What’s Love Got to Do with Christianity?


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There are a number of important biblical passages about love. While there are many New Testament passages pertinent to any discussion about love (e.g., John 3:16, 1 Corinthians 13, or 1 John 4:8-10), a handful of other passages offer pictures of what we might call a basic biblical notion of love.

Many of these passages are associated with another biblical topic: the law. These associations are crucial to an understanding of love in the Bible because, as we will see, love is not fully realized apart from a reordering of our desires.

From Chaos to Order and Back Again

Genesis 1:1-2:3 has often been discussed as part of the creation-evolution debate. While I do not wish to diminish the importance of a Christian self-understanding that is grounded in a biblical rather than Darwinian understanding of origins, the discussions related to the creation-evolution debate can tend to overshadow other important aspects of the creation narrative.

For instance, Genesis 1:1-2:3 highlights at least three of God’s attributes: sovereignty, wisdom, and benevolence: 

1. God is sovereign. He has full, unrivaled authority over his creation. God speaks. The various elements of creation obey. There is no resistance. He exercises his authority without constraint or opposition.

2. God is wise. His authority does not result in more chaos. The “formless and void” world moves from chaos to order, not from chaos to a new sort of chaos. God is not an all-powerful ruler with a half-baked plan for the world. He has an order in mind and institutes that order through wisdom (Proverbs 3:19-20).

3. God is benevolent or good. The finished creation demonstrates God’s abundant, kind provision to humankind and, ultimately, his desire to see all of creation flourish.

The pain and struggle we often experience were nowhere to be found before the Fall. God’s goodness worked with his wisdom and sovereignty to create a harmonious world.

To the extent that Genesis 1:1-2:3 has been treated in relative isolation as part of the creation-evolution debate, we can also tend to miss the significance of what happens in Genesis 3:1-24.

The serpent convinces the woman that God is not benevolent, wise, or sovereign:

1. God is holding out on humanity. The serpent’s initial question is difficult to translate but should likely be understood as an exasperated assertion framed as a question.

The force is arguably something like: “God may as well starve you if he is prohibiting you from eating the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden.”

As I note in Trajectories, “The serpent has accused God of being less-than fully benevolent in keeping the human couple from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

God’s paradise is a prison designed to keep humanity comfortable and under God’s thumb. He is not benevolent but is seeking to limit human flourishing.

2. The serpent diminishes God’s wisdom. As the “wisest” or “craftiest” of the beasts God made, the serpent is well-positioned to make this argument.

After raising questions about God’s benevolence, the serpent tells the woman that humans can be “like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).

The forbidden fruit is the key to wisdom as the woman recognizes when she makes her own judgment that “the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (3:6).

3. Throughout the narrative, the serpent assumes that God can be opposed. Unlike the various elements of creation that respond to the word of God, the serpent encourages rebellion.

God’s command is not the final word but an ambiguous order from a fragile Sovereign who does not want humanity to become his rival.

All that the serpent says, of course, is false. When the human couple disobeys God, they disrupt the order God had established at creation.

The world falls back into a chaotic state in which ambiguity reigns because the relationship between God, humankind, and creation is skewed.

Humanity no longer occupies an ordered paradise but is thrust into a threatening environment in which the present is difficult and the future unsure.

Disordered Love

In a world where toil and pain have become the norm, humankind must learn how to relate to God, others, and creation to survive and thrive. In the midst of disorder, humans looked out at the world with fallen eyes.

Both the threats and opportunities were abundant. Having split from God, humanity made its own judgments about what was “good” (Genesis 6:1-2; cf. 1:9, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Those judgments reflected the disordering of love.

Augustine suggests, “Neither is luxury the fault of lovely and charming objects, but of the heart that inordinately loves sensual pleasures, to the neglect of temperance, which attaches us to objects more lovely in their spirituality, and more delectable by their incorruptibility.”

He goes on to conclude, “he who inordinately loves the good which any nature possesses, even though he obtain it, himself becomes evil in the good, and wretched because deprived of a greater good.”

In other words, disordered love is corrosive even when it is aimed at what is good and beautiful. Love needs to be rightly ordered if it is to allow us to flourish.

Rightly Ordered Love

In Matthew 22, an expert in the Mosaic law asks Jesus to identify the greatest commandment. Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend on all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22 quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.

In Deuteronomy, love involves loyalty. It is not simply a subjective feeling about God but a commitment to Him that shapes the ways we see the world and determine to act within it. First and foremost, we are to give our full, uncompromised allegiance to the Lord.

It is not so much that we cannot exhibit love without first loving God but that without a primary commitment to the Lord, our love will never be rightly ordered.

Our love is expressed in obedience (1 John 5:3). We realign our lives with God’s order and, in doing so, imitate the love he showed us in sending his Son (1 John 4:10-11).

Loving our neighbor is an extension of our commitment to God. As we love our neighbor, we demonstrate not only our understanding of what God has done for us but our willingness to conform our lives to the way of God’s love.

God’s love is not selfish. It is self-giving. Just as Christ “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6) or to be used to His advantage, we recognize that we are freed from selfish ambition and self-centeredness.

We can relate to others in ways that recognize that our own safety, security, and prosperity are not things to be grasped. They are resources we can employ to demonstrate God’s love to those around us.

What Is Love?

Love connects us deeply to the world because love is a recognition of reality as it really is. Rightly ordered love orients us to the world so that we understand and act in ways aligned with God’s order, which is evident despite the world’s brokenness.

Love is the demonstration of our devotion to and knowledge of God (1 John 4:7). It is not simply knowledge about God. It is knowledge born from experience.

We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). We have experienced God’s love and actively respond to it by following the pattern God has set for us.

Meditate on unfailing love from Jeremiah 31:

rong>For further reading:

What Is Love?

Why Do Love and Forgiveness Have to Go Hand-in-Hand?

Why Does God Love Me?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Anna Frank

James SpencerJames Spencer earned his Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He believes discipleship will open up opportunities beyond anything God’s people could accomplish through their own wisdom. James has published multiple works, including Christian Resistance: Learning to Defy the World and Follow Christ, Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody, Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind, and Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology to help believers look with eyes that see and listen with ears that hear as they consider, question, and revise assumptions hindering Christians from conforming more closely to the image of Christ. In addition to serving as the president of the D. L. Moody Center, James is the host of “Useful to God,” a weekly radio broadcast and podcast, a member of the faculty at Right On Mission, and an adjunct instructor with the Wheaton College Graduate School.  

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