English-speaking church in Eindhoven

Love is a Verb – Understanding the Bible despite our culture

There is a DCTalk song from a couple of decades ago with the title “Luv is a Verb”. It points to the fact that love is something to be acted out rather than felt, that it is not what the TV portrays but what the Bible talks about, what God shows us most of all in His actions.

Love is talked about all around us, in both the world and the church. But do we really grasp how fundamentally different the Biblical idea of love is from that of the world around us? And does our Western culture in particular make it difficult for us to understand how we are to love in a Biblical way?

I preached a while ago on 1Corinthians 13 which includes the well known verses on love, verses 4-7; ‘Love is …’. Here Paul speaks about love as an all embracing style of life. Paul has three main things to say in 1Corinthians 13: the 1st paragraph is about the necessity of love, the next is a definition of love in this context, and the last paragraph is about the permanence and superiority of love over other spiritual things. Paul defines love as self-sacrificial behaviour. One obvious aspect of how he (and Jesus) talk about love is the absence of any talk about feelings.

The love Paul describes is clearly Christlike, the love God has for us and what we are called to do. God’s love for us is not motivated by our loveliness. It is his nature. It comes out of his being, self-originating. In our world we tend to love because the person before us has something we find loveable, or because we have compassion for them or in some other way our feelings are aroused. God calls us to his sort of love – not dependant on who we are loving. In the world at that time, dominated by the Roman/Greek mindset such self sacrificial love was not regarded as rational and not valued as a virtue at all. All good works and philanthropy could be practised by pagans but the Godly character of the love Paul described is something Christians are enabled to live by the Spirit so having this love is the only distinguishing characteristic of the spiritual Christian. The same applies just as much today.

So how does our culture affect how we love and think about love. An example of this can be seen in the approach to marriage and how love functions there. The Western ideal of romantic love, of feelings aroused and expressed between a man and woman leading to commitment and marriage is not held everywhere. Many in our congregation come from cultures where marriages are arranged by parents and families and the man and woman learn how to love one another practically in order for the relationship to work well. This sort of love is about deciding to do what is good for a person and to have certain attitudes that are shown in actions. For Christians in these cultures the Biblical teaching is much easier to understand – these are the attitudes one needs to have in a real Christian marriage as well as towards other Christian brothers and sisters (patience, kindness, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, etc.). Naturally positive feelings follow but they are not the driving force.

However in Western culture in particular feelings are regarded as very important. People are encouraged to do what they feel like doing unless it will hurt someone. If you do something good that you don’t feel like doing it is regarded as less authentically good. Being authentic and having integrity in Western culture usually means that your feelings must line up with your actions and attitudes. Intentions are put above the results of actions (contrast that with Jesus’ story of the two sons, Mt 21:28-31). If we don’t feel loving then our actions for the sake of another are not regarded as loving in the same way as if we did feel loving. If the person whom we show patience or kindness towards does not feel good about it then it is not regarded as loving in the same way as if they felt the action to be loving. Being loving is supposed to take the feelings of the person we are loving into account, even if what they want or feel like is not what is best for them. All of these approaches are not Biblical at all.

The Bible presents love as not dependant on feelings. In fact the whole Biblical mindset shows that feelings are not of real importance in anything we do. They are there (Jesus felt things too) but they are not to govern behaviour. The Bible goes as far as to say that some feelings should be dealt with so that they are out of the way and do not affect our actions (e.g. Mt 5:21-22, 6:31-32). To really understand what the Bible says about love we have to read it as it was first written, understanding that ‘love’ is a verb not a feeling. (This applies to other verbs in the Bible too such as ‘repent’ and ‘trust’.)

So we are faced with the decision: are we going to think about ‘love’ Biblically or according to the world around us, especially Western culture? How do we deal with the fact that in our daily lives we usually use the word ‘love’ to describe a feeling yet we read the word ‘love’ in the Bible where it only refers to the action? In all our thinking about how we live a Christian lifestyle of love, can we separate this from the worldly emphasis on feeling love?

Just as faith is shown in actions so love is shown in actions; those actions which show the fruits of the Spirit, the character of Jesus, who obeyed God the Father in everything, as we are to obey him.

“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” John 15:9-14