What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

The Beatles may be famous for singing “All You Need Is Love,” and Bon Jovi may have thought “You Give Love a Bad Name,” but I have to wonder if it’s possible to truly understand all those “love songs.” As much as I love my native tongue, English can be infuriatingly limited at times. Just consider how to properly pronounce the following sentence: “I have read red books, but I want to read red books not previously read.” Really? This is the best our language can do? Tenses orthographically identical and a weird pastiche of homophones? Then we have to face the fact English simply doesn’t have words other languages do. We (well, maybe only I) laugh when someone trips and falls. In order to describe that particular feeling of “HaHA!” we’re forced to borrow “schadenfreude” from German, a word roughly meaning “pleasure from others’ misfortunes.” It’s all too easy to understand, then, that English has a single word for love — which is, oddly enough, “love.”

Think of the way we use that word. It’s common to hear the word used for any particularly strong feeling of attachment to something, and it’s far from unusual to hear it used for even a fleeting admiration for something else. “I love my wife.” “I love your earrings!” “This book is amazing; I love it!” See what I mean? “Love” is used so incredibly broadly its meaning gets diminished much of the time. When it’s used accurately, however, it’s arguably the most powerful word in the English language, capable of saving marriages, friendships, and even lives. (Never underestimate the power of saying “I love you.”)

Biblical Greek is a bit more flexible on the subject, and there are multiple words used to denote various shades of loving. There’s a word for the love between friends, for example, and there are words for romantic love, family love, and others. The word for God’s unconditional love for us — and for the type of love with which we should love those around us, incidentally — is agape (ah-GAH-pay). When God so loved the world He gave His only begotten son, it’s “For God so agape-ed the world” (well, the verb form of that noun). When we read “God is love,” it’s “God is agape.” The love of God towards us is limitless and unconditional. There is nothing we can do to destroy that love. God will love us even when we don’t love Him.

Using that sort of love as a basis, many Christians (particularly evangelicals) love the saying “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (see what I did there?). I don’t want to get hung up on the phrase itself, but I do want to discuss the distinction it makes. You see, the vast majority of people in our world, or at least in America, seem to think unconditional love means we love everything someone does. It moves beyond a love for just the individual herself/himself and encompasses every belief and action the person believes and does. It is for this reason so very many well-meaning Christians are branded homophobic, for example. The world doesn’t believe it possible to love a homosexual while considering same-sex activity to be sinful.

But it is.

Since God is agape, we look to the divine nature as the paragon of unconditional love. Every action God performs is done as an act of unconditional love. And yet the Bible clearly describes a God who hates sin. This is a holy God, a God in whose presence sin cannot stand. He cannot sin; He is holy; He is love. When we read passages such as Hebrews 12, then, we must keep these truths in mind to understand what’s really going on. Hebrews 12:4-10 says this:

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

The word again is agape: “For the Lord disciplines the one he agape-s.” Unconditional love, then, means caring so much for the person that you can’t sit by and watch them do things which are self-destructive. Any parent can tell you that. There’s not a mother or father in the world who truly loves her/his children and would let them deliberately play in traffic, or lick a light socket, or point a loaded gun at their heads. Why? Because parents love their children.

How much more, then, does a holy God, the Father of all, love His children? And how much more will He act to preserve His children, disciplining them and shaping them into a path of holiness? That’s true unconditional love: caring so deeply for someone you wish them to be holy as He is holy. (Maybe, just maybe, unconditional love is holy love.) So when we can say we love homosexuals but don’t approve of same-sex marriage, or we love mothers who have had abortions but want abortion outlawed, or even we love addicts and murderers and rapists but not drugs or bloodshed or rape, we’re not lying. We’re not stating we can do the impossible. We’re saying we love those people with a holy love, a love which absolutely cannot give tacit approval to sin, sit idly by while it destroys them.

I’d even argue the converse is true: a laissez-faire love which will let anyone do everything isn’t love at all. It’s apathy.

This is not to say we should pass judgment on the immortal soul. It’s not to say we should launch one-person crusades against all of our friends, sending texts every five minutes about how they really shouldn’t have told that one guy to shut up or that a particular shade of lipstick is an abomination unto the Lord. But I do believe all Christians are called to speak the truth in love, sharing the love of God while calling our neighbors into a relationship of holy love with the God who is love. Only then will we truly be able to show the love of God — and His holy hatred of sin — to a world which has forgotten both.