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What is love? Part 4: the nature of our love for God and neighbor

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5 minutes to read What does it mean that God is love, that he loves us, and that we are to love him? In part 4, I move into examining what God means when he commands us to love him, and each other, in light of love as onetogetherness.

It almost seems like a downer to finally ask what it means for us to love God and each other. Our love seems drab and uninteresting compared to God’s.

But it is nonetheless our most important duty—the Bible tells us that the first and greatest commandments, the commandments which constitute the meaning of all the others, are to love God and neighbor with everything we have (Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 13:8-10 etc). To love is to fulfill the law; the Law and the Prophets are hung on the command to love.

And it should be obvious by now that the “standard” definition of love actually renders the first and greatest commandment—to love God with our entire being—completely incomprehensible.

If love is something like the desire to promote the flourishing of another or, as John Piper puts it, a deeply-felt commitment to helping him be what he ought to be, then how are we to love God? Do we imagine that God is not flourishing? That he is incomplete without our help? That he is not how he ought to be?

If you actually think we can love God in this “standard” sense, you must think that God needs our love; that somehow our love does something for God. And that is just humanism, not Christianity. You can see how it might be the logical end of theistic personalism—where God is just a really powerful person after all—and you can see how open theism might get you there; but any remotely orthodox theology of God would have to repudiate such garbage.

But this leaves most Christians—even the educated ones—with a grievous, unnoticed problem. If our first and greatest duty is to love God, and the standard definition of love makes that command either meaningless or heretical, then how can we accurately, purposefully, thoughtfully perform our first and greatest duty as Christians?

It worries me that we don’t teach biblical love in our churches or seminaries. It worries me that lexicons and study Bibles and commentaries do not define God’s love by starting with God’s triune nature. It worries me that there is a need for posts like this. And it worries me that I didn’t even notice until I’d been a Christian myself for over a decade.

Love as striving for onetogetherness with God

With the groundwork of the previous posts now laid, it should be obvious what biblical love really is. You probably now have a good idea of what it must mean to love God, since you have a good idea of what it means for God to love within himself, and to love us. I rehearse the problem with the standard definition simply to re-emphasize the importance of this issue.

Although the previous groundwork is essential and useful, we don’t actually need to rely on it to understand our duty to love. The Bible actually tells us straight up that love is onetogetherness:

And above all these, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:14, ESV

The NASB and HCSB render it the “perfect bond of unity”, and the LEB, WEB and NET more dynamically render it the “bond of perfection”. Whichever translation you prefer, the fact remains: love is that which draws and holds people together in the synchronized pursuit of a common purpose. Which, of course, is God’s glory—the one thing we saw Jesus describe in parallel to love in John 17.

It’s instructive to compare Colossians 3:12-13 with the qualities of love given in 1 Corinthians 13—they are strikingly similar. Yet here in Colossians, Paul concludes his commending these qualities by adding love to them. This is why I think it is a grave mistake to start an investigation into love at 1 Corinthians 13: it just isn’t clear that Paul is there intending to offer an exhaustive analysis of love. Indeed, it seems impossible that he is doing that, since he contrasts love in Colossians with the very qualities he says are achieved by love in 1 Corinthians.

Drawing on what we discovered there, and on earlier discussion of glory as God’s revealed perfection, we can mark out a basic position on what it means for human beings to love in the biblical sense:

To love is to conform ourselves to God, so we become “onetogether” with him in will and character, and therefore reveal his perfection as fully as we can.

And as we saw in the previous post, this is done through the sovereign joining of the Holy Spirit to ourselves. It is through this indwelling of the Spirit with our innermost being that we are able to be transformed by the renewal of our mind, day by day, after the image of our creator (Romans 12:2; Colossians 3:10; 2 Corinthians 4:16).

Sanctification just is learning to love God.

With this in view, you can see that loving our neighbor is almost indistinguishable from loving God. We love our neighbor precisely because we are conforming ourselves to God; because we are onetogether with him in will and character; because we are striving to reveal his perfection. That is true of both Christian and non-Christian neighbors:

  • We love our Christian neighbors because we are joined to God by the same Spirit. If every Christian is united to God by being conformed in the Spirit to his will and character, then every Christian will be united to every other by the same token, for God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). Thus, we are united as Christians in the purpose of revealing God’s perfection by being conformed to his image. To love God is to love other Christians.
  • We love our non-Christian neighbors by living out God’s desire for unity. That primarily means sharing the gospel—trying to bring people into unity with God himself. But it also means living harmoniously with others; being of one mind with them in the sense that we value their lives as much as we value our own. Thus we clothe the homeless, feed the poor, visit widows and orphans in their affliction (James 1:27), and all those other charitable works traditionally associated with Christianity, and unfortunately now often subsumed under the incoherent title of “social justice”.

And in doing all of this, we are revealing God by becoming like God. You see that loving God is aimed at revealing his glory—that is, uniting ourselves to God naturally reveals his perfection. Glorifying God is fulfilled in loving him.

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