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What Is Love?


It’s a great word, and you’d have to be Hannibal Lecter not to sign up to it, but we only really have one word for love in English and so use it to cover emotions ranging from loving Nutella to loving someone enough to make wedding promises to them. When a word is overused, it becomes debased. It also becomes fuzzy. One way we tie ourselves in knots is by confusing loving someone with liking them. Here’s the good news: we do not have to like everyone we are called to love. It is impossible to like everyone. The flip side is: we are asked to love everyone we know.


But love is much more than an emotion. If it was just an emotion, we wouldn’t love those we don’t like. Love is doing the right thing by them. And it’s an act of will. Jesus made that clear when he said: anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. And Romans 12 spells it out. It’s a lovely read, but it’s also uncompromising in what it asks for.


Among other things, here are four:

  1. 1. Love is showing patience when suffering. This means more than just physical pain. We suffer when people treat us badly; when we can’t sleep; when we can’t pay our bills; when we become depressed or anxious; when we are treated unfairly; when it feels like God has disappeared; when someone we care about is hurting. I could go on. When we are on the edge, patience is often the last thing we feel like showing. But God is asking us consciously to bring him into this. Not because he isn’t already there but because we’ve forgotten he is. The thing is, when we suffer, we are more prone to lash out at others and hurt them. So it’s not just about self-protection.

  1. 2. Love is being persistent in prayer. And this is uncomfortable. The digital economy is giving many of us the attention span of a gnat. Perseverance in prayer asks us to hang in there, knocking on God’s door until our knuckles hurt and he answers it. And it asks us to do this for others especially. Being persistent in prayer for others is one of the loving things we can ever do for them.

  1. 3. Love is being hospitable to strangers. The 1980s caption ‘stranger danger’ hasn’t exactly helped with this. We can be suspicious of people we don’t know and especially those who don’t look like us. But relating to them is life-giving. One American journalist, Joe Kahane, spent a year making a point of talking to strangers and found it the most stimulating time of his life. It even releases a brain chemical that makes us feel more alive. Hospitality doesn’t mean you have to release your inner domestic goddess at the Saturday evening dinner party; it might simply mean stopping to talk to the person next to you in the queue. John’s Gospel was full of those chance encounters, and look what happened.

  1. 4. Love is not being haughty but associating with the lowly. Our culture is governed by status. Who has it and how we get it. We pretend it’s otherwise, but it’s coded into much of what we do. The Gospel is radically anti-status. It warns that bad things happen to those who lord it over others and that in the world to come the first will be last and the last first. Which is a pretty big statement by God, when you think about it.

The work of God takes time. We wish we could grow Christian fruit at the speed of a tree shown by one of those fast motion cameras, which condenses months of growth into fifteen seconds of TV, but it does not work like that. But by patiently caring for one another, praying with one another and sharing the Gospel with words and action, we build something very special together. Something that starts, and ends, with love. Because God is love.



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