What is love?

“I love you”. Three simple words that – as the saying goes – makes the world go around.  And quite literally so!  This year the US Economy received a boost of $18.9 Billion with Valentines Day sales, less than 2014’s Christmas sales but more than 2014’s Mothers Day sales.

And the record industry literally turns year after year with songs singing these three words.  From the time when Huey and the News felt The power of love”, when Whitney promised her Bodyguard “I will always love you”, Elvis pleaded “Love me tender” or the Righteous brother lamented “You’ve lost that loving feeling” – the great songs written by people in love makes the record companies very rich.  But I wish more people spent some time to wonder with Foreigner when he sang “I want to know what love is.”

Love does makes the world go around, and no-where is it on greater display than at a wedding, where two people make vows of love to each other.  The essence of the familiar marriage vow is a promise “to love and to cherish, to have and to hold from this day forward, until death do us part”.  The wedding vow is a promise of companionship in love.   So frequently while conducting wedding ceremonies I have two questions I silently wonder do you know what you are letting yourself into?” and do you know what you are promising – do you know what love is?”  Because marriage, as in every other relationship, only flourishes when love true.

Building blocks of love

The word love occurs in various forms in some 290 times in the New Testament, and is thus a major Biblical theme – for obvious reasons.  We read that “God is love” and that he “so loved the world that he gave his Son” and we should emulate him so that we “walk in love”, meaning “love one another” and “love your enemies” – ultimately Christians should be known by our love.  Yet many times our definition of love is informed by contemporary culture, powerfully influenced through music, movies and novels, and the power of love is missing from our lives.

This was also true in days of the early church, heavily influenced by the booming Roman culture (from where we get our word romantic), so the New Testament writers had to define what they meant with “love”.  We get definitions in most of the New Testament letters (Paul’s definitions of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5:22-23, as well as Peter’s definition in 2 Peter 1:5-7 come to mind).  But one of the most helpful definitions of love if found in Colossians 3:12-14:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

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Love begins with compassion in the heart

Paul teaches that love begins with compassion – a deep feeling of identification with the person and his or her circumstance.  This is the place where real love starts, as you consider the other person, and value him or her enough to stop to think and identify with the his or her circumstance.  Love starts with giving attention and time to someone, and that moves our hearts to act for the benefit of the one whom we love.

Looking at our example of love, we see Jesus being motivated by compassion.  In fact, often before Jesus acted in kindness the Gospel writers would mention Jesus’ compassion as the motive for his benevolence.  For example, Jesus was moved with compassion, therefore he taught those who gathered (Mark 6:34), healed the crowds (Matthew 14:14) and fed the multitudes (Matthew 15:32).  The pleas of the two blind men (Matthew 20:34), the leper (Mark 1:41) and the demon-possessed boy’s father (Mark 9:22-23) filled Jesus’ heart with compassion before he healed them all.  When he saw the mourning mother at Nain (Luke 7:13) and Lazarus’ sisters weeping (John 11:33) his heart was moved with compassion so that he resurrected the dead.  As he looked at the crowds, the gospel writers recorded that Jesus was filled with compassion and was moved to pray for them (Luke 13:34), and at another time to time send out his disciples to heal the sick, cast out demons and preach the good news of God’s reign in the surrounding villages and towns (Matthew 9:36).

Some of Jesus best-known parables are also about compassion: the parable of the Forgiving Master (Matthew 18:22-35) tells us that the Master forgives debt because he has compassion, and we should do likewise.  The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) teaches us that love for our neighbor starts with compassion for someone in need, regardless of political or racial preferences.  The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) teaches us that the Father sees his returning son and has compassion, and forgives and restores him with great joy.

Love starts with compassion.  Compassion is activated as you stop and look or reflect intently at the person and his or her circumstance, as Jesus taught Simon the judgmental Pharisee who was offended when Jesus allowed the immoral woman to touch him, wash his feet with her tears and pour fragrant perfume on his feet.  Looking at the woman, Jesus taught him “Simon, do you SEE this woman…”  (Luke 7:44).  This is Jesus’ ultimate lesson on compassion: it’s easy to judge “sinners” because of their wrong, to stereotype “lazy beggars” because of their circumstance or be indifferent to the needs of strangers.  But Jesus demonstrates here that love starts as we look and see the person, to reflect on this person’s pain and suffering and to see the human being whom God loves enough to send his Son to die for.  And that is when God starts to stir his love in our hearts, when we identify with the image of God in this person.

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“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate demonstration of the compassionate love of God.  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14).  God, the righteous Lawgiver and Judge left the holy heavens to walk with mankind and identify with the temptations and suffering of humanity, even experiencing the death and agony of separation with God his Father. In a sense Jesus answered the prayer of Moses in Psalm 90 “Lord… you are from everlasting… we are like grass that withers… come down Oh Lord, have compassion on your servants!” (vv2, 5, 13).  And because Christ came to share in our humanity, we have a High Priest that can “sympathize with us in our weaknesses” so we can be confident of his forgiveness and help. (Hebrews 4:15-16).  God took time to identify with us and has compassion with us – therefore he is merciful towards us.  His love starts with compassion.

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This example of God’s identification with us in our weakness is the model of our love: love starts as you take time to walk in another’s footsteps, feel their pain and suffer with them.  Like Christ, love overlooks the wrongs done and first considers the one in need.  Like Christ, love values the person before dismissing the sinner.

This is not only a model for working with the poor, the addict and the offender.  This is the model of love for your conflicting spouse and difficult child, your rude coworker and racist service official.    Lover starts with compassion gained through time, attention and reflection until you can identify with this person whom God has made in his image, and who joins suffers with you in this sin-infested, loveless world, and is also in need of God’s desperate need of loving grace – like yourself.  Everyone needs compassion.

This short animation by Dr Brené Brown on empathy helps a lot to give practical guidelines to grow in compassion.

Before love is visible in acts of kindness, it starts in the heart and moves you to not do good deeds from a position of superiority but to do good because you identify with the suffering, the want, the pain of this person you love.

Compassion enables us to embrace even our enemies because we identify with their common humanity. Image credit: Hien Nguyen/Flickr
Compassion enables us to embrace even our enemies because we identify with their common humanity.
Image credit: Hien Nguyen/Flickr
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