What is Love Anyway?

By Wanda Malcolm
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It’s Valentine’s Day and as the saying goes, “love is in the air,” but what is love anyway? Ask a few different people what love is, and you will quickly discover that love, like ice cream, comes in different flavors that can be enjoyed on their own or mixed together for an extraordinary treat. As delicious as the hearts and chocolate of Valentine’s Day might be, a steady diet of romance is like only having one flavor of ice cream!

Our first love is that of being carried safe and secure in our mother’s body just under her heart. At birth, love is being held close, each emerging need met by another we don’t yet know is a separate person who has needs of their own. Oblivious to their sleep deprivation and the stresses of new parenthood, we cry and the other greets us with delight, feeds us, changes our diaper, comforts us, and entertains us with smiles and toys. Even as we grow and become the other who gives love, our desire to be cared for with such patience and dedication persists. It is a core need that never entirely disappears. C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves) refers to this kind of love as “need-love.” It signifies the people, objects, and activities we have affection for; the “things” we love that tell us we are loved and valued.

There is validity in seeing God this way; as someone we can count on to meet our needs, possibly before we are even fully aware of them ourselves. Scripture is full of references to God’s desire as a good Father to give his children good things (e.g., Matthew 7:11), including spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12: 1-11) “empowered by one and the same Spirit,” and the gift of grace that has been “given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4:7).

It is part of our humanness to reach, crawl, and walk because we want to do for ourselves, and we learn to speak because we want to share our thoughts and feelings. In so doing, we come to understand that love cannot be expressed or shared unless there is a separateness that allows us to see the other—someone who is not me—and to be seen by the other who wants and enjoys our love in return. The separateness of love is seen in the communion of the distinct members of the Trinity, in God-to-human Love, and in the way we bring ourselves to our friendships.

“Friendship-love” values the other person for their own sake rather than for the ways in which they satisfy our need-love. Like art appreciated for its intrinsic beauty, friendship is the beauty of companionship and standing together, delighting in our overlapping interests and shared convictions. Friendship reminds us that while we are separate, we are not [always] alone.

Love requires both closeness and separation. This is seen most powerfully in romantic and sexual love, especially when that love is (or becomes) rooted in friendship-love. “Erotic-love” is the love of being physically drawn to another person and, pushed by our psychological and physical needs for emotional and physical intimacy, bonding, and making commitments that shelter us from being alone and lonely.  Weirdly like infant-love, this closeness has moments of oneness that are almost a merging of selves.

Deep friendships and erotic-love that is also friendship-love are the relational spaces in which we learn the “grown up” joys of mutual caregiving and sacrificial self-giving. A parent’s self-giving love for their infant child all the way through to mutual adult-to-adult self-giving love are the crucibles in which we learn what it means to love the way God loves us. This agapé or “gift-love” is beautifully described in James (1:17): “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers has this to say about the verse:

This beautiful sentence, more musical still in the Greek, is thought to be the fragment of some Christian hymn. Two words are translated by our one “gift”; the first is rather the act of giving, the second the gift itself, and the effect of both together is a climax to the statement of God’s benevolence. 

After washing their feet, Jesus presided over the last supper and, breaking the bread, told his followers that the moment had arrived when one of them would betray him. In stark contrast to that imminent betrayal, Jesus continued to speak to the rest of the people gathered there when Judas left the upper room, saying: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34,35). At a human level, gift-love could be described as a patient self-giving dedication to being one another’s “safe harbor”—to creating the relational spaces from which we may each go out to make a difference in the world and to which we eagerly come home to celebrate our achievements and recover from our disappointments.

It would be a mistake to rank order the different forms of love, as it might lead us to devalue our need to be cared for, our capacity for friendship, or the power of our sexuality. God’s love encompasses and holds the other forms of love. All of these are wrapped up in what it means to be human, and on Valentine’s Day, I wish you the gift of enjoying love in all its splendid forms.