Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Can Love Be Defined?

I also posted this over at Kuyperian Commentary

Following a debate between Pastor Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan on "gay marriage", Peter Leithart noted that advocates of gay marriage have all the right words on their side: love, happiness, equality, etc. If two people really love each other, why should we oppose them getting married? Why should it bother us if they are happy together?

This got me thinking about what love is. We promiscuously throw around the word "love" as if it is self-evident to all. Is love the equivalent of saying the sky is blue or Alabama is the best college football team in the country? Is it really that obvious?  We talk about love in TV shows, talk radio, literature, music, film, and social media. Yet what is it exactly and how can do we know what it is? Is love a feeling that compels me to pursue a deeper knowledge of someone else? Is love the same feeling that compels one to seek out pornography?  Is love the pursuit of making peace with all my enemies no matter the cost? Does love compel me to destroy all my enemies no matter the cost? Does love involve a commitment and if so what kind? Do I love my girlfriend in the same way I love the Pittsburgh Steelers? Is love all about my satisfaction or is it about my serving others?  Can real love fade? Is love something that happens to me or something I do? Is love a biochemical reaction in my body conditioned by years of evolution so that I can ensure my seed will carry on?  Surely love can't be all of these things at once?

Can a word this ubiquitous also be this amorphous? Apparently so. While love is rich and multifaceted, it is not undefinable.  Below are some foundation stones necessary to begin building a definition of love.

Love is not self-evident in a fallen world. Love must be defined and explained. As Christians we should not let ourselves, the World, or other Christians get away with using a word they refuse to define. That does not mean someone can only love if they know the definition of love. But it does mean that in debate and discussion the word needs to be fenced in.

We cannot accurately define and explain love without the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) because God is love.  To speak of love without speaking of God is like a blind man talking about the glories of a Rembrandt painting.
Trinity 1
Who God is also not self-evident. There are some remnants of God’s image in each man, woman, and in societies as a whole, but these remnants are twisted. Therefore we cannot come to a solid definition of God or love by looking into ourselves or at human relationships, though we may gather some remnants. To know what love is, we must know who God is. And to know who God is we must know the Bible. The Bible defines what it means to love God and love our neighbor. Without the whole Bible, love is an empty jar filled to be filled by our own human ideas.

The love of God is clearest in the sacrifice of the Son on the cross for the sins of His enemies. Any definition of love, which excludes this, is inadequate though it may contain some truth. The supreme act of love is then fleshed out by the types and shadows of the Old Testament and the fulfillment in the New  Testament.

Every Christian believes they are acting out of love for God and neighbor.  The Christian who refuses to call homosexuality a sin believes he is acting out of love. The Christian who tells every woman they meet to wear skirts to their ankles also believes he is acting out of love. The fire breathing legalist and the lesbian minister and everyone in between believes they are acting out of love. The point is, no Christian believes they are acting out of hate. And the same can be said of most non-Christians as well, though there are some exceptions. Therefore when we encourage people to love one another and love God that love must be defined. There must be a common standard.

People will not always feel loved, even when we show them love.   Sometimes people will walk around saying how loving we are. Other times they will call us hate mongers or bigots or traitors.  Sometimes our neighbors will say we love them when we are just sleeping with them. Sometimes they will think we hate them even when we are acting in love toward them. The Bible must be the standard that sets our criteria for love, not our communities or our critics.  This does not mean we ignore our critics. Critics often have good points. But those critics must be judged by Scripture, not Scripture by the critics.

Just because we can quote a Bible verse, which justifies our position, does not mean we are actually loving God or our neighbor.  The motivation, the intentions behind our actions are as vital as the actions themselves. Love is a biblical act linked with a biblical motivation for that act.   This does not mean we avoid loving acts until our motivation is right. It just means that both the "what" and the "why" must be considered when pursuing love.

Missions 1
To love God and our neighbor means we must hate evil. We must speak with clarity and boldness against sin and unrighteousness. To refuse to hate evil is to refuse to love God and our neighbor. If we love God then we are bound to rebuke men, women, and institutions who love sin. We can’t love God or our neighbor if we don’t hate sin and evil. Biblical hatred is a prerequisite for Christian witness and mission. Love the sinner, hate the sin. And in doing so, imitate our Father who loves us.

(For a great exploration of the different types of love from a Christian perspective read C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves.) 

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Let the saints be joyful in glory, let them sing aloud on their beds, let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishments on the peoples; to bind the kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron. Psalm 149:5-8