The timing of writing this has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about lately. I guess it is, in a way, appropriate to the day, but not really. It’s appropriate to all the time.
I’ve been thinking about the nature of true love.
In the past, I’ve been guilty of being confused about love. I think there’s culture-wide confusion about it. This is certainly not an original observation to me. Many people have noted that our culture tends to think of “love” almost exclusively in terms of romantic infatuation, which actually has nothing to do with love.
Love is not a desire to possess the other person.
It’s not physical attraction.
It’s not the desire to spend every moment you can with them.
It’s not sex.
It’s not admiration of the person’s good qualities.
It's not powerful emotional feelings about them.
It’s not the desire to spend the rest of your life with them, or the commitment to do so.
It’s not wanting the other person to fulfill, complete, or satisfy you.
It’s not even doing nice things for the other person, if the primary goal is to get them to love you back.
Good romantic love should include all of those things. But unless it also includes actual love, it’s doomed to fail.
We’ve all experienced or seen it: people fall “out of love” all the time. Their infatuation turns to hatred. Lovers’ talk about how wonderful the other person is turns into a contest to tear each other apart. People drift apart. Communication stops or becomes tinged with poison, loaded with hidden mines. Someone else becomes more intriguing, more beautiful, more appealing. The promise is out there that someone else will fulfil me more than you do.
I’ve come to understand that the essence of true love is the willingness to sacrifice yourself for the other person, to put their needs and desires ahead of your own, to love them more than you love yourself. Simple. To the extent that you do that, that is the measure of your love.
It’s easy to feel “in love” when the other person is making you feel good, or when you’re getting something out of it. But that’s not love.
That’s true of all relationships, not just romantic ones.
Why do I say that? Where does that idea come from?
It comes from God, the inventor of love, the One we are told IS love (1 John 4:8).
Jesus, who put his money where his mouth was, defined love like this: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) Of course, Jesus didn’t just teach this, he did it, becoming the ultimate example of love.
1 John 3:16 makes it even more explicit: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
True love costs. Even in romantic relationships. It means putting aside your own needs, your own wants, your own desires, to serve the other person. It means seeking their good ahead of your own, even when it is painful or difficult to do so. It means a willingness to sacrifice yourself and your well-being and happiness, if necessary, for them. It is thinking about them first and doing to them what you would want done for you. And continuing to do so, even if and when it isn’t returned.
Of course the paradox, as with so many things in Jesus’ kingdom, is that this results in your own personal fulfilment and joy. The way down is the way up, the road to death is the path to life.
There’s a great laundry list of the characteristics of true love in 1 Corinthians 13 that we should all check ourselves against once in a while:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor 13:4-7)
That’s humbling, and challenging. Let’s ask the one who epitomises true love, Jesus, to give us more of this kind of character, in our romantic relationships and toward all people.
I want to love. Not just to “be in love”.