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Defining Love for Our Time

Thomas Oord

Nearly everyone cares about love and, in our time, there are many different definitions of love. This is a theologian's project bent on defining love.

Theologian / Philosopher, Northwest Nazarene University
May 2, 2019

Nearly everyone cares about love. Artists, philosophers, theologians, romantics, therapists, poets, fanatics, and more extol love as worthy of attention and pursuit. “All you need is love,” sing the Beatles. “Love is a many splendored thing,” wrote Shakespeare. “Love one another,” says Jesus.

Love is especially important for Christians. Love language can be found in the texts of many religions, but scholars argue that Christianity prizes love more than other religious traditions.1 The center of Christianity—Jesus of Nazareth—said the two greatest commandments pertain to love. The Christian apostle Paul wrote that love is greater than faith and hope, and he instructs readers to “imitate God, as beloved children, and live a life of love…” (Eph. 5:1)

Love plays a central role in contemporary culture. In Rolling Stonemagazine’s list of the top 500 rock-n-roll songs of all time, the word “love” appears in song titles more far often than any other word. The love described in such songs often pertains to romance or sex and less often to benevolence. But there’s no doubt love language prevails.

When we stop and think about it, however, defining love isn’t easy, even for Christians. “Love” is used in many ways, both in everyday language and in Scripture. Consider these examples:

“I love my puppy.”

“Love God.”

“I love a man in uniform.”

“I love pepperoni pizza.”

“God loves the world.”

“I love my son.”

“Love one another.”

“Don’t love the world.”

“I loved her up real good.”

“Love always trusts.”

“I love the New England Patriots.”

This list reminds me of the question asked by musician Haddaway: “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me.” The band Foreigner expresses a similar sentiment: “I wanna know what love is, and I want you to show me.” EHarmony understands love differently than the Dalia Lama. Discerning love’s meaning can be difficult!

In this essay, I explore and evaluate the meanings of love we find in Christianity, ancient cultures, and today. Because Christians often connect love with God—“God is love,” as John puts it—I’ll explore theologies of love too. At the conclusion, I offer my own definition of love, which I hope can help us make sense of love for our time.

Can We Define Love?

A few say composing a definition of love is folly. Defining love is as likely as defining God, they argue. It can’t be done. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

I think otherwise. As I see it, we need some sense of love’s meaning if we want to talk intelligibly. A good definition might help us understand one another and live well. Besides, we want to know what someone means who says, “I love you.” And Christians cannot know if they are living a life of love or obeying Jesus’ love commands if they have no clue about what love is.

In the attempt to provide a love definition, however, we should concede some limitations. Let’s admit, for instance, that our language is unlikely to capture fully what we mean by love. Although useful, language has inherent limits. Despite its limits, however, language can be somewhat helpful. Admitting that definitions will not capture all we believe about love shouldn’t stop us from composing a definition.

Others say that a standard definition of love is beside the point. The correct practice, they argue, is simply to describe what people mean each time they use the word. We mean something different when we say, “I love the needy,” for instance, and “I love her sky-blue eyes.” This phenomenology of love approach says we should study a thing’s forms or expressions rather speculate about its essence.

Philosopher Irving Singer’s multi-volume work, The Nature of Love, is perhaps the most comprehensive attempt at a phenomenology of love. Irving traces major philosophers, cultural shifts, romance and marriage, and more. Noticeably absent in his work, however, is much mention of love as a religious category. So from the standpoint of religious people—the majority of people on planet earth!—Singer’s work on love is incomplete.

We use “love” to describe so many actions. Listing every variation would take a lifetime. The “love is whatever it means in the circumstances” approach does not account well for our tendency to wonder what unites diverse meanings of love. A phenomenology of love doesn’t get Christians any closer to knowing what it means to love God, love our neighbors as ourselves, love strangers and immigrants, or imitate God by living a life of love.

Because love is difficult to define and it takes so many forms, a common approach to defining love is to identify overarching love categories. The most common way uses the Greek words agape, eros, and philia. Unfortunately, scholars do not agree on how to define these Greek love words, especially agape. Besides, knowing how to describe each category presupposes a general meaning of love by comparison.

For the remainder of this essay, I’ll look both at major ways love has been defined and these major Greek love categories. I’m taking this approach, because the general categories—agape, eros, and philia—roughly correspond to the dominant definitions of love that have arisen in history.2

The Agape Phenomenon

Before the 1930s, few people had heard of agape, which is found in various forms in the New Testament. But Anders Nygren’s book, Agape and Eros,3 changed that. Today, even children are told agape is a special, if not only, Christian love. Agape is a household word, at least in many Christian households.

Nygren never defines love in his influential book. But that’s typical of theologians; most assume the meaning of love without taking the time to define it carefully. But Nygren argues agapeis the only Christian form of love, and we discover its meaning by reading the New Testament. In fact, says Nygren, “agape is the center of Christianity” and “the Christian fundamental motif par excellence.”4

Eros is not Christian love, according to Nygren. Agapeand erosbelong to two “entirely separate spiritual worlds,” he says, “between which no direct communication is possible.”5 Agape is good and Godly, he argues. Eros is human-centered, desire-oriented, and a distortion of Christian love.

Nygren claims that agapehas four essential aspects. It is 1) spontaneous and unmotivated, 2) indifferent to value, 3) creative, and 4) the initiator of fellowship with God. These four aspects of agapetell us a great deal about the theological vision that informs Anders Nygren.

Nygren’s theological hero is Martin Luther. Luther believes a sovereign God relates with and loves an utterly sinful world. Luther rejects every idea of human merit, however, which means that humans cannot love. He also rejects the idea of self-love, regarding it as the foundation of sin. Luther believes God uses utterly sinful, valueless humans as passive tubes through which pure love passes from God to creatures below.

Although Nygren popularized agape, the majority of scholars in the past and present reject his arguments. Biblical scholars, for instance, note that what Jesus, Paul, John, and other New Testament authors mean by agaperarely jibes with Nygren’s meaning. In fact, biblical writers do not offer a consistent meaning for agape. And a careful examination of the Bible’s love language shows that agape is not the only form of Christian love. The Bible portrays God’s love as sometimes taking eros and philia forms, even when those Greek words are not used.

Theologians point to the theological shortcomings of Nygren’s views as informed by his particular interpretation of Luther. While most theologians agree that God initiates fellowship with creatures, the biblical witness also says that creatures play a role in loving. Love is not restricted to God’s action alone. Also, manyethicists argue that Nygren’s views fail to help us live well in the world. Agape may be important for understanding love, but Nygren’s particular proposals fail to convince many who study his work carefully.6

Love Does Good

Although Anders Nygren fails to argue well that agape is the distinctive form of Christian love, his work does point to an important way “love” can be defined. Love, in general, can be defined as action that promotes abundant life, flourishing, blessedness or overall well-being. In short, to love is to do good.

The idea that love does good is fairly common. We can express such love for our own well-being (self-love), the well-being of others (other-love), the well-being of strangers or adversaries (enemy-love), and the well-being experienced in sexual relationships (marital love). Many today argue that we should care for other creatures and the planet, by which they mean loving creation. When we do good in these ways, we often say we love.

While love has several meanings in the Bible, love as doing good prevails as the most common meaning. It fits well phrases such as “God love the world so much that he gave his son” (Jn 3:16), “love your enemies” (Lk. 6:35), “no one has greater love than this, that he lay down his life…” (Jn. 15:13), “the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever” (Lam. 3:22) and “love one another” (Jn. 13:34). Jesus illustrates what he means by the love commands by telling a story about a Good Samaritan who good to the one in need. Biblical writers often use “love” to describe action that promotes shalom or provides salvation.

Because love can be defined in terms of doing good and yet New Testament writers use agape to mean various things, some scholars avoid using the word agape altogether. I prefer, however, to say agape identifies one form of love alongside others. In doing so, I presuppose a general definition of love under which agape is one type or form.

I suggest we think of agape as a form of love that does good in response to harm. Agape “repays evil with good,” to use the biblical phrase (Rm. 12:21).It not only turns the other cheek, agapeblesses those who curse us (1 Pt. 3:9). I like to callagape “in spite oflove. Agape acts for good “in spite of” the harm others may do.

Let’s put on hold for a moment, however, the idea that love is best defined as doing good. We’ll come back to it. Let’s continue to explore other ways love might be defined.

Proper and Improper Desires

If you spent a day talking about love with analytic philosophers, you’d find most of them referring to love as desire. Desires could be good or bad. But according to this way of defining love, these desires express our loves. Love understood in this way means that we can love wrongly or rightly, our love can be ordered or disordered, and love can be a virtue or a vice.

Love as desire comes chiefly from the philosophical traditions of Aristotle and Plato. I suspect that’s why it dominates among philosophers. But this way of understanding love also arises often in popular culture. When we say we “love pizza,” for instance, we typically mean we desire it. We don’t mean we want to good to the pizza!

Augustine may be the most influential theologian in history. And his theology has influenced many to think of love primarily as desire.7 Sometimes Augustine used the word “enjoy” instead of “desire,” however. “Enjoyment consists in clinging to something lovingly for its own sake,” he says.8 Notice the word “cling” in this sentence. Elsewhere, Augustine says “love is a kind of craving.”9 Those who think of love as desire or craving use words like “cling,” “care,” “intend,” “yearn,” “concern,” or “acquisitive longing.”

When love is defined as desire, it can involve intentionally doing evil. Augustine offers an example: a miser can love gold “with an evil as well as with a good love,” he says. Gold “is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly when inordinately.”10 We ought to seek “the right order of love,” Augustine concludes.11 In other words, we ought to align our desires properly.

Augustine uses two Latin words to express proper and improper desire. Charity (caritas) is proper love, and it desires for God’s sake. Cupidity (cupiditas) is improper love, and it desires for the sake of something else. The difference between caritas and cupiditas is not one of kind—both are desires—but of object. “Love, but see to it what you love,” he says.12 Notice again that for Augustine, love is not essentially connected to positivity, helping, benevolence, shalom, or blessedness.  

Building upon love as desire or enjoyment, Augustine develops an entire theology. We should desire only those things that are eternal and unchanging, he says. This means that we cannot love people for their own sakes, we can only properly love God for God’s own sake. Because proper love involves desiring what is eternal and unchanging, God cannot even love creatures. God can only use them. But even God’s use of creatures can only be for God’s own sake. Ultimately, Augustine says, God only loves Godself.

Augustine’s love theology is bound tightly to this philosophical assumptions about love and differences between God and creation. Given these assumptions, he tries to use his love language consistently. The result points to radical differences between God’s love and creaturely love, in part because he thinks of love as desire.13

Eros and Intentional Action Related to Value

The desire way of defining love emphasizes intentional action. This intentional action can be described in many ways, but value is always involved in some way or another. We desire or act intentionally in relation to something we deem valuable.

Some say the valuable object causes the action of love. Others believe the intentional action is self-caused, but it responds to the value it perceives. Philosophers debate whether desire is in any sense free, in the sense of lovers having free will.

The contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt uses the word “care” to describe the intentional action of desire. There is “something we regard as important to ourselves,” he says.14 “When a person cares about something,” he argues, that person “is willing committed to his desire.”15 In Frankfurt’s sense of “care,” one does not necessarily help or do good. This care is a particular form of desire that includes action of some kind, even if only mental.

James K. A. Smith also thinks of love primarily as desire. His book, You Are What You Love, explores how acting upon desires leads us to develop habits.16 Notice, however, that “love” as desire is not the typical way “love” is used in Scripture. For instance, Scripture tells us to love neighbors, love enemies, love aliens, and even love ourselves. In these instances, it’s odd to think our love molds us into love’s desire. In other words, it’s hard to imagine that our love lead us to become our neighbors, enemies, or aliens.

Defining love as desire helps us to see the importance of intentional action in response to values. It seems right to think our emotions and emotional states influence our desires. And as I see it, a standard or overall definition of love includes some role for desire, intentionality, or motives in relation to value.

Eros is the ancient Greek word typically connected to desire. In terms of a general category or form of love, we might say eros is oriented toward value. If we think of eros as one form of love, we might describe it as an intentional action that affirms or seeks to enhance value. This value may be present in other creatures, in the lover, or in God.

I earlier argued that we might call agape the “in spite of” form of love. I also suggest we think of eros as the “because of” form of love. Eros responds because of the value it encounters. This form of love seeks to enhance, improve upon, promote, or enjoy value.

Given the central role of desire in eros, it’s little wonder that the word “erotic” is used in popular culture primarily to talk about sex and romance. But it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that romantic or sexual activity is not always loving, in the sense of promoting what is good and beneficial. As a form of love, eros promotes what is good. So we might be wise to use words like “lust” or “covetousness” to describe romantic or sexual activity that undermines the good and save using the word eros for actions that respond to and promote values.

Loving Relationships

To this point in our exploration of love, we’ve spent little time talking about relationships. And yet we express love in relationships; they seem essential to understanding love. In popular culture and theories of psychology, relationships play a lead role in understanding love. Biblical texts also describe love in the context of relationships, including love between a wife and husband, between parents and children, even Lords and servant, humans and other creatures, friend and enemies, residents for aliens, and love between God and creation.

Ancient Greeks told a story about the relational component of love. According to it, each human originally had four legs, four arms, and two heads. Humans were so strong and smart, however, they began to wage war on the gods. Zeus responded to the problem with a plan: cut humans in two to weaken and confuse them. He executed these separations, and ever since, humans roamed the earth seeking the love of their other (“better”) halves.

This story seems farfetched. But thinking that love requires bodily relationship seems obvious to many of us, because relationships affect our bodies in profound ways. Neuroscience has identified various chemicals at work in our brains when we love. The main ones are dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin. Particular parts of the brain show increased activity when love is felt or expressed toward those with whom lovers relate.17

The idea that love requires real relationship has not always been obvious to theologians, however, at least when they ponder God’s love. Most theologians of yesteryear affirmed that God was unrelated to and unaffected by creatures—“impassible” is the ancient word. God does not give and receive in relations with creaturely others, as they saw it. They worried that if God were affected by others, God could change. Because God is perfect and “without shadow of change,” to use a biblical phrase, God’s love must not involve being affected by creatures in relationship. As philosophers might say, the impassible God is not ontologically related to creation.

By the end of the 20th century, the majority of theologians had rejected divine impassibility and joined the “love involves real relationships” view,18 In this case, Christian laity was ahead of the theologians in thinking we are involved in giving and receiving relationship with God. This relational love seems to be central in God’s covenant with creation in general and Israel in particular. In fact, scholars often translate the most common Hebrew word for love, hesed, as “steadfast” or “loyal” love. “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 145:9). “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6).

Jurgen Moltmann is one among many contemporary theologians who argue that love is basis for Trinitarian relationships. The Father, Son, and Spirit give and receive love in an everlasting perichoretic dance. This social Trinity view is embraced by many contemporary Christians. For instance, in the best-selling book and then movie, The Shack, the author has Jesus say of the Trinity: “love is meant to exist in relationship.” Many theologians argue that God creates and expresses love to creatures as an outpouring of the love first expressed in Trinity.19

In addition to contemporary theologians thinking of God as relational, scientists and philosophers often consider creation and humans as interdependent. Instead of the world being like a clock and humans like machines, nature is increasingly described in organismic terms and humans as interrelated with one another and creation. In this thinking, the relational essence of love makes sense.

Does Love = Relationship? Philia

It’s fairly common to hear someone say that two people are “in a relationship” and for us to assume they are “in love.” In this popular way of talking, love might be thought to equal relationship. This “love as relationship” language can be found in the literature of couples therapy and positive psychology.

A few theologians and philosophers think of love primarily in terms of relationships. Vincent Brummer calls love “a reciprocal relation,” and he says love “must by its very nature be a relationship of free mutual give and take.”20 Charles Hartshorne offers a similar understanding when he says, “love means realization in oneself of the desires and experiences of others…”21 He calls love “life sharing,” and in this way of thinking, to be mutually related is to love.22

The problem with thinking that love = relationship, however, is that we can easily imagine relationships that do not promote well-being. We don’t think of an abusive marriage as a loving relationship, at least not when the abuse is occurring. Friends in relationship can undermine rather than enhance each other’s well-being. And we all know that some relationships are not healthy. Perhaps in our attempt to define love well, we should not say love equals relationship. But perhaps we should say that love, rightly understood, involves give-and-receive relationships.

The Greek word philia emphasizes the relational aspect of love. A related Greek word for love, storge, also emphasizes this relationality, with a particular focus on family relationships. We find philiain the Bible, but Aristotle’s philosophy of friendship has likely shaped current notions of friendship love more than Scripture. Aristotle offers a variety of factors he believes shapes friendship love. At their best, friends and family enhance one another’s well-being; friendship love does good in the solidarity of relationship.

As I see it, philia can be one form of love among others. While all love involves relationship, philia emphasizes cooperation for the common good. Philia is the “alongside of” form of love, that promotes well-being in solidarity with others. It does good alongside others to whom loves relate.

Defining Love in Our Time

I’ve been exploring three dominant ways that love has been defined. To recap, some define love as doing good. Some define it in terms of desire, or what I called intentional action in relation to value. And some think of love in terms of relationship.

In this exploration, I’ve also addressed the three major forms of love: agape, eros, and philia. These Greek words have various meanings, and there is no consensus on which meaning is best. I’ve suggested a convenient way to talk about each: agape is“in spite of” love, eros is “because of” love, and philia is “alongside of” love.

I’ve also explored how theologians think about God’s relation to love. These ways vary, based in part upon their philosophical and theological assumptions. It may be easy to say, “God is love” or “God loves the world,” but it’s far more complicated to know what these phrases mean. And scholars interpret their meanings in various ways.

I want to conclude by proposing a definition of love I think helpful for our time. My definition draws from what we’ve been exploring. But it prioritizes and combines these ideas in my own way, with the result being my unique definition. I’m happy to report that many scholars have adopted my definition for their research. I define love in this way:

To love is to act intentionally, in response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being.

To put it differently, loving actions are influenced by God, others, and ourselves. And we rightly think of such actions loving when done purposefully to encourage, create, or sustain what is good.

Let me explain these phrases…

Love Acts Intentionally

The phrase “to act intentionally” in my definition accounts for the desire aspect of love. I believe love is intentional, not accidental. Love is partly self-caused, in the sense of our choosing, in some sense, to love or not to love. Love is a verb.

I use “intentional” in my definition, because the word has three facets of meaning: deliberateness, motive, and freedom. While the three overlap, each offers something distinctive for understanding love’s intentionality.

The deliberation facet of intention has to do with decision making. Decisions to love do not necessarily require long and drawn out reflection. We often make split-second, spur-of-the-moment decisions to love. Sometimes, of course, love requires a painstaking survey of a wide array of possibilities. But creatures need not know everything nor always focus deeply or at great length when deciding to love. At a minimum, love involves a cognitive aspect.

The motive facet of intention says love purposely does good. The consequences of our actions don’t determine whether we have loved. Sometimes actions with good motives result in bad consequences; sometime actions with bad motives result in good consequences. As I see it, motives matter. Ill will is incompatible with actions we should deem loving, because love has some positive end in mind. Love assesses prospectively what actions promise to do rather than retrospectively whether actions yielded the greatest good.

The freedom facet of intention refers to what philosophers call “self-determination.” Love is meaningless, in my view, if we are not to some degree free. Coercion—in the sense of being totally controlled by others—is incompatible with love. The freedom of love is always limited. Concrete circumstances, our biology, and what is genuinely possible limit the options we have when choosing to love.

The biblical account abounds in references to the importance of intentional decisions to do good. In the first and second greatest love commandments, for instance, Jesus commands intentional action. Paul urges his readers to act intentionally to promote overall well-being when he says they should love one another.

To say love requires intentional action does not mean it imposes, interferes, intrudes, or intervenes in the affairs of others. Love may or may not be intrusive. In fact, the actions of love are not always perceptible to our five senses. Thinking and praying, for instance, can be acts of love. Acts of love take many forms.

Those who repeatedly act intentionally to promote overall well-being become loving people. Over time, a particular kind of person emerges whose character is loving. The virtuous person enjoys a personal history of frequent intentional responses that develop habits when promoting the common good. Various practices and traditions, therefore, play vital roles in the character development of virtuous people. Christians seek to become like Jesus by loving like Jesus loved.

Love Responds in Relationship to God and Others

The phrase “response to God and others” in my definition takes into account the relational aspect of love. Lovers influence one another, and in a relationship of giving and receiving, we can choose to love. Entirely isolated individuals—if they existed—could not love. Relationship is a necessary condition for love.

Our relationships make empathy possible, and empathy is often vital for loving well. We “feel with” others, in the sense that we are internally influenced by them. John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin use the label “creative-responsive love” to account for love as both influencing others and being influenced by others.23 Empathy helps us to assess what love requires in response to others.

The relational component also points to role affect, emotions, or feelings play in love. In the context of intimate relationship, we often feel fondness or affection for others. It’s natural to use the language of love to describe these powerful emotions.

From my perspective, we should not define love as one emotion among others, as some psychologists do.24 In particular, love should not be defined simply in terms of fondness or affection. Feeling these emotions is often accompanied by various actions intended for good. I feel profound fondness for my wife and children, for instance, and I often act for their good in response to that feeling. Others feel affection for friends, pets, and places. Sometimes we love “love one another with mutual affection,” to quote Paul (Rom. 12:10).

We can imagine people who feel fondness or affection, however, and yet do notdo good. Motivated by affection, parents can intentionally “smother,” “pamper,” or “coddle” a child to the point of spoiling her. Families can intentionally isolate themselves from outsiders – enjoying alone the fondness of family – and thereby fail to promote the common good. Although intimate relationships are important and often promote love, we should not define love simply as fondness or affection.

Love Promotes Overall Well-Being

The phrase “promote overall well-being” is the main object of the final phrase in my love definition. I include it to account for the idea that love does good. This is the central but often overlooked aspect of a helpful definition of love. Love seeks to promote overall well-being.

The words “well-being” account for a wide variety of ways we can do good. Promoting well-being can mean meeting our basic needs, such as providing food, water, air, and suitable living conditions. It can mean caring for others or establishing a sense of community. It can mean promoting diverse life forms, opportunities, and cultural expressions.

To do good by promoting well-being may mean encouraging in others a feeling of self-worth, providing medical soundness and physical fitness, fostering deep personal relationships, or cultivating social and political harmony. Promoting well-being often includes encouraging the development of virtues and practices. It can mean helping immigrants and strangers or caring for the earth and its creatures. To promote well-being is act intentionally to do good in at least one but often many ways.

The “overall” in my definition reminds us that justice plays an important role in love. When we help one or a few to the obvious detriment of the many, the justice aspect of love demands we seek the common good: overall well-being. Love as justice is needed when we realize our actions are unnecessarily unfair toward the many or the few. As Cornel West likes to put it, “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Finally, promoting overall well-being includes taking into account one’s own good. Unfortunately, some define love solely in terms of what the lover does for others. Implicit in such definitions is the view that we should not love ourselves and love always self-sacrifices. Many feminists help us see the folly in thinking our own well-being must always be undermined. The denial of self-love, they argue, especially keeps women and others in subordinate roles. Linell Cady says those who make “self-sacrifice the primary criterion of the virtuous life” wrongly validate “the situation of oppression.”25 Love sometimes calls for self-pride, self-empowerment, and self-affirmation.

I believe we should affirm self-love, in the sense of acting for our own good. The lover’s own good is often enhanced when she loves with the common good in mind. Love only sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Acting to promote overall well-being includes considering one’s own well-being.

God and Love

Given the strong connections many people—especially Christians—make between God and love, it seems appropriate to conclude by sketching briefly a theology of love. I’ve written much on this elsewhere, so I’ll limit myself here.26

My definition of love in general to applies to God’s love too. In other words, I think God acts intentionally, in response to creation and God’s own life and nature, to promote overall well-being. Having a common love definition for both Creator and creatures seems crucial for making sense of Scripture, including what it means to imitate God, as beloved children, and live a life of love. Love is the same in kind for God and us.

Both God and creatures can express the three categories or forms of love I explored: agape, eros, and philia. God loves “in spite” of harm and sin among creatures, “because of” the value God creates in others and what emerges from creaturely responses, and “alongside of” creatures working for good, or what Christians often call “the kingdom of God.” God is perfectly altruistic and egoistic; God always does good for the sake of others and Godself.

God’s love and creaturely love differ in some ways too. For instance, God is the source of creaturely love: “We love, because he first loved us,” is how John puts it (1 Jn. 4:19). Creatures are not the source of God’s love. God’s love is everlasting and relentless, while creaturely love is sporadic and temporary. God loves all creation, while creatures can only love some creatures. God is our example of perfect love; creatures are not examples of flawless love. In these ways and others, God transcends creation. God’s love differs in degree from creaturely love. “Love divine, all loves excelling,” to quote Charles Wesley’s song.

An especially important difference between God and creatures is that God’s nature is love, but creatures do not have natures of love. Love is God’s heart or essence, we might say, which I take John’s meaning when he says, “God is love.” This means God must love, although God is free to choose how to love. Another of Wesley’s songs about God says it nicely: “Thy Nature and Thy Name is Love.” By contrast, creatures do not love necessarily; their nature and name are notlove.

Perhaps most controversially, I believe God’s love never controls others. God always expresses self-giving, others-empowering, and therefore uncontrolling love. I call this view “essential kenosis,” drawing from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:1-13). This view helps solve the problem of evil, a problem surveys say is the number one atheists do not believe a God of love exists. I explain essential kenosis in my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.27


Nearly everyone wants to make sense of love. But doing so can be so difficult. The history of love literature and the language of popular culture can confuse even Christians who prize love highly. Making sense of love requires insight, wisdom, and discernment. And the process of understanding love is ongoing.

After surveying the love landscape, I proposed a love definition I believe helpful today. I don’t claim to have love entirely figured out. Words cannot capture reality perfectly, let alone the reality of love. But I offer my definition and theology of love in the hope of helping those who want to make sense of love in our time.