READ : 1 Corinthians 12:31
“What the world needs now is love, sweet love” says an old pop song. That is certainly true, especially if you understand what love actually is.
I suppose out of all the subjects in the world, more songs have been written about love than anything else. (War might be a close second; what does that suggest to you about human nature?) You could probably think of half a dozen love songs without even trying. “Love makes the world go round.” “All you need is love.” “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” We sing about love so much because we sense its importance. We long to experience it. Yet we are so often disappointed in our search for it.
But what exactly is love? We extol it. We fall into it and out of it. We search for it, are disappointed in it, and seek it yet again. But what is this thing we call love? Is it a feeling? Is it an experience? Is it a power? If the songs are right, it must be all those things and more. It must be the key to life, the secret of happiness, the one thing everybody needs and wants, the magic force that makes the world a better place and our lives more worth living.
I want to spend some time looking at what 1 Corinthians 13 has to say about this wonderful, elusive thing called love. After all, the songs and poems are right – love is the greatest power in the universe. It is our deepest need. It is the thing that can make our lives complete and whole. It is the only way to real happiness.
The Words of Love
In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul has been talking to the Corinthian church about the gifts God bestows on Christians through his Holy Spirit. Some of these gifts are supernatural, such as speaking in different tongues or healing or working miracles. Others are more normal abilities that are given to people to use in service for God, things like teaching or preaching or administration or even just general helping. But none of these gifts, from the spectacular to the mundane, can compare with the best gift of all. “I will show you a still more excellent way” writes the apostle (1 Cor. 12:31). The highest and greatest gift of the Holy Spirit is not the power to work miracles or to win multitudes or to lead great movements; it is the power to love.
To love, though, in a particular way. As soon as we begin to study the Bible’s teaching about love, we confront a problem of vocabulary. The New Testament, as you may know, was written in Greek, and Greek has several words for love, each of which refers to a different kind of love. Maybe you have never thought about this, but we do experience love in different forms. There is romantic love, for example – the passionate, physical love that attracts men and women to one another. The Greek word for that is eros (from which we get “erotic”), and this is the love most of the songs are about.
But there is also the affection of friendship. There is the deep love of family, of parents and children and brothers and sisters – the loving bonds of kinship. And there is the love we feel for things that are beautiful or good. The Greeks referred to such loves with the word philos This word has survived in English in several compounds. “Philanthropy” means the love of human beings that causes one to be generous toward them. “Philharmonic” is the love of beautiful sound. “Philadelphia” is the city of brotherly love, named hopefully by its Quaker founders, who I suspect would be rather disappointed if they could see how far their city (and all others) fails to live up to its name.
But when the New Testament writers came to the subject of love, they found that none of the available words was just right. The love they wanted to talk about was different from all these other kinds of love. Eros and philos can and do take many different forms. But the one thing they all have in common is an element of need. All human love is, to some degree, need-love. The love between men and women needs to be reciprocated; for love to satisfy, lovers must be loved in return. The love of a mother for her child can be sacrificial, causing her to give up a great deal for her child’s well being, but she still needs something back from the child. She wants her sacrifices to be honored and appreciated and rewarded by her child’s virtuous life. Love for our friends or our pastimes or our favorite things is rewarded by the pleasure they bring us.
When the apostle Paul writes about a more excellent way, he is talking about love on an altogether different plane, a love so different that it needed a new word to describe it. The word he and the other New Testament writers chose was agape.
What Love Is
Love in this new Christian sense – agape-love – differs from all forms of human love because it is not need-love at all. It is gift-love, grace-love.
If this love is so radically different, an obvious question is, “Where did it come from?” How do we even know about it, if our human love is of an altogether different sort? The answer is that this love comes from God and we know about it from the Bible. Agape is the way God loves; it is the name his love takes. When the Bible, in a famous text, states that “God is love,” what it literally says is, “God is agape“ (1 John 4:7). Agape is the ultimate form of love because it is the love God has for us, the love we experience from him. Agape is also Christian love – the love we extend to others – because when we have experienced God’s undeserved love for ourselves, we also are empowered to begin to love others in the same way. Here is the full passage from 1 John 4 in which God is defined as love:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
(1 John 4:7,11, nrsv)
Knowing that agape-love is God’s love, we can learn some things about this love by studying the way he loves. Here are four important characteristics:
- God’s love is disinterested, not self-interested. Disinterested does not mean the same thing as uninterested. If you are uninterested, you are bored, turned off, unwilling to get involved. If you are self-interested, you are involved for selfish reasons. But if you are dis-interested, you are acting for no reason other than to help. God’s love is like that. It is selfless, disinterested love. It is not calculating, not an investment looking for a return. God loves just to love, not to get anything for himself. Indeed, how could he? God’s love cannot be need-love because God has no needs. He is perfect and complete in himself. He did not have to create anyone. He does not have to redeem anyone. Even our praise and thanks, our worship and adoration (all of which he welcomes) are not necessary to him. They do not add to his wholeness or his completeness or his perfect pleasure in himself. God’s love is, in the purest sense, altruistic; caused only by the needs of those he loves, never by any of his own. It is agape.
- God’s love is giving, not taking. Agape is measured by what it gives, not what it gets, a point that is made in the Bible’s most important and perhaps most famous verse –
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Here is another verse from the pen of the same apostle:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
(1 John 4:9-10, nrsv)
It’s nice when someone tells you how much he loves you, but the real measure of love is how much he is willing to sacrifice to help you when you need it. God loves us so much he gave his only Son to die as the atoning sacrifice for our sins to enable all who believe in him to have eternal life. If you want to know where the ultimate measure of love is found, look at the cross of Christ.
- God’s love is generated by its subject, not its object. God’s love is not produced by attractive qualities he sees in those whom he loves. It is produced entirely from within himself. In this too, it differs radically from natural human love. We love what is lovable. We are attracted to the attractive, whether people or things. But agape is love for the unlovely. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
- God’s love is a decision, not a feeling. God loves for one reason and one reason only: because he chooses to love. His love is an act of will that produces actions of grace toward those who do not deserve them. God does not fall in love, swept along helplessly by a wave of feeling. God is loving because he has decided to love. And that, I think, is the single most awe-inspiring truth in the whole universe.
Now all of this may be quite new to you, and it is perhaps difficult to understand. Agape is not the kind of love we’re used to. It is not natural. It is not what we instinctively feel. This really is not what all the songs are singing about. It is a selfless, sacrificial kind of love that does not look for any reward but simply acts to meet the needs of others. It is a conscious decision to do good to others even if there is no emotional return for us. It is a love that specifically focuses on those who are not worthy of it, and have nothing to commend themselves to us. To love with this kind of love does not do anything for us – except that it makes us like the Lord Jesus, like God himself.
Maybe in light of all this, you are asking, Who needs this sort of love? The short answer is: We do. You do. I do – I really do. I don’t know about you, but if God’s love is not agape, if it is not love for the unlovely and the undeserving, I have no hope at all.
And the longer answer to the question of who needs agape is: The world does. Human love is wonderful and it is good, make no mistake about it. Romantic love, affection, friendship – these are all great things. God made them and we enjoy and appreciate them. But these kinds of love are not enough. Romance will not solve the deep problems that confront us in society, or even in our own families. Appeals to friendship are not going to turn centuries-old enemies into brothers and sisters. Natural feelings will not feed the hungry, shelter and clothe the poor, befriend the lonely, bring reconciliation between races and tribes and nations – or between quarreling next-door neighbors. Only the power of God’s sacrificial love flowing first into us and transforming us, and then flowing through us out into the world, can really make a difference.
Are you a Christian? Do you know the agape of God? What the world really needs now is that love acting through you.