What Love Is, What Love Is Not
1John 4:12,17,18 say God is "perfecting" or completing or maturing our love. This alone should tell us that love is not as simplistic as some Christians make it seem.
God is Love? I Love You?
God is love (1Jn 4:8,16). But what does that mean? I love you. But how would I know?
After twenty-four years of born-again life (at the time of this writing), I testify that the concept of love is more confusing, paradoxical, and misused than any other concept in Christianity. Love, because of its supreme emotional valence, can be an instrument of self-interested leverage. Have you ever pushed or asserted your version of love, with only a few scriptures that fit that version? Is your version of love merely spandex for your personality or deeper needs?
When I was young and broken I accepted overtures of love too easily. As the Lord cut me open for sanctificational surgery and general spiritual growth, I awakened to the truth that much of what I had known was not love. It was the other person's deficits and dependencies perfumed with love linguistics.
I, too, awakened to the truth that I had not loved either.
During this period, the amazing Father gave me lifesaving and lifechanging injections of pristine love from spiritual fathers and mothers. Through them, and through my own studies with the Holy Spirit, He began teaching me what love is and what love is not.
All conceptualizations of love must begin with a head-scratching Hebrew word: ahav.
God's Foundational Definition of Love
The signature Old Testament word for love is ahav, first appearing in Genesis 22:2 via God Himself. He Himself introduced the word into Scripture. NIV, underline mine:
Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love..."
The Bible's original languages do not always give us further insight, but in this case, the ancient meaning of ahav is utterly critical. Read the following attentively. Ahav demystifies several portions of Scripture from Genesis to Jesus to Paul.
To Produce Fruit & Flowers?
Ahav is an unused or obsolete Hebrew root word, like English words we no longer use (fourscore or morrow). Ahav had equivalent words in ancient kinship languages that give us unusual insight on love. In ancient Chaldee, the ahav equivalent meant "to produce fruit". In ancient Syrian it meant "to produce flowers". In ancient Arabic it meant "to germinate, to be verdant".
Church, this is astounding! God selected an ancient Mideastern word for love that, originally and literally and across the region, meant to produce fruit and flowers. Only later did it develop more common or mundane meanings related to love.
Explanation & Clarification
Within the Hebrew worldview, ahav depicted love as the production of God-glorifying fruit or flowers. In other words, if someone says they love you but that love is not oriented toward spiritual goals, it is not ahav or love. If you say you love someone but your love is not oriented toward spiritual goals, it is not love. This ancient Hebrew vision of love is that it must be oriented to God's desired spiritual fruit. The dire implication here is that ahav or love is absolutely, categorically impossible without an ongoing experience with God--who is the originating substance or truest literality of love.
To clarify, this does not mean your unsaved or backslidden or spiritually non-mature spouse/parent/friend hates you. Anyone can have a sincere affinity or affection for another person. It is not ahav or love, though, unless their affinity includes gardening spiritual fruit or flowers in your life. Much of what is called love is actually heartfelt affinity, or on the darker side, codependence or self-interest.
Ahav Explains Many Scriptures
Now that we understand ahav, the energy center of God's love centrifuge, many well-known scriptures are opened in mind-blowing new dimensions. Here are three.
The First Statement to Humanity: Be Fruitful
In Genesis 1:28 the Creator spoke to man and woman for the very first time. The first two words homo sapiens ever heard were, "Be fruitful..."
Without mentioning love or ahav directly, God was saying "I love you" by saying "Be fruitful" and by saying "Be fruitful" He was saying "I love you". Praise the Lord! From the beginning God wanted us to understand love by its orientation to spiritual fruit, not merely a word or affinity only. The word, ahav, would come later in Genesis 22:2.
Jesus: To Bear Much Fruit
In John 15:8,16 Jesus said He chose and appointed us to bear much fruit. Why didn't He say, "I chose and appointed you because of how much I love you"? In many of today's seeker-obsessive, man-centered, ice cream-diet churches, you would think Jesus made a mistake by saying "to bear much fruit" instead of "because I love you".
God's Word has a flawless theological unity and continuity. Jesus was continuing the love-fruitfulness definition founded in Genesis 1:28 (be fruitful) and given a word in Genesis 22:2 (ahav, love).
Paul: Love Toward Fruit
In Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV), Paul gives the clearest summary statement in the entire Bible of love oriented toward spiritual fruit. Notice the underlined.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ--to the glory and praise of God.
Paul carefully spelled it all out here: if "your love" increases in knowledge and insight it will help you discern the best paths to being "filled with the fruit of righteousness", in yourself and others, to the glory and praise of God. Scripture's theological unity and continuity is stunningly perfect.
Ahav, love: to produce, or help produce, God-glorifying fruit and flowers.
Old Testament Cornerstones, New Testament Derivatives
In trying to understand love, we tend to leap first or only to the New Testament. Why? Is not the New Testament a derivative of the Old? Did not Jesus say the Law and Prophets are "the key to knowledge" (Lk 11:52)? Now that we understand how that Key explains love--ahav--we can rightly understand its New Testament derivatives.
Agape, The Equivalent of Ahav
Agapao or agape is the signature New Testament word for love. It is most often used to indicate highest love (spiritual or divine) or unidirectional love (genuine altruism; this is why it is sometimes translated "charity" in our English Bibles). At times agape is used generically with no specialized meaning (2Ti 4:10, 1Pet 3:10, 2Pet 2:15, 1Jn 2:15).
Agape is the New Testament Greek equivalent or cognate of the Hebrew ahav. It is the word substituted for ahav in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). Agape therefore, like its equivalent ahav, means to love intentionally (and sometimes with sacrificial altruism) toward divine goals, i.e., fruitfulness. This definition is much more technical and intentional than the often-theoretical and often-passive "unconditional love" many Christians blabber about.
Greek Specifications of Love
Ancient Greek had others terms for love. These terms were specificational, not equal to or synonymous with agape or ahav. Phileo specified love between true friends; it is based on shared values. Storge specified love between blood relations; it is based on natural kinship or extreme familiarity. These two terms appear in the New Testament.
Other Greek words specified other love phenomena. Some are not in the New Testament, but they certainly existed in the minds and everyday grammar of the Biblical authors. They are eros (erotic or romantic love), epithymia (intense desire), ludus (playful or callow love), pragma (dutiful or pragmatic love), and philautia (auto love, self love).
Summary: What is Love?
The artwork painted by the two superintendent words for love, ahav/agape, is this: love is an intentional, conscientious orientation towards someone's spiritual fruitfulness. This is precisely how God is love. Ahav/agape-love is not a vaguely transcendent fuzzy feeling, or an anything-goes empathy. Many Christians have watered down love to something like this, almost like artificial sweetener, something Buddhist or New Ageist or amoral secular-progressive.
Where Do Emotions Fit?
Love-related emotions rise within the love specification we are experiencing. For example, if we phileo-love a close friend with whom we share significant values, we will feel strong appreciation and affinity for that friend. If we eros-love a romantic partner or spouse, we will feel deep attraction or sexual hunger for them. Ahav/agape is not emotions or emotional, rather, emotions colorize and beautify the specific love we are experiencing at a given time. We can even feel great emotion for the Lord, but this too is a love specification--epithymia (intense desire), phileo (deep friendship), storge (Father), or other. Loving God with ahav/agape means orienting all that we are to His goals (spiritual fruit and flowers). Too many Christians are trying to love Him with emotions first or only, and that is why luscious fruit and lovely flowers are minimal or nonexistent in their life. Only ahav/agape can do this.
Love Functionalized to Fruit
If highest love--ahav/agape--centrifuges toward God-glorifying fruit, how does that look functionally? Here's two starters to get you going.
Highest love is not monoexpressive. It is multiexpressive.
The greatest love error Christians make, functionally speaking, is to pigeonhole love to only one disposition or expression (monoexpressive), which is usually their personality type or deeper needs or spiritual gifts. Highest love leading to fruit is multiexpressive. It has different functions in different situations: hugging Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:16,17), welcoming and healing lepers (Mt 21:14), making time for children (Lk 18:15-17), rebuking Peter's idiocracy (Mt 16:22,23), keeping a safe distance from certain people (Jn 2:24,25), putting Pharisees in their place (Mt 23), etc.
See how Jesus' love was multiexpressive, functionalized to the situation?
In recent church history the love errors have been (1) "sloppy agape": God is an emasculated Care Bear, spinelessly nice, holds no one accountable; and (2) extremist holiness movements: love by flamethrower, grueling moralism, God has an itchy judgment finger. Mature discernment says each is an overreaction to the other.
To mature in highest love, grow into its multiexpressive nature. Sense love's different mandates in different situations. To do this you will have to sometimes ignore your personality or deeper wishes or spiritual gifts. What if love is mandating an expression you are not comfortable with? Die to self, orient to God's spiritual goals, do what ahav/agape is mandating. For God-fruit and God-flowers to bloom, the right expression of love has to be matched to the situation. For you sloppy agape extremists and you holiness extremists: sometimes you will be right and sometimes you will be wrong. Grow out of your love monoexpression and mature in the multiexpressions of highest love.
Highest love is not conformist. It is uniqueness-enabled.
We say God made each person unique. Even our collectivist-leaning eastern brethren or brethren in socialist countries assert some form of this truth. But playing quietly in the background music of some souls is a tolerance threshold to others' uniqueness. That threshold is not actual Biblical limits or parameters, but the legalistic squirminess of their own deeper wish for sameness. To mature in highest love, you will have to get genuinely comfortable, even jubilant, with the unbelievable amount of uniqueness (or better stated, uniqueness potential) God has programmed into humans.
This is not the setting for a full dossier on the Twelve, but God's love for uniqueness is richly manifested in the diversity of the first disciples. A simple look across Scripture further shows how His love is uniqueness-enabled. He used a still-employed prostitute (Rahab), a stuttering ex-murderer (Moses), a young empath (Jeremiah), an aging soldier (Caleb), a homeless man who ate bugs (John), a former legalist scholar (Paul), a team of four single women (Phillip's daughters), a runaway slave (Onesimus)...ahhh! If your love cannot jubilee with the peculiar array of uniqueness in the born-again family, your love is still callow or has not even germinated out of seed form yet.
Is your love for God uniqueness-enabled, freeing Him to work in ways unscripted or even totally unprecedented, leading to any and all kinds of fruitfulness?
Is your love for yourself uniqueness-enabled, freeing you to accept and develop the purest form of You God had in mind, leading to personal fruitfulness?
Is your love for others uniqueness-enabled, freeing them to accept and develop the purest form of themselves God had in mind, leading to fruitfulness in their life?