We know so much about love that we don’t realise how much we don’t know about it.
We know it matters. We know we can’t live without it. This is so intuitive that we don’t stop to think about why it is so obviously the case. It just is.
Whatever our worldview or politics or belief system or cultural background, we all know that life is, in some sense, about love. It is what makes life work. We sense that without love, everything else loses much of its point and purpose.
And most of what we think about sex is based on the assumption that it is all about love. When there are discussions in our culture over issues like the definition of marriage, or Christian beliefs about who we sleep with, arguments tend to revolve around lines like, “You can’t regulate love”, or hashtags like #Loveislove and #Equallove. Love is the bottom line in all this. If you look like you’re against love, you’ve already lost the argument. And because (on this understanding) sex is love, anything that seems to curtail sexual freedom is accused of being unloving.
So What Is Love, Actually?
We’re actually in a predicament. We know enough to know that love matters, but not enough to know what it is. So let’s look at some of the fundamental things the Bible says about love.
1. Love really does matter
One of the most famous parts of the Bible is a poem about love. Here’s how it starts:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
The apostle Paul shows that, however impressive you may be, none of it matters if you are unloving.
The Christians to whom Paul is writing are fascinated with the possibility of speaking in spiritual languages or tongues. So Paul ups the ante. Suppose you could speak in the tongues of angels? How awesome would that be? But without love, it is nothing. It is like a clanging cymbal. The same is true of how much we know, and how much we sacrifice. A life with no love is no life at all. So far so good. But now it starts to get a little more difficult.
2. We’re not as loving as we think
In the next part of this passage on love, Paul starts to describe love:
“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 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Paul uses both positive and negative language—we see what love is and what it is not. Negative comparisons often provide sharp moments of clarity, and here we see that there is nothing fickle or fleeting about love. It is consistent and dependable. It sticks around.
When we look back on Paul’s words as a whole, something uncomfortable and unavoidable begins to become clear. We’re not really like this. We want love, we approve of love, we esteem and celebrate it. But we’re just not that good at doing it.
3. We need God’s help
While there is a basic morality in most of us (something the Bible itself accounts for), it is still true that we need help to know what it means to be loving. The Bible grounds this in a famous assertion of just three monosyllables: “God is love”.
It is easy to misunderstand this. It doesn’t mean that “everything I think is love, God must approve of”—it is very easy for us to mistake all sorts of intense and even harmful feelings for love. To assume that God automatically endorses our understandings of love is actually to invert the passage and say that love is God.
What John is saying. is that God knows far more about love than we do, and that we therefore need to listen to him if we are to love each other as well as we can. It means we cannot hope to love people in the best way, without learning what God says that should look like.
So love is God’s expertise. And it means we need his help to know how to love others.
Different Loves for Different Contexts
The fact is, most of us recognise that there is more than one way to love, and that different contexts call for different types of love.
Consider the following statements:
- I love my mother.
- I love my spouse.
- I love my dog.
- I love sausages.
Each statement uses the same word but we instinctively understand it in differing ways appropriate to its object. It really won’t do to use the slogan #Loveislove as a justification for a particular relationship. There are different forms of love, and loving well in any given situation involves ordering those loves appropriately. We combine or confuse them at our peril.
Virtually all of us will find ourselves attracted to people whom God says we shouldn’t sleep with. All of us have to say no to certain romantic and sexual desires. It’s not because we’re against love—it’s because we’re for it, in the right sense.
Sexual intimacy is precious. It needs to be shared with the right person at the right time. The wrong person at the wrong time, or even the right person at the wrong time, can be disastrous.
It is easy to dismiss the Christian view of sexuality by saying it is anti-love. But that is also a very shallow way to think. Love is too important to leave to simplistic soundbites. It matters, and so we need to understand it.
People matter, and so we need to learn how to truly love one another. And the best way to do that is to follow the words of the God who is himself love.
Sam Allberry is a global speaker for the Zacharias Trust on topics of sexual ethics and sexuality, an editor for The Gospel Coalition, a founding editor of LivingOut.org, as well as an ordained minister in the Church of England. In his latest book Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With? he explores how, in a world where Christians are increasingly seen as outdated, restrictive and judgmental about sex, cohabitation and homosexuality, God created a good design for the expression of human sexuality – showing that God himself is love and that only he can satisfy our deepest desires.