One of the things I acquired from growing up in evangelical youth groups and parachurch organizations was expertise on what love is and isn’t. I imagine it was a trickle-down from C.S. Lewis’s famous book on the Four Loves, which is about the four Greek words for love: agape, eros, philos, and storge. The main thing I remember having drilled into me is stuff like this: “The world says love is a feeling — that’s eros, romantic love, but the love in the Bible is agape, which is a choice.” “You don’t have to like everybody, but we’re called to love everybody.” Etc. I recently heard some words in a sermon at the Virginia annual conference from a Cambodian Methodist preacher named Romy del Rosario that defined what love is and isn’t in a very different way that actually contradicts the evangelical youth group definition.
Romy’s sermon was based on John 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and then says “Feed my sheep.” What he had to say about the implications of this text is both brilliant and obvious as soon as you see it:
In our reading this morning from the same Gospel Jesus proclaims that love is truly love if it becomes feeding the lambs, tending the sheep and feeding the sheep. In other words, love is love when love is mission. Until then, it may be a feeling, a sentiment, a General Conference resolution, a passion, even a calling, but it is not love—not yet—not quite. Love is not love until it becomes flesh and shows up among people.
The problem with the way many of us were taught to think about love as evangelicals is that when you pit love as a choice against love as a feeling, then what you end up with is a “love” that is an abstract concept rather than something that becomes flesh and shows up among people. You say, “I choose to love everybody because I’m a Christian,” which renders love meaningless, or “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” which allows you to patronize and disrespect other people as long as you do so in a way that doesn’t involve raising your voice or losing your smile. The word becomes something you use rhetorically in arguments with people you don’t know on the Internet: “It’s because I love you as a Christian brother that I need to warn you that your opinion about this matter will get you burned in hell.”
Love is not an idea; the word shouldn’t even be used as a noun. It should always be a verb that isn’t just a propositional statement (“I love you because I’m a Christian”), but a summary description of how I am actually treating another person (“I loved my boys yesterday by playing soccer with them and reading stories together”). We shouldn’t say we love people that we don’t know; it’s presumptuous and it almost always occurs in the context of rhetorical self-justification (“It’s because I love the people of this country/state/town so much that I have no choice but to…”). Just because you’re Christian doesn’t give you the right to say that you love everybody.
When Christians grow up thinking that they’re experts on what love is and isn’t, they often say things like “Your problem is that you’re defining love the way the world does; the way that the Bible defines love is different.” Well, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is the most explicit definition of love that the Bible offers:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Paul has 15 things to say about love and all of them involve action. To be patient or kind means that you show patience or kindness to other people. If you’re acting envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful, then don’t you dare use the word “love” in the same sentence. To not insist on your own way means that you enter into conversations with other people assuming that you might be wrong. It doesn’t matter how sweetly you talk to another person if your precondition for speaking to them is that it’s your way or the highway.
Many people delight in evil when they say they’re rejoicing in the truth. If you enjoy sharing information with your friends about the scandalous things that people in the other political party have done for example, even assuming that they’re absolutely true, then what you’re doing is delighting in evil. What does it mean to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things? Those four words seem like the epitome of naivete. They are certainly the opposite of cynicism, which is an area where I have a lot to work on.
In any case, don’t cheapen the word “love” by throwing it around in abstraction. If it’s not something you have backed up with real concrete actions, then it’s not love yet. And don’t talk about how much you love Jesus unless you’re feeding His sheep. Let’s get to it!