Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
The term “love” brings up all sorts of ideas in our widely mixed Western world. The media tend to picture love with desire and feelings and most often promote an equation of love with lovemaking—especially when love is the result of chemistry that bursts into passionate magic. Most of today’s thriving online matchmaking services market their brand of “happily ever after” using personality tests or compatibility pairing—and all of them brag about their success rates.
Speed-dating services and companies like It’s Just Lunch—along with Zoosk, OurTime, ChristianMingle, SingleParentMeet.com, and a host of others—promise to find love for you with “that special someone.” eHarmony alone has more than 15 million members and Match.com has more than 21 million.1 One reliable source estimates that the dating industry brings in over one billion dollars in revenue each year in the U.S. alone, and the average client spends well over two hundred dollars per year to find the “right person.”1
Reasonable, you might say, if real love is found.
It is interesting to note, however, that although the Bible does validate physical lovemaking in marriage as the purpose and design of the Creator, the concept of recreational sex outside of marriage is never promoted in Scripture—all promiscuous, premarital, and extramarital sex is strictly forbidden. Biblical love is based on a much different premise.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the focus that God requires in a love relationship (both in marriage and in friendship) is to note the play on words in the interaction between the Lord Jesus and Peter after the resurrection. The apostles met with the Lord on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus asked Peter if he “loved” Him. Jesus used the word agapao.2 Peter responded with phileo. The interchange in John 21:15- 17 runs like this:
Jesus: “Do you LOVE Me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know I LIKE You.”
Jesus: “Feed My lambs.”
Jesus: “Do you LOVE Me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know I LIKE You.”
Jesus: “Tend My sheep.”
Jesus: “Do you LIKE Me?”
Peter: “You know that I LIKE You!”
Jesus: “Feed My sheep.”
These two words are at the heart of the human problem. God’s love—the love that God exercised when He “gave His only begotten Son”—was agape love.3 That kind of love is unilateral. That kind of love is a promise from the giver to the receiver with a mental commitment to continue that love without regard to circumstances, feelings, or reciprocation. When reciprocated, agape love produces a bond that is almost impossible to break. Yes, the human heart is fallible and sometimes breaks a relationship established on biblical love. But God’s love never fails. Many may reject His love, but God’s love was extended to all humanity with the request that they believe that He loved them.
Human love, on the other hand, in its normal form is phileo love—love that is based on mutual fondness. Hence, the emphasis of the modern dating services on compatibility. And it works...for a while. If folks like each other and enjoy the same sort of behavior, they can get along together under normal circumstances. But when any kind of crisis erupts, disability occurs, or serious differences of opinions develop (and they will), the “like” shows its weakness because it is not “love.” The relationship suffers and may ultimately dissolve.
The Bible speaks of the two pillars of the Law upon which the relationships of man with God and man with man rest. The first pillar is called the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). This pillar, of course, summarizes the first four of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-11).
- God is to reign—nothing is superior.
- God is not reproducible—there is no other likeness.
- God is to be reverenced—He is not “ordinary.”
- God is to be remembered—He is the Creator!
The second pillar is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matthew 22:39). The neighbor has a broad application according to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). That second pillar is summarized by the last six of the Ten Commandments.
- Respect authority (Ephesians 6:1-3; Romans 13:1-7).
- Protect life (Deuteronomy 19:11-12; 1 John 3:15).
- Protect marriage (1 Corinthians 6:13-18; James 4:1-4).
- Respect property (Exodus 22:1-15; Malachi 3:8-10).
- Honor truth (Zechariah 8:16-17; Ephesians 4:29-32).
- Reject greed (Psalm 106:13-15; 1 Timothy 6:9-10).
Coupled with the obvious emphasis on the agape love outlined in the Ten Commandments, the Bible speaks of a two-master problem. You cannot love two opposing ideas (people, lifestyles, worldviews, etc.); one or the other will dominate your heart (1 Timothy 6:9-10; Matthew 6:23). Put simply, relationships with God and with other humans will either be based on a mutual fondness (phileo) or an intellectual, unilateral commitment (agape).
Perhaps the greatest test of whether love or fondness dominates our lives is examining our practice to see if we do not love what God does not love. And that boils down to how we relate to the “world” (1 John 2:15-17)—the system that places self and monetary success or personal dominance over submission to the authority of the Creator.
On the positive side, “love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). This kind of human love is really an expression of God’s love. That love is easy to define, even if difficult to keep, and is found in the classic passage in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. God’s love is summed up by the following qualities:
- Patient (Ephesians 4:2; 2 Timothy 4:2)
- Kind (Ephesians 4:32; 1 Peter 3:8)
- Not jealous (Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:26)
- Does not brag (Proverbs 27:1; Ecclesiastes 7:8)
- Not arrogant (1 Corinthians 8:1; Philippians 2:5-7)
- Does not act unbecomingly (Ephesians 5:12; Philippians 3:19)
- Does not seek its own (Philippians 2:2, 21; Romans 15:2)
- Not provoked (Proverbs 14:17; James 1:19)
- Does not think evil (Mark 7:20-23; Micah 2:1)
- Does not delight in evil (Psalm 10:3-4; Romans 1:32)
- Rejoices in truth (2 John 4; 3 John 3)
- Bears, believes, hopes, endures all things (2 Timothy 2:3, 24-26; 4:5)
Individuals seeking God’s character and instructions for a successful life (i.e., successful in God’s eyes) find their focus in a love for the Word of God (John 14:15-24; 1 John 5:2-3). Our secular world is struggling to find love and falling prey to relationships based only on a mutual fondness that fades with time and circumstance.
In stark contrast, God’s love stimulates good works (Hebrews 10:24). It causes us to honor our leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). God’s love produces confidence and even fearlessness (2 Timothy 1:7; 1 John 4:18) and a growing maturity in our ability to understand and cope with life (Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 2:2). And God’s love enables us to love others as He has loved us (John 13:34).
Ultimately, of course, God’s love—made efficacious in us through His salvation—provides confidence in His sovereign control (Romans 8:28) and security in His faithful preservation (Romans 8:35-39). When God gives instructions for husbands to love their wives, He uses agapao rather than phileo (Ephesians 5:25). That kind of love continues “for better or for worse” and does not waver when circumstances change. Agape love commits for life; phileo love falls away when the passion fades. It allows only surface sacrifice and protects self rather than the other. But God grants the twice-born special ability to demonstrate the powerful agape love that unreservedly sacrifices for the sake of the one loved. “Greater love [agapen] has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).
- Online Dating Statistics. Statistic Brain. Posted on statisticbrain.com January 1, 2014, accessed January 7, 2014.
- Agapao is the verb form, and agape is the noun.
- John 3:16.
* Dr. Morris is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Creation Research.