“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible).
God is love. Entire books declare God’s love. Some preachers have based all of their theology on this statement. It is true, but it can be distorted, especially if we assume that it is the only attribute of God. Many people, even ones who claim to be born-again Christians, think so. They say “God judges nobody,” despite numerous Bible verses that speak of a final judgment. They say “love wins,” or even “love is love,” without defining love.
Biblical Greek had several words that are usually translated as “love.” “Phileo” describes the kind of love between friends. “Eros” often speaks of romantic or sexual love (think of our English word “erotic”). The word most frequently used for the love of God is “agape,” which Thomas Aquinas defined by saying “to love is to will the good of another.” Agape love seeks the best interests of another person regardless of reward to oneself.
Psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987) coined the phrase “unconditional positive regard” to describe the attitude he believed a therapist should express toward his client. Being strongly secular, he avoided biblical terminology, but his definition is worth considering when we ask how we, as imperfect humans, can express agape love. One writer describes unconditional positive regard like this:
“According to Rogers, unconditional positive regard involves showing complete support and acceptance of a person no matter what that person says or does. The therapist accepts and supports the client, no matter what they say or do, placing no conditions on this acceptance. That means the therapist supports the client, whether they are expressing ‘good’ behaviors and emotions or ‘bad’ ones” (Kendra Cherry, “Unconditional Positive Regard in Psychology”).
Everyone we come into contact with will have weaknesses, shortcomings, and failures. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; everybody needs forgiveness. Everybody has needs. Everybody needs help sometimes.
I share Rogers’ terminology here partially because it has seeped into many Christians’ thinking. Many believers seem to be following Rogers when they speak of love. However, the Bible gives a detailed description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
I suspect Dr. Rogers would agree with many parts of this passage but disagree with a very significant point.
Love is patient. It does not lose its patience with those who make mistakes or are not growing “quickly enough.”
Love is kind. When love sees someone in need, it tries to help.
Love is not jealous. Love is happy when someone else succeeds, prospers, or excels. It does not get upset because somebody has done or received something you have not done or received.
Love does not brag and is not arrogant. It does not tear others down to make itself feel better about itself.
Love does not act unbecomingly. Many translations (including the NIV, NRSV, and ESV) translate this by saying that love is not rude. It is polite and respectful.
Love does not seek its own. It is not self-centered or greedy. Instead, it seeks to bless and help others. The King James Bible frequently translates “agape” in 1 Corinthians 13 as “charity.” We usually use that word to describe freely giving to people or groups in need, even if we do not know who they are or if we will receive no personal benefit from the act.
Love is not provoked. In the words of the NIV, it is not easily angered. It does not lose its temper every time things do not go its way or people do not do what it wants.
Love does not take into account a wrong suffered. It does not hold grudges. It does not seek revenge.
Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. Here, Carl Rogers and the Bible part ways. In the name of unconditional positive regard, Rogers would encourage a person to seek “self-actualization” even if it meant making choices that contradict the Bible. When personal choice and Scripture conflict, a sincere Christian will side with Scripture. True biblical love does not celebrate sin. Instead, it desires the repentance, restoration, renewal, and redemption of sinners.
Love rejoices in the truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” Love rejoices in Jesus. It does not betray or deny Him. Love conforms itself to God’s will, not to the ways of the world:
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
If God’s love lives in our hearts, we will not conform ourselves to the world. We will be transformed by the renewing of the mind—through the Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Love bears all things. It would rather suffer than sin. It accepts challenges and difficulties that God allows in our lives.
Love believes all things. It especially believes that God can accomplish His perfect will in the lives of those around us.
Love hopes all things. It waits with patient expectation for God to accomplish His will in the lives of others. Christian hope is not an “I hope God does what He said He would do” attitude. It is a confident patience that waits to see every promise come to completion.
Love endures all things. It never gives up.
Whenever you see the word “love” in 1 Corinthians 13, you can substitute the names “God” or “Jesus.” Can you substitute your name, though? First John 4:8 says that the one who does not love does not know God. Do you truly know Him? How often can you honestly substitute your name in place of “love” in 1 Corinthians 13?
True biblical love seeks the glory of God and the blessing of those around us, whether they deserve it or not. It does not ignore God’s other attributes, such as righteousness, justice, and holiness. However, God’s love provides a foundation on which those other attributes can stand.
I would like to hear from you. How do you define love? How does this affect your perception of what God is like? Share your thoughts or suggestions by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.
Copyright © 2021 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.