What Is Love?


I first asked this question when I was 14 years old, about the same time my first real girlfriend gave me my first real kiss. I was sure I was "in love" — whatever that meant. I started looking for the answer: first, in the dictionaries and encyclopedias — which were almost helpful; next, because I had also just become very active as a Christian convert, I looked for the answer in the Bible. Of course the place I went first was the "love chapter" at I Corinthians 13. This is a good start, and I soon also looked at I John 4:7-21, which expanded the ideas somewhat (especially with regard to the love relationship between God and His people). I wasn't sure that I understood completely, but I was sure that most of my peers understood even less.

Fast-forward about 48 years: I am still searching for the answer to that question, but I have at last formulated a succinct definition that I am satisfied with:

Love (noun and verb)
A sincere concern for, and active promotion of, the well-being of another.

Note that I've marked this as both a noun and a verb, which is not the "proper" way to present a definition. Normally there are separate descriptions provided for the case where the word is used as a noun and for when it is used as a verb. I have deliberately chosen to break this convention to emphasize that neither concept is complete without the other, love as described in the Bible arises out of a genuine concern for the other and compels one to take action to enhance the well-being of that other.

The first phrase speaks of motivation, of what I value, of what I believe. Whatever good I do for others is not motivated by my needs or desires: for recognition or honor, nor for anticipated reciprocation. The second phrase emphasizes that love is a verb: it speaks of action, of doing, of demonstrating the sincerity and intensity of the concern that motivates us. In the remainder of this document I will attempt to explain why I make these claims.

This definition seems to most closely resemble the Love as Robust Concern section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article about Love.

As Jesus provided an example of love in his discussion with a lawyer in Luke chapter 10, I have recently seen another example. I've told the story in Doing Love's Errands.

Motivation: Concern for others

While love, as a verb, is essentially active — a "doing" of something — it grows from and is motivated by a deep concern, a caring, for the well-being of the other person.

It is possible, even likely given the naturally selfish dispositon we all have, to take an interest in the well-being of another in hope of gaining some benefit for ourselves. It may be that we're thinking "if I do this for them then they will like me" or even "if I help them then they can can help me". This expectation of recipricocity is natural enough, but the love commanded in scripture arises from sharing the very nature of God, who has no need, is lacking in nothing, and seeks the well-being of people for their own sake, not His.

Another inferior motivation may be a desire for praise or honor: "if I do this act of love then others will think of me as being a virtuous person". The recognition I desire is not blame-worthy, but it is not the basis of love.

Love is a recognition of and response to the intrinsic worth of the other. That is to say that the answer to the question that I've sometimes heard "why do you love me?" is not "because I hope you'll love me" nor "because it makes me look good" nor "because it seems the right or noble or honorable thing to do" — it is simply "because you are you: a unique individual created and loved by God himself, and as such you are fully deserving of His love as expressed through His agents (we who have chosen to live in fellowship with Him and in obedience to His will)".

Does this mean that we love others just to earn some sort of heavenly reward? Hmmm... and what makes this "love" any different from altruism?

Action: Promoting their well-being

No matter how much I sincerely care for the well-being of another I have not actually loved them until I've done something for them. In rare cases it may be that the best way to love someone is to let them be.

Purpose: The goal

If I wish to enhance the well-being of another, what does that mean? A quick substitution for "well-being" may be "health and happiness". This may prove to be inadequate as we examine the subject further, but it won't be grossly inaccurate.

A potential problem, indeed, likely the biggest problem, is the danger of paternalism. Who am I to say that this or that action, this or that gift, would be best (or even good) for another? Would my good intentions somehow compensate for projecting my own values to reshape them into what I think they should be?

The journey

It might be useful to describe in more detail the key points of learning or understanding that got me from somewahat-confused adolescent to being a beginning lover in my maturity.

These three documents are some of my earlier attempts to clarify my thinking about "love".

What Does Love Demand? -- an earlier exploration of the question "how can love be a command?" and of what sorts of actions are appropriate (required). Beginners Guide To Love -- another earlier attempt to clarify my thinking about what love is. Agape Love -- an attempt to analyze the meaning of the Greek word agape by looking at every instance of its occurrence in the New Testament.
15 AUGUST 2015, 17:33
Love is a genuine concern for, and active promotion of, the well-being of another.

Ezekiel 16:49 - "She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed
carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy."

Job 22:7 - You gave the weary no water to drink and from the hungry you withheld food.

Proverbs 25:21 - If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat, and if he is
thirsty, give him water to drink,

Isaiah 58:10 - You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed.

Ezekiel 18:16 - does not oppress anyone or keep what has been given in pledge, does
not commit robbery, gives his food to the hungry, and clothes the naked,

Romans 12:9-21

Isaiah 32:6 - For a fool speaks disgraceful things; his mind plans out sinful
deeds. He commits godless deeds and says misleading things about the Lord; he gives
the hungry nothing to satisfy their appetite and gives the thirsty nothing to drink.