What is love? (Part 1)

Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

As something we all pursue, love is oddly difficult to understand. On Valentine’s Day, love is almost synonymous with warm, intimate embraces, flowers, and other romantic acts of devotion. But we know other forms of love exist. A parent loves his or her child, even if a warm embrace might be far away or even impossible to share. A friend loves another, through a season’s greeting, gift, or even a casual message. A manager loves his employees by treating them fairly and perhaps giving them a pay raise. But what about death, pain, punishment, a penalty so cruel that virtually no current regime could ever justify, let alone contemplate exacting? God says that is love, and the paradigm example of it.

John 3:16 (ESV) states “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is the pivotal verse that many Christians have quoted to pre-believing friends as the grand summation of the entire Christian faith. Yet, the verse seems to be falling out of favour even among devout evangelists of my generation. I seldom hear it uttered in varsity fellowships, nor cell groups, nor even church pulpits. In fact, the last time I heard John 3:16 being referenced, it was in the negative. A pastor had brought it up to a pre-believing friend. And in response, his friend simply said, “I cannot resonate with this”.

Have we outgrown John 3:16? Is my observation simply clutching at straws or misguided? I would posit not. Instead, I would argue that the falling relevance and popularity of John 3:16 stems from something far more endemic. As a generation, we have shifted the definition of what love means. We understand love to be a fuzzy, intimate feeling that makes one feel complete, a state of being that sublimates all other negative thoughts. Consequently, discomfort cannot be love. Challenges to my self-identity and beliefs cannot be love. Rejection and stern admonishment cannot be love. Extreme? Here’s a quote from Christian blogger John Shore on Christians who believe the Bible preaches against homosexual relations:

What you mean is that you want (LGBTQ persons) to condemn themselves to a life absolutely devoid of the kind of the romantic, long-term, emotionally and physically intimate love that all people, Christians included, understand not only as their birthright, but as just about the greatest part of being human… Don’t hold anyone’s hand. Don’t snuggle on your couch with anyone. Don’t cuddle up with anyone at night before you fall asleep. Don’t have anyone at your table to chat with over coffee in the morning… Live your whole life without knowing that joy, that sharing, that fulfilment. Be alone. Live alone. Die alone. The “sinful temptation” that Christians are forever urging LGBT people to resist is love.

Is this love? Are people who are single and have not found this ‘love of their life’ also asked to be devoid of love? Or is love within a marriage just one picture of God’s love? One that just happens to have a holiday and lots of romantic tropes associated with it?

Even for the most cozy couples you see on your Instagram feed, I would argue that the love between them is barely observable in those 1080x1080px panes. Hand-holding, couch-snuggling, and coffee-chatting might make us feel warm, fuzzy, and envious, but they are the visible icing, not the substance. Love is far more about the moments these couples disagreed, argued, or compromised. The days spent in doctors’ waiting rooms in anxious anticipation. The hours spent doing something else rather than what each would have preferred doing. So, take heart, even if you find yourself single today. The act of self-denial and sacrifice in pursuit of something greater is not at all exclusive to couples. It might, in fact, be more easily observed in the absence of comfort, familiarity, and intimacy. Because in those contexts, when love is not expected nor demanded and yet is freely given, you know it was genuine.

Let’s go back to John 3:16 before you close the tab in bewilderment or even anger at what this strange young person is on about. By a modern, romantic definition of love, John 3:16 is utterly ridiculous! Even if you do believe in Jesus, the existence of a creator and almighty God, and grew up familiar with the church, the idea that a loving God would force his only son to go through a lot of pain, so that people could believe in him and give up all that they once held dear, that they might have a shot at eternal life rather than death, seems woefully circuitous and troublesome. It would have been far easier (and far more loving) to forgive everyone’s sins without all the trouble. Better still, give them heaven right away! If Christians struggle with the theology of John 3:16, then it is no wonder pre-believing friends find the verse difficult to identify with.

There are three lessons I believe John 3:16 teaches us:

  1. Love Costs
  2. Love Transforms
  3. Love Chooses and Trusts

Love Costs

This is directly observed. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…” We must understand the depth of intimacy the triune God has. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit exist in such pure and tight intimacy that they are at once three distinct entities and one triune God. Nothing on earth is as perfectly intimate as the perfect union within the triune. Yet, God chooses to break this bond of perfect intimacy, that He can take on mortal flesh, that He can provide a path to eternal life. In this almighty and perfect act of love, God exemplifies that love implies a death to self, and not a convenient death, but death on a Roman Cross, humiliated and alone.

Love Transforms

…that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” There is a state of brokenness with which we all find ourselves in, and then there is a dramatic U-turn to a state of wholeness. There can be no more dramatic exchange, transformation, nor juxtaposition. One road leads to the death. The other leads to life, and life eternal.

Jesus bids that we come as we are, yes. But love invites us to not leave as we are. This latter portion is crucial. We come to the Cross with all our baggage, beliefs, and backgrounds. We come angry, furious, and wanting. We come defeated, lacklustre, and famished. Jesus says I accept you as who you are. Come live a whole better life anew. Leave it behind. Nail it to the Cross. Do not leave as you are. Follow me instead.

This is fundamentally different from what our flesh wants, what our flesh craves. It will involve a whole lot of pain. But it is what we need. Jesus is loving enough to diagnose our condition. Loving enough to be the cure. And loving enough to journey with us as we slowly leave the gaping claws of sin to the welcoming embrace of the divinity, in every small pattern, nook and cranny of our lives.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2:1–7 (ESV)

Love Chooses and Trusts

…that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

The first two points are quite palatable. I do not need to belabour the point that love costs, and that true love eventually transforms us into the shape of the beloved. Most people can accept this and have experienced some shade of it, even if it might not be the kind of love they think they are looking for. This idea of ‘belief’ is more controversial.

Ephesians 2 continues as follows:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Ephesians 2:8–10

In perhaps one of the most befuddling theological statements ever, Paul tells the church of Ephesus, that ‘by grace you have been saved through faith’ (v.8). This is Paul’s wise and compact summary of the Gospel. It alludes to and expounds on what belief in Jesus is: faith.

Some people take this as a license to be flippant. If salvation is all about a belief, then I can accept that God went through this very circuitous way to save us. I don’t understand it, but that’s all well and good. Thank you, God, let me continue my life the way it has been going until such time that I need you and then I will believe and have eternal life.

Imagine having such a response to your valentine (hypothetical or not). He or she tells you that he or she loves you and would give up his or her most precious possession so that you may change for good. You say, I believe you, and will do it at my own convenience. Your valentine would do well to leave. You clearly do not love him or her or believe that the relationship has any value at all. Look closer at the ending part of Eph 2:10, “…created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”. A mark of true faith, true belief, is that we should walk in good works. It is evidence of the transformative power of love, costly love.

But this is not the point I want to drive home. My warning in this paragraph is on the opposite extreme. There are those who say that I will not believe something I have not fully experienced or understood. I must evaluate all my available options, see the evidence, weigh the costs and benefits. I’ve heard many shades of this from well-meaning friends. “How do you know your religion is true?”, “Have you tried other gods?”, “Have you seen or felt or touched God”, “Do you have any proof of the resurrection”? The answer to all these is that I don’t. Or at least I did not initially. But I had to make a choice with imperfect information, and that’s what made my belief faith.

It is normal and appropriate to want to know more before making a decision, especially big ones. It would be foolish to live life on blind faith. This is why we seek to be educated. This is why we do research. This is why we ask our friends their experiences before making an investment, switching jobs, or taking the COVID vaccine. But it is equally foolish to live life without faith. One cannot cross the road without full assurance that a car will stop for the light. One simply makes a reasonable assumption that rational human beings will not want to kill someone else, and trusts that the law carries with it sufficiently severe penalties that no person would dare to violate it. We would be paralysed without some sort of faith.

So, I applaud and encourage a strain of healthy cynicism when it comes to faith and love. It shows we place appropriate weight to decisions that will fundamentally change the course of our lives. But I disagree with an unreasonable burden of proof. The point of John 3:16 is as follows, love is genuine when it chooses and trusts, without full certainty or assurance “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health”.

To many well-meaning friends who are looking for that confirmatory answer in love or in faith, I suggest the wisdom of John 3:16. In the same way you will never find out enough about a partner to know if your vows will last without a leap of faith, you will never find out enough about God to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is real without belief. The point of love is that you choose to love anyway, and trust that “all things will work for good (Rom 8:28)”. There is no easy out if things go sour. And I suspect that is why God never forced our belief in Him. A loving relationship would never work that way. He loved first, and he invites us to choose and trust Him. In Love.

A born-again disciple saved by grace