What is the meaning of love? Ask ten people and you will receive at least ten definitions. Ask a Biblical theologian or a Greek scholar, and you will get a dissertation on different kinds of love found in ancient texts. A high-school student will give you an earful about feelings.
Years ago, while serving as an associate pastor, I was confronted with the reality of the multiple meanings of love. Clergy and church members often spoke, and wrote, about love. Unfortunately, while they used the same word, they meant different things by it. Full of theology and wanting to be rid of ambiguity, I committed to deleting “love” from my public vocabulary.
A few years went by. Hearing a respected theologian use “love” convinced this pastor that he must begin using it again. I realized, however, that I needed an easy-to-remember-and-understand Biblical definition of the word that I had put aside for so long. And in time, after study, consideration, and life experience, that definition came to me: Love, I decided, Christian love, is sacrifice for the genuine good of the beloved.
The most beautiful, and terrible, instance of love is Good Friday. God the Father sacrifices God the Son for the good—more precisely, for the salvation, which is the greatest good—of the beloved (or the world, which is generally in rebellion against God). So, what does the love of God look like? Christ crucified. That is the greatest illustration of love. Ever. All other (lesser) occasions of love reflect the love demonstrated and revealed on the Cross. God the Father loved the world enough to sacrifice His only Son for the good (or salvation) of the world.
Again, love is sacrifice for the good of the beloved. Consider a counter-example: A boy nears his seventh birthday. He wants a smartphone more than anything else. His parents, though lacking in discretionary income, find a way to buy him the gift he wants. Certainly, the parents have made a sacrifice. Unfortunately, their sacrifice is not for the good of their son. More likely than not, he will misuse his phone to the point of stunting his physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual growth. This gift, which requires his parents to sacrifice financially, is not an act of genuine love.
Now consider this: In Don’t Look Back (Abingdon, 2022), Bishop Will Willimon tells the story of a woman whose beloved husband had died. Sequestered at home, the surviving wife struggled with sadness and depression. After weeks of isolation, she was visited by a friend who suggested she put on some makeup and an appropriate outfit, so that they could attend a woman’s meeting at their church. She followed her friend’s suggestions, and her grief recovery began. Her friend had truly shown her love.
And this: In their early forties, and with three children, a husband and wife had a full and happy life. One morning the wife announced to her husband, with sadness in her voice, “I think I am pregnant.” And she was. Her concern that another child would overwhelm their full and happy life continued. After putting it off for days, she telephoned her mother to share the news. Her mother responded, “That is such exciting news! Today I’m going shopping to buy some maternity outfits for you. Tomorrow, I’ll mail them to you.”
The love the mother expressed gave her daughter hope. Love is not only sacrificial; it helps the beloved to be, and/or to do, better. It is not surprising that love favors life.
Christmas nears. Countless Christians will recall the scene of Jesus’ birth in a humble barn. Mary and Joseph are there. Shepherds and Wise Men. And, at the center, the Baby Jesus. There is much love in that place. Sacrificial love for the good of the little One. The little One, who embodies the love of God the Father, and comes for the good of a world that is all too unloving, not least of its little ones.
Merry Christmas. And give thanks that God’s love favors life—and that the God-given love we have for each other favors life as well.