How Do We Know What Love Is?

What is love? 

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that the answer to this question will vary depending on who you ask. I recently typed “How do people define love?” into my search bar; here are a few snippets from the results:

  • “At its core, love requires the basics of care. It’s people helping each other meet needs, like food and warmth and play.”
  • “Love is like sinking into a warm bath at the end of an awful day. It’s being brave enough to give someone the parts of you that are messy, complicated, and not Instagram-perfect.”
  • “Love is what gets us through this whole thing called life. It’s what and who we think about when we fall asleep. It’s what we feel in our most vulnerable and emotional moments. It’s everything.”

A popular one these days is simply, “Love is love.” 

But amongst its vast and varied definitions, how do we really know? In our relativistic culture in which love can mean anything to anyone, is there a sure anchor for our understanding of what love is and what it should look like in our lives?

I’m quite certain there is. And we need look no further than the pages of Scripture to find it.

Love Is Defined in Jesus

In 1 John 3:16 we find this beautifully clear measurement of love. “This is how we have come to know love: [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—and all that comes with it—is how we know what love is. And love is anything that comes into alignment with this example. 

In the fight to define and justify love as something contrary to what is laid out in the Bible, Scripture is sometimes pulled out of context to be thrown in the faces of others. We’re told love is tolerance of sin, affirming anything and everything that feels good to the flesh in any given moment. We’re told the highest form of love is looking out for yourself first, even at the expense of everyone else. 

However, what we see in the gospel could not be more different. Love did not compel Jesus to tolerate sin but to give His very life so that we would be saved from it. Love did not cause Him to be self-preserving, but self-sacrificing. His love was the epitome of humility, with no shred of pride present. His love forgave in the face of hate and the rejection of His priceless gift. His love still forgives anyone willing to turn away from sin toward His salvation. 

True love is lived out when we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

As those who bear His love, our lives should be marked by . . . 

  • Delighting in holiness
  • Being kind and tender-hearted 
  • Self-sacrifice
  • Humble-heartedness 
  • Willingness to face criticism and rejection 
  • Holding fast to truth
  • Forgiving those who hate us and have wronged us

This is only possible as we keep our eyes fixed on eternity, joyfully running our race of obedience until He takes us home. 

We see another clear description of love in the classic love passage of 1 Corinthians 13:4–7:

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Every one of these characteristics finds a home in the person of Jesus—in His life, death, burial, and resurrection. As much as the enemy desires to twist and distort what love is and get us to buy into it, he cannot change the truth about our Savior. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8) and will always be the steadfast foundation upon which we can safely build our lives. 

Here are a few ways we can be sure we’re living in (and living out) the love of God.

1. We keep God’s commandments. 

“This is how we know that we love God’s children: when we love God and obey his commands. For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. And his commands are not a burden” (1 John 5:2–3).

We find these commands throughout the New Testament. They include imperatives to count each other as more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3), do everything without grumbling and complaining (Phil. 2:14), show hospitality (Heb. 13:2), serve one another (Gal. 5:13), be compassionate and forgiving (Eph 4:2), rejoice and weep with one another (Rom. 12:15), and the list goes on. 

If we believe God is our perfect Creator—knowing exactly what is best for us in every aspect of life—then it will be a delight for us to obey the instructions found in His Word. We won’t see them as a list of cumbersome rules, but rather as a pathway filled with abundant life. We won’t try to redefine or reason away obedience to God’s definition of right and wrong. Does this mean our flesh won’t fight back? Sadly, no. We’ll be battling that until the day we die. But it will mean that the Spirit living within us will give us a deeper desire to honor God with the things we do, the thoughts we entertain, and the words we say. We’ll long to glorify Him from a heart that has tasted and seen that He is good (Psalm 34:8). 

If we find ourselves bristling at any of His commands, we should take our attitudes straight to His feet. We need to confess our lack of love and trust in Him and His design for our lives. Let’s plead with Him to increase our love for Him and His ways, poring over Scripture in order to be faithful followers of Him.

2. We bear the fruit of righteousness.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).

If we truly love God, the evidence of our love will be a transformation from the inside out. It won’t only be displayed in keeping His commandments, but in the way we keep them. His Spirit will replace hate with love, bitterness with forgiveness, harshness with kindness, pride with humility, and anxiety with peace. 

I know more than one Christian who has decided to rethink God’s definition of love due to the cultural messages about what love actually is, or why God’s word doesn’t really mean what it teaches. But does this change of heart truly result in more love, more joy, more hope? It sometimes seems to at first. But as time goes on, I’ve seen hearts grow hard, words become biting, thoughts and actions become laced with disdain and pride. This “love” is anything but life-giving. It’s sobering, because I’ve realized that no one is immune to it, including me. It begins with the tiniest compromise: choosing to hold onto that grudge a little longer, stiffening against the encouragement or exhortation of a fellow believer, grumbling over an opportunity to serve, compromising just a little to stay in the good graces of another. This disobedience shrivels up the spiritual life inside of us. It produces fruit contrary to what is good and lovely. But when we repent of sin and return to God’s pattern, we again become conduits of God’s love, overflowing to those around us. 

3. We Put True Love into Action

“Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

In a world full of distorted practices of love, true expressions of love as defined by God through His Word glow like beacons in the midst of the darkness and confusion. As much as we might want to reframe selfishness, pride, and greed as “love,” we can’t deny the significant impact left by those who are willing to lay down their own life in some way for another. In our heart of hearts, we know it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), to serve rather than be served (Matt. 20:28), to sacrifice for those who are unable to give us anything in return (Matt. 25:40), to set aside our own desires (or legitimate needs) for the sake of another (Phil. 2:3–4), or to kindly speak truth in the face of ridicule (1 Cor. 13:6). 

As much as we might try to distort love to justify our fleshly cravings, there is no way around the reality that God’s love is the only way to truly live a fulfilling life. It’s the only way to truly honor Him. When our hearts are full of love for Him—in awe of Christ’s demonstration of love for us on the cross—we can’t help but deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. This will (and must) include the way we love others. 

It is a mercy when the Lord reveals a lack of love for others or a tendency to defend our own selfishness. We should be quick to repent, thank Him for His conviction, and ask for greater love for Him that is evidenced in love for those around us. 

What an even greater mercy that we can turn our eyes and ears from the jumbled, empty definitions of love being peddled to us and onto the One who is love: Jesus Christ. He is a sure foundation on which to live and order our lives—one that will never be changed or shaken.

It’s celebration Monday here at Revive Our Hearts—a day when we’re rejoicing in Jesus’ victory over the grave! What better way to celebrate than by becoming a Revive Partner, a member of the team of generous friends who give faithfully each month to make sure we can continue to provide biblically sound podcasts, events, resources, and articles like this blog post. Select your giving level, and join the Revive Partner family today!

About the Author

Heather Cofer

Heather Cofer

Heather Cofer is a wife and mother of six living in northern Colorado with a passion for encouraging women to love Jesus. She is the author of Expectant: Cultivating a Vision for Christ-Centered Pregnancy, and has also written for Set … read more …

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