longer loves his wife is talking about the loss of an emotional feeling, but he is really saying that he has chosen to love her no more. He is not a victim; he is guilty of disobedience to God in this matter. If we will remember that we can choose to love in obedience to God, then we will have come a long way in understanding love God's way.
- Love is expressed in Sacrifice. The most familiar of Bible verses, John 3:16, tells us that God so loved the world that He gave His Son. We know that He sacrificed His Son because of His love to us. 1John 4:10 states, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." God's love is demonstrated by the sending of His Son. This is always the case with true love. The mother does without the new dress she wants so her children can get some shoes. The man of God gives up many of his pleasurable pursuits so he can minister to those God has given him to love. The child takes their own money to buy a present for Mom or Dad. Love is expressed in our willingness to sacrifice our own desires for the needs and even wishes of those we love.
- Love is Discriminatory. That is, love discriminates in favor of the one loved. If I love my wife, I would rather spend time with her than with the 'boys.' Although we can love more than one person in certain ways (like loving each of several children), love tends to show favoritism. Jesus said, "No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Luke 16:13). Mammon refers to the things of this world. We do not have the capacity to love both the world and God at the same time. As we turn to one, we turn away from the other. We understand this very much in the realm of sweethearts and especially marriage. Imagine that a husband came home one day and told his wife: "Honey, I love you with all my heart, but I have just met another woman and I love her too." How would the wife take his new love? Would there be room for two (or three or four) loves in his life? Probably not. In fact, when told this, she would probably come to the conclusion that he really did not love her, no matter how much he spoke to the contrary. Love discriminates in favor of the one loved. To turn toward one in love is to turn away from others.
- Love Stands Alone. This means that true love is not simply a response to the love of another; it is an expression that is given despite the response received. When God loved the world, much of that love went unreturned. But his love was just as real. Remember 1John 4:10: "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." He acted alone in His love. True love acts before receiving love in return and continues even if that love is not returned. It does not require reciprocal love in order to survive.
- Love Begats Love. Though this may sound like the opposite of the preceding point, both are true. Although true love is given whether it is returned or not, it is also the case that true love will bring the response of love from others. Everyone will not love in return, but love given will reap love from some. God loved us despite our lack of love to Him, but we "love him, because he first loved us" (1John 4:19). His love to us encourages us to love Him in return. But love given does more than that. Love given to one is in turn given to another. If I love my children as they grow up, I am teaching them to love their families when they are older. 1John 4:11 adds this point: "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another." God's love to me becomes the reason for my love to others. Love is both reflected back to the one who loves me and diffused to others.
- Love is Strong. Song of Solomon 8:6 states that "love is strong as death." That is an amazing description of the power of love. But how does this work? 1John 4:18 states, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." Perfect love casts out fear. A woman who is normally fearful of many things may forget about these fears when she sees one of her children in danger. Love removes fear in the time of danger. It gives us strength to stand against storm and foe.
- Love is Godliness. In the Christian life, love is the height of our Christian experience. The Bible uses the word charity to speak of the sacrificial love we are to have for others. It is called the "bond of perfectness" (Colossians 3:14). It is called the greatest of the Christian virtues (1Corinthians 13:13) and the end to which we all should endeavor to reach (2Peter 1:5-7). But there is another reason we need to see love as godliness. Scripture tells us that "God is love" (1John 4:8, 16). If God is love, then the more we conform to the ways of God, the more our life should be characterized by love.
I know this is a lot to digest, but I could see no other way to give an adequate definition of love as found in the Bible. I hope this is a help to you.