What is Love?

In the ’90s there was this popular sketch on Saturday Night Live, so popular is was made into a movie. It featured two seemingly good-hearted but painfully awkward and socially inept brothers who would be seen going to the clubs trying to get attention and maybe find “love”. Throughout the whole skit, a repetitive dance song “What is Love? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)” played as the brothers bumbled their way through another night. If you know the skit, you probably have the song in your head now. My apologies.

That question, “What is love?” is a good one, though. Love is something we see and hear everywhere. Its been in pop songs, well, probably since pop songs have been written. “Love” is in movies, books, and even advertisements: after all, who can escape the jingle “I’m lovin’ it”? But what does it mean? If you look, even briefly at what the message of love is in a handful of examples from popular culture, you see that it can mean a wide variety of things, often which are at odds with each other. Love is held up as the pinnacle of human desire or, at its best, commitment to another person. But in many pop songs this proclaimed “love” is certainly not without strings attached and is certainly not selfless. One song that’s very popular right now expresses a kind of “love” to a girl while also trying to convince her that she’s “just an animal” and should act on her instincts. Love is held up as a high virtue, though, and as a way to reconciliation and world peace – “All You Need is Love” – but there’s often no explanation on what that means or how that is actually lived out.

So what we’re left with is this word “love”, but with meanings as varied as the answer to the problems in the world or simply how you feel about a Big Mac. There’s a disconnect here, folks, and I would suggest that its actually a serious one. Messed up messages about love lead to some confused conclusions about what it means to love or be loved. This can have real consequences in people’s lives. Its like the two brothers in the skit, encompassed with the question, repetitively, “What is love?” but sailing on, night after night, without an anchor or even guidance, doomed to repeat this sad scenario again and again.

Love is also central to the Christian life. The word “love” shows up 314 times in scripture (or, over 500 if you count different forms of the word love). It is the at the heart of the first commandment given to Moses, establishing the kind of relationship God would have with His people: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). The very coming of Christ into the world, we are told, is based in love: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…(John 3:16). Jesus teaches that the two greatest commandments are to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). The Apostle John makes the profound statement: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (I John 4:8).

Unlike the definition of love given to us by the world, which is fractured and divided, the definition of love given in Holy Scripture is clear and united. It is united in the person and life of Jesus Christ, whom Christians hold to be the very Son and Word of God, Who came to earth, lived and died for us. Love is shown by Christ to be utterly selfless. He did not find it beneath Him to reach down to our weakened condition in order to save us. And He did so not that He might use us, not that we might give anything to Him (for He is without need) but because He loves us and wants us to be well, healed of the sickness of our condition. This is a whole and complete definition of the word “love”.

But how do we live this? How do we even begin to put this into practice in our lives? To begin, a really good Chapter of the Bible to read and memorize is I Corinthians 13. Its a popular chapter, often read at weddings. Its known as the “love chapter”. In this chapter, St. Paul describes things that are the proof of true love, as defined by God – love is patient, kind, It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs, it does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth, it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. A good question to ask, when we hear or see “love” proclaimed is “Does this match, or at least strive towards the definition of love that God gives through the person and life of Jesus Christ and through the instructive words of St. Paul?” By doing this we can hopefully begin to see and reject the counterfeit versions of love presented around us. And even more importantly we can begin to cling to those signs of true love that we see that reflect the very love of God for us, helping us to then show love as God intends to others.