"Very excellent things are spoken of love; it is the essence, the spirit, the life of all virtue" (John Wesley).
Is there a simple definition of "love"? Hardly. The shortest definition is found in 1 John 4:8,
God is love.
Good luck defining God. The best definition I have ever heard concerning God comes from St. Anselm who said that God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. True, but it doesn't help me understand what love is.
The English language really isn't helpful either. Webster's Dictionary starts off defining love as:
"A feeling of strong attraction..."
Love is a feeling? It seems most people do believe that.
So, when I say that I love seafood, my dog, my wife, and God...love means the same thing in every instance? I'm sure my wife is thrilled to know I feel the same about her as I do about broiled and fried shrimp.
Honestly, our definition of love is shaped largely by our experience of those who say they love us or by those we believe are supposed to love us. I only remember my father telling me he loved me one time in my entire life. And that was right after a fight with him. Compare that with someone who grew up in a nurturing home where "I love you" was said every single day. We might have a different understanding of what love means.
Everyone experiences and understands love differently. And then we go to church. We constantly hear:
- God is love
- Love thy neighbor
- God so loved the world
- Love the Lord your God with all your heart
- There is no fear in love
- Let love be genuine
What does any of that even mean? How is all of it supposed to mean the same thing to every single person?
As a Christian, I turn to the Bible expecting answers. But, alas, there is no easy explanation for love anywhere to be found. And frankly, I'm thankful for that. There are numerous portraits and examples that portray love but sometimes they aren't that easy to recongnize.
One of my favorites comes from a rather surprising place. Genesis chapter 22. The sacrifice of Isaac. Only once is the word love used. It comes at the beginning when God calls upon Abraham to do the unthinkable:
Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you (Genesis 22:2).
Love was on the altar Abraham built that day. A "strong feeling of attraction" had nothing to do with it. But when you read the entirety of the narrative, you begin to see love is not just on the altar but in every nook and cranny of the story.
To begin with, when you understand covenant theology you realize that once Abraham agreed to sacrifice his son, God was bound to sacrifice His Son on the altar of Calvary. God so loved the world that He Himself engineered the obligation to sacrifice His only Son.
God's love for Abraham was so great that He did not require the execution of the sacrifice of Isaac. Hebrews 11:19 says that Abraham was convinced God would raise Isaac from the dead but God stayed the patriarch's hand when it was raised with the knife so he wouldn't forever carry the mental image of it plunging into the young man's chest.
Furthermore, the only possible explanation for Abraham's willingness to comply with the divine command is his own love for God. Something far more than a feeling.
Finally, when Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13) in addition to helping the apostles understand what He was about to do, I believe He was also giving a nod to Isaac (after all, everyone knows that Isaac prefigured Christ). In the text of Genesis 22 we see Isaac question his father about the missing lamb for the offering but not one word is there anywhere found about Isaac's unwillingness once his hands were bound and his father "laid him on the altar." Could it be that Jesus was talking as much about the past as He was about the future? I believe so.
It is not hard to imagine the surge of fear in all parties involved in Genesis 22. God fearing what He was about to commit His Son to doing in the future. Abraham fearing how he could destroy the son he had longed for for an entire century, and of course, Isaac's fear of dying like an animal by his father's hand. The only explanation for how the story unfolded is found in 1 John 4:18,
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
There really is no other explanation for Genesis 22 as it is written (not imagined). If you dig beneath the surface there is a glorious and wonderful picture in Genesis 22. A beautiful representation of the Trinity. The Father (God), the Son (Isaac), and the Holy Spirit (Abraham who was the bearer of the fire).
You want a biblical definition for love? How about this: Uncompromising Solidarity.
Seems to fit perfectly.