An essential part of what it is to be human is our capacity to love. But is there more to love than simply what we perceive or feel? We sometimes throw the word ‘love’ around as if it has no meaning, such as love for material possessions, or love (admiration) of public figures.
True love is central to our Christian faith and life. According to St John in his epistle: “He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). In this article we will take a closer look at the true definition of love and why it is fundamental to our life as Christians.
The greatest example of love
What does St John mean when he says, “God is love”? The very being of God, as a communion of three hypostases of the Holy Trinity, relating to one another in love is the foundation of the unity of the Godhead. Therefore, God’s divine love transcends time itself. It has always existed, even preceding creation, and is thus eternal.
In the Christian faith the greatest expression of love is our LORD Jesus Christ’s incarnation and ultimate sacrifice upon the cross, which he offered for the life of the world: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
Love by God’s standard is sacrificial, selfless and kenotic love (Agape): “He did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil 2: 6-8).
St Cyril of Alexandria gives a commentary which powerfully illustrates the love of our LORD for us: “The law of Moses mandated the necessity of loving our brothers as ourselves, yet our LORD Jesus Christ loved us far more than He loved Himself. Otherwise He would have never descended to our humiliation from His original exaltation in the form of God and on an equality with God the Father, nor would He have undergone for our sakes the exceptional bitterness of His death in the flesh, nor have submitted to beatings from the Jews, to shame, to derision, and all His other sufferings too numerous to mention. Being rich, He would never have become poor if He had not loved us far more than He loved Himself. It was indeed something new for love to go as far as that! Christ commands us to love as He did, putting neither reputation, wealth or anything else before love of our brothers and sisters. If need be, we even need to be prepared to face death for our neighbour’s salvation as our Saviour’s blessed disciples did, as well as those who followed in their footsteps. To them the salvation of others mattered more than their own lives, and they were ready to do anything or to suffer anything to save souls that were perishing.”
God’s commandment to us
As St Cyril said in the passage above, Christ commands us to love as He did. St John the beloved also emphasises the message and importance of love extensively in both his Gospel as well as his epistles. Our LORD tells us: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). In this passage, our LORD defines how he wants His disciples to conduct themselves and represent Him in their ministry. Our LORD is teaching us that we must love as He loves us and that love should become part of our identity.
A new standard
So how do we love how God wants us to and how can we differentiate this from what the world perceives as love? Firstly, true love is practical love and not limited to feelings and emotions or making others happy through words and gifts: “Let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
In most religions and societies there is a golden rule: ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you’. But in Christianity our LORD calls us to aspire to a much higher standard. He calls us to do the following: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt 5:44). He stressed: “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore, you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:46-48). This is beyond the aforementioned ‘golden rule’. It is not merely ‘do unto others what you would have them do unto you’ but it is ‘do unto others even what they are not doing to you’. This is a higher level of love, faith and self-sacrifice.
If we live by this standard we can truly become His disciples and we can be called His daughters and sons. Practically speaking, in order to reach the point in which we are able to love our enemies, we should first start by loving those closest to us, such as our neighbours, parents, siblings, or spouse. We should bear in mind that this perfection that we are called to is God’s and not our own, and in order to reach it, we need God’s grace as well as consistency and faith.
In the next article we will drill down further into the application of the Christian concept of love and how we can implement this in our daily lives, using more examples from scripture!