1 Corinthians 13 is totally devoted to the subject of love, and one of the attributes of God given to us in the Bible is that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). The foundation of the Christian system is rooted in love, and is summarized by the familiar statement "God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son..." (John 3:16). Many people find the teachings of Jesus to be impossibly difficult when they read that they are to love their enemy, to do good to those who do evil to them, to turn the other cheek, and the like. All of this is rooted in our problem of comprehending what love is all about and in seeing the logic of love.
Science and Love
Scientific attempts to explain love have been almost universally unsatisfying. Scientific naturalists have tried to explain love totally in mechanical biological terms. One theory has been that all love is explained in our attempts to promote our own genes. The idea is that we will sacrifice our wealth, our possessions, and even our lives to produce and reproduce our own genes throughout the population. Everything in nature is seen as a means of promoting one's own genes. Beauty, possessions, territory, and behavior are all interpreted as a means of attracting mates to enhance the production of offspring who bear our genetic imprint. Scenes like the one to the right may radiate peace and cuteness, but animal behaviorists interpret all animal behavior as mechanically-driven methods of enhancing and promoting the animal's gene pool.
The problem with this kind of explanation is that there are too many examples where someone does something which reduces his reproductive success, and this is seen in both humans and in the animal kingdom. When someone dies saving the life of someone else's child, his act defeats the argument of gene promotion on two levels. It stops the individual's reproductive ability, and it promotes someone else's gene pool. Adoption is a fact of both the human and animal world, and adoption is a major violation of the assumption that everything is rooted to the promotion of one's own personal gene pool. Dying for a religious or political cause also defeats any notion that love is totally a function of the promotion of a person's genes.
Another explanation given for love is that it is a tool of dominance, territorial preservation, and control. Animal behaviorists will sometimes point out that male dominance over lesser males and females is a driving force in the animal kingdom, especially in primates. We have all seen documentaries showing the dominant male herding his harem and crushing any opposition that might come from lesser males.
This picture may adequately describe the reproductive processes of animals in the wild, but such a picture breaks down when one attempts to apply it to humans. Humans do not choose mates on the basis of any one attribute. Anyone who chooses a mate on such a basis is doomed to an unhappy marriage. The arranged marriages of the past were never what God intended for marriage to be because it assumed that only one characteristic was necessary for marriage to work. Humans also do things that isolate and expose their mate to all kinds of opportunities for infidelity by fighting wars, going on fishing trips, or involvement in social or political causes. There are many marriages where no reproductive potential exists at all, and yet love blooms. Any attempt to reduce human love to a mechanical level is doomed to failure, because love is far more complex than that.
The Spiritual Nature of Love
A major clue about the nature of love comes from a beautiful passage in 1 John 4. The writer makes the separation between those who are "of the world" (verses 1-5) and those who are "of God" (verses 6-21). Those who are of the world are pictured as those who are opposed to Christ--the "antichrist...who is already in the world." These are people who reduce love to selfish self-gratification at all levels. Sexual abuse, control, and exploitation are typical of animals and function outside of God's plan for man and what makes us truly human.
In verse 8 we see the simple statement that "God is love." This is a major aspect of God, and verse 13 tells us that God dwells in us in this way because God gave it to us. In Genesis 1:26-27 we are told that God created us in His image. This does not mean that we look like an old man in the sky, it means that we have characteristics in our make-up that are like God, and one of those characteristics is love.
The Greek language is especially helpful to us in this discussion, because the Greeks had different words to describe different kinds of love. When the Greeks wanted to describe passionate sexual love they used the word eros from which our word erotic is derived. This word is not used in 1 John because that is not what real love is about. The word phileo was used in the Greek language to describe a brotherly kind of love, and our American city of brotherly love (Philadelphia) gets its name from that root. The word that is unique to our discussion and is the key to understanding the biblical concept of love is the word agape which refers to a self-sacrificing, non-demanding, unselfish kind of love.
One of the clearest biblical accounts of the kind of love that God wants humans to have is seen in John 21:15-19. Jesus asks Peter if he loves (agape) Him. Peter responds with "Yes, Lord you know that I love (phileo) You. Jesus responds to this by using the word agape again. Peter replies by using the word phileo again. Jesus responds a third time in verse 17, this time using the word phileo, and Peter responds again with phileo. This denial by Peter may have been as significant as the one with the rooster crowing. God calls us all to an agape type of love. This kind of love not only allows us to have a relationship with God, but also a relationship with each other. In 1 John 4 we are told about how this spiritual concept of an agape type of love works. God sent his son to die for us because God loves us (verses 9-10). "If God so loved us, then we ought to love one another" (verse 11). We have never seen God, but when we love each other God dwells in us and his love gives us the capacity to do what our biology by itself would not allow (verses 12-13). "And we have known and believed the love God has for us. God is love, and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him." The passage goes on and tells us that perfection in love will happen after we die, and that love can wipe out fear. We are also told that if we cannot love our brothers in the world we have failed in our relationship with God.
In the Christian Framework, Love Does Make Sense
We would like to point out some of the things that enable us to understand love and its importance to all of us.
Love Is Possible because Man Has Choice. One of the most important properties of humans is free will. There are many debates about free will and how it operates and what limits it has, but few seriously question the role of free will in love. How is it possible for someone to love you? It only happens because the person has the choice not to love you. You cannot force love. In sexual matters there has to be choice, because sexual love without choice is called rape--it is the deliberate exploitation and abuse of another human being and has nothing to do with love.
In matters related to God choice is still a key element. God has always allowed mankind to have the choice of whether to love Him or not. We are commanded to "Love the Lord thy God with all thy power, mind and might" (Matthew 22:37), but whether we choose to do that or not is up to us. There are consequences in all human activities of every choice that we make, and that is true of our love for God as much as it is true of our love for one another. If we choose to love God and to trust Him as the guide for our lives there are certain things that we will do and not do and there are consequences of those choices both here and in the hereafter.
Love Is Possible because It Is Not Physically Driven. Love for a baby happens without hormones, and if hormones are involved it is criminal. As a marriage grows and matures, the love that exists between partners matures and physical performance becomes less and less of an issue. There is no human on the planet who is not capable of both giving and receiving love, no matter what his condition or physical make-up may be. Agape type of love is truly universal, totally fulfilling, and completely independent of the physical world. Our love for our parents does not stop when they die, and as we get older the type of love we have for them enlarges and grows and an agape type of love becomes dominant. Those who reduce love to sexual experience have a pathetic lack of understanding of love.
Love Has the Power to Change People because It Is Potentially Free of Human Weaknesses. How can I love someone who hates me? How can I do good to someone who does evil things to me? How can I ever turn the other cheek? The teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 may seem outrageous to people in the world, but to the Christian the message is a message about how change can come to the world. There will never be world peace until people develop the ability to love unconditionally. There will also never be peace in a family until that can happen. We cannot do this on our own, but love can give us the power to do it. Jesus demonstrated that clearly in his life, and we see it in people who come out of the world and are changed into loving, compassionate, caring people. You do not have to have the strength to love someone--in fact none of us do. If God dwells in us and if we can turn our anger and frustration over to him, He can make change happen. It is our weakness and fear that limits what we are able to do in loving and caring for others. All of us have known people who did something like this, and we have all said "I don't think I could do that." We are absolutely right--we cannot--but God can. God's love is an enabler. It enables us to do what we could not do on our own due to our weakness and human frailty.
The Ultimate Love Can Make Disappointments and Tragedies in Life Bearable and Functional. When we perfect the kind of love that God talks about in 1 John 4, all the things that happen in life that are bad become bearable, and we are able to function in spite of them. As I write these words I am reeling from the deaths of my mother, one of my best friends, one of our mail supporters and volunteers, and three other people that we were fairly close to. If I believed that the deaths of these people was all there is, and this life totally represents all there is to any of us, it would be unbearable. Loving God and learning to trust God, and believing that the love of those close to us will live on beyond this life makes it possible to bear their loss, and allows us to continue life. In the words of the writer of 1 Corinthians 13:11-13:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
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