Before I officiate a wedding ceremony, I require the engaged couple to participate with me in a series of pre-marriage counseling sessions. In the very first session, there is one question that I always ask.
It is the foundational question everyone must ask and understand before getting married.
“What is love?”
What a softball, right? Wrong.
I have never had a prospective bride or groom answer the question correctly. Never. Not even one.
Truth be told, I didn’t answer it correctly either in my own premarital counseling course in the winter of 1991.
“What is love?”
Going into marriage and getting this wrong is like preparing to make spaghetti sauce without tomatoes. In our ignorance, we are leaving out the essential ingredient!
Over the years, I have enjoyed the cheap thrill of watching couples attempt to answer that most basic question.
Responses range from the famous stuttering “umm” to “love is, well, it is when you love someone. You know, it is the feeling… an attraction… you know… love.”
My next step is to have them answer the question without using the word love in the definition of love. After watching them sit and squirm in their chairs looking at the floor for an answer written in the carpet, at some point I come to their rescue. After all, I am a pastor and am supposed to show some degree of compassion. 🙂
I told you that these principles are simple, right? This one is so simple, it may elicit a face-palm response. Are you ready for the correct answer to the question?
“What is love?”
Let’s start with a formal definition. “Love is an action that brings blessings to the recipient.”
We can just say it like this: to love is to bless.
To bless is to do someone good.
Did you notice the verb? Do. This is active, not passive. It is volitional, not primarily emotional.
Love does not primarily feel; it acts.
Let’s pause here for just a minute, because this definition of love runs utterly contrary to our contemporary culture’s understanding of love.
Hollywood describes love as a virus – something that we catch. But given time and the right circumstances, we can get over it. Thus, when the love feelings are not present, we can say, “I am not in love with you anymore. I have recovered from the virus.”
The Hollywood brand of love as a virus makes love utterly passive. We fall into it. We fall out of it. The entire process is haphazard and uncontrollable. Like falling. After all, we can’t help catching a virus, and when the symptoms are gone, well, so is the disease.
But biblical love is not passive. It is active. It is not a virus that we catch or a hole we fall into.
Love is a choice.
In order to grasp the concept of love as an action that intends to bless—as a choice—we need to understand two ancient words: hesed and agape.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, hesed is the Hebrew word used of God’s initiating, covenantal, sacrificial kindness to the nation of Israel.
Without going into unnecessary detail, Israel was a mess, completely undeserving of the rescue they received over and over again. Buthesed love does not bless the deserving or those who can earn someone’s blessing by their good behavior or by returning a favor.
- Hesed initiates blessing to the undeserving. Regardless.
- Hesed keeps it promises to bless. Period.
- Hesed is willing to do whatever it takes to bless. Whatever.
Even if it “whatever” means making the ultimate sacrifice of self to bring good to someone else.
In the original Greek text of the New Testament, agape is the word used for God’s love expressed in the redemptive actions of Jesus. It is very much like hesed love.
Notice I said the redemptive actions of Jesus. The gospel, or good news from God in the Bible, is not that God has merely said “I love you,” but that he has demonstrated his love. He has proven his love. He has confirmed it through a voluntary sacrifice of self.
This is why the cross is the ultimate expression of love. It is active. It is sacrificial choice. It is the practical display of love – of blessing.
In other words, love is a tangible expression of grace. It is a gift. Undeserved. It asks for nothing in return. It is pure gift.
This means is that love is not reward.
Let me say that again. Love. Is. Not. Reward.
This may be the most marriage-altering principle that could ever be discovered.
Why? Think about it.
Usually, what we call love is merely a response to beauty or behavior.
We “give” someone our attention if they are attractive. We “give” someone an encouraging word after they have performed successfully. We “give” gifts when someone accomplishes a task that is noteworthy.
However, all of this “giving” that we would call love is not really giving. It is rewarding. But reward is not love. Reward is not grace. Reward is a wage, not a gift.
This kind of “love” runs utterly counter to the kind of agape love that God reveals in the Bible through Jesus. Agape love is grace. It really is a gift. It is undeserved. Unearned.
Agape love is the kind of love that has the power to transform a marriage. It is unexpected.
When we choose to bless a spouse, regardless of whether they deserve blessing, we are on the road to relationship renewal. We are on the road to a healthy marriage.
Yet the only way that I will choose to love in this way is if I have been loved in this way. This is why a personal, conscious faith in the active, sacrificial, practical love of Jesus for me is so crucial. It is being the recipient of choosing love that empowers me to be a giver of love. A doer of love.
Because love is a choice.