What is Love?

Originally written for The Big Bible Project as part of their focus on Song of Solomon (published on October 28th 2014)

I’ve been reflecting on our culture’s view of ‘love’ recently. Love is used all over the media; from its use in marketing to advice columns, to status updates and in tabloid headlines. It is used in popular culture as a generally accepted, shared point of reference when it comes to social cohesion: we all think ‘love’ is a good thing.

But what do we mean? How do we love?

‘To love our neighbours as ourselves’ has been replaced by the seemingly synonymous concept of ‘treating others as you would like to be treated.’ No one questions someone’s ‘love’ for something or someone; who’d dare do that, for no one knows someone else feelings and cannot judge the truth in their experience. This is where I become uncomfortable.

Our culture has allowed ‘love’ to be singularly an individual experience with little to no relation to others. The important thing, for our culture, is that you ‘love’; no one can stop that ‘love’. We talk about ‘love at first sight’ as if ‘love’ cannot be judged or fully grasped and therefore fully shared. Romance, sentimentality, poetic emotions that overwhelms us and we cannot voice or articulate them; these are now what ‘love’ is about. It is interesting that ‘romantcism’, as a movement, is defined as,

a movement in the arts and literature which originated in the late 18th century, emphasizing inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual.

The central tenants of this understanding of ‘love’ has redefined and shaped our culture so that ‘love’ is now a subjective and individual experience.

The Song of Solomon is a passionate exploration of ‘love’ but about whom is it written? Is it about God and his people? Or is it about two humans, passionate about each other and desiring a deeply sexual union? Many have argued both sides and I find that interesting; for no other reason than we find it difficult to define different ideas of ‘love’. We talk about ‘love’ a lot but if we took more time thinking and defining what we mean, I think we’d realise how little we really want to know about it.

There is a real problem with having just one word for this complex experience, we call ‘love’. We ‘love’ pizza and we ‘love’ our friends and we may even ‘love’ another person to commit our lives to them. The issue arises when we cannot be specific about what we mean by ‘love’. Take this disturbing video from the USA about a man who is dating his car!

(Please be warned: some may find this video disturbing)

It was CS Lewis, in his book ‘The Four Loves’, which highlighted the Greek’s use of four separate words for ‘love’: storge, philia, eros and agape. Eros is the sexual love which often gets mixed up with our concept of pure love (this is probably why sex sells!) This is the most powerful and the most all-consuming of the ‘love’ experiences but it is, as Lewis puts it, the ultimate in ‘need-love’ where there is a sense of possession; either to possess another or to be possessed by another. This need, even to be possessed, is a dark temptation which can hide itself behind a false sense that it is sacrificing itself to the other when actually it is striving to have itself justified by the other.

It is ‘agape/love’ which the Bible calls us to and is in fact a much rarer experience than most of think. We have softened ‘agape/love’ to be synonymous with our more frequent experience of storge, philia and eros so that it fits in with our post-romanticism culture. This is seen most in our reading of 1 Corinthians 13 (the famous ‘wedding reading’),

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. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, NIV)

We so often feel like we can divide this ‘agape/love’ into components and we say to ourselves,

Well, if I show patience, then I’m being loving.


I managed to not shout at them for hurting me; so I showed them love.

Whereas, I suspect, this passage is actually describing this ‘agape/love’ as a complete thing. In order for something to be ‘agape/love’ it needs to be all of these things or it is not ‘agape/love’.

With the rise of the romantic movement which came out of the Enlightenment, we have developed, as a culture, into a highly individualised society and this has eroded most understandings of communal relationships. We have allowed the concept of ‘love’ to become primarily about gaining an experience for ourself rather than relationship with others.

Online relationships can easily be romanticised with our popular culture, media and even shared social narratives shaping our concept of love. We read the Bible through the lens of post-romantic Western culture and abuse the revolutionary and divine experience of ‘agape/love’ which is totally other focussed. This ‘agape/love’ has been perfectly revealed in Jesus and we must allow his love to challenge our understanding of what love is and to shape us to be transformed by it.

Jesus never commanded us to ‘love ourselves’ because he knows how easy that is to blind us to the real love of God and the love of others. The command to ‘love our neighbours as ourselves’ assumes we love ourselves and never commands us to do it. To love ourself doesn’t mean we have positive emotional thoughts about ourself but is about where our focus is. Due to our cultural bias to individualism and subjectivity this means we’re all obsessed, both positively and negatively, with ourselves unable to enter into true, healthy relationships with others. What God is calling us to, is not healthy opinions about ourselves but about a life focussed on him and other people. It is not about having a positive self image, it is about not having a self image at all so we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, uncontaminated with a sense of ‘me’ or ‘I’.