To attempt to say anything definitive about love is both ambitious and treacherous. It is ambitious, because great minds and skilful artisans have long willingly offered their talents in service of what is the greatest of all virtues, and yet, it still carries a mystery and power we cannot fathom. It is treacherous, because the strength of individualism in our age has made its definition fiercely subjective. Love’s power and value is universally accepted, but it’s exact nature and form is deeply personal and strongly connected to a sense of identity and self-worth.
For this reason, though ambitious and treacherous, definitive words about love are much desired and much needed. Many people are inclined to contemplate the existence of God when drawn on the topic of love. It is both beyond us and all around us. It is both the most valuable treasure and the commonest currency. It makes us feel both lost and found. Our desire to bridge these and so many other paradoxes leaves us hungry for enlightenment.
Without love, whatever we do is empty, and we gain nothing. So begins Paul in his famous treatise on the topic in 1 Corinthians 13. With elegant simplicity he depicts love by its character in vv.4-7:
Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Few would argue with Paul’s attribution of selflessness to love, and yet we have to concede that when love is self-defined it is inclined towards self-fulfilment. Paul’s mention of truth is also automatically contextualised and indeed personalised by the modern reader.
Love will remain, insists Paul, even after all other things pass away, v.8. So we will see what love truly is because nothing else will be left. We can know love now, but only in childlike way, vv.9-11. It’s like a dim reflection in a mirror, v.12, but one day we will see “face to face.”
Seeing face to face might do away with the glass, but in the love story of God and his creation it does not do away with the principle of reflection. This story began with God saying, “Let us make mankind in our image,” Genesis 1:26. God made human beings quite literally to reflect him, and one of the key ways he gave us to do that is in our relationships. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
We often quote that “God is love” from 1 John 4:16, and it is a profound statement. Love is not something that God has or possesses; it is something that he is. Love is an attribute of his being. Thus, God defines love in his essence, his very being, and all understanding, experience and expression of love is derived from God. As John puts it in v.7, “love comes from God.”
Even when we deny the source, we still benefit from the effects of being made in God’s image. Yet, when we reject God’s truth, we are not those who love because we are born of God, as John describes in v.7. Though we can be uplifted by intense feelings of emotional attachment, we sin if we deny the beauty and authority of God’s self-revelation on the subject of love. Love is not ours to claim, it is a gift of God. And God’s pattern for love is not defined by our subjective understanding of it. Love is defined by God’s being and nature.
John continues in vv.8-9, “This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God’s love is revealed in story of salvation; the same love that he stamped on the pattern of creation; the same love that is an attribute of his being, which is the definitive, original source of love. Redemption through Christ’s atoning sacrifice is restoration to true love.
When we come to Christ, we regain the amazing joy and privilege of reflecting the glorious love of God. More than that, it doesn’t simply bounce off us, it infuses us and charges us with his light, leaving us glowing with his grace.
George Crowder is vicar of St John's Over and Regional Director for Church Society in the north of England.