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This Definition of Love May Leave You Agape


By Mark Azzara

My Dear Friend,

As promised, here is my definition of love. It is devotion to a person that is God-directed – i.e., directed by God and toward God, and which is possible only by means of his grace. Love, as the purest reflection of God, is a freely chosen, rational, unconditional, unselfish, consistent decision to promote the highest good of the person who is loved, whether that person is another human being, yourself or God. Basically, it is the definition of the Greek word agape.

In a recent comment about my letter, Diane Sanders challenges us deeply to rethink love in this sentence: “Love is a condition of the heart that leads to an action or expression.” Here are the conditions of the heart that underlie my definition.

Freely chosen: This means it’s not obligatory. God isn’t obligated to love us, nor are we obligated to love. Love is a decision (which is the title of a famous book by Gary Smalley).

Rational: Love isn’t based on emotions or feelings. Surprise!! God makes a rational choice to love that isn’t based on his feelings or emotions. If emotions were his basis for loving, He would never have sent Jesus to endure, on our behalf, the justified punishment we deserve for our sins. It was excruciating for the Father to watch his son suffer on the cross to pay our debt because it was the only way to re-establish the link between God and man. If anything, God loves us despite his emotions.

Unconditional: That means no ifs, ands or buts. Love continues without regard to the circumstances, our behavior and/or our response.

Unselfish: While every one of us receives something as a result of loving, even if it’s only the satisfaction of knowing we have loved, love is focused exclusively (self-sacrificially) on what’s good for the one who is loved.

Consistent: It does not vary over time, even though it may seem that God loves us more at certain times than he does at others.

We can love like this only when we confess that such love is only possible by God’s grace and then ask for it – i.e., for his ability to love, which he freely bestows on those who want it. With commitment and practice agape-love becomes real, and I realize it’s not just me loving. God and I are doing it together because agape-love is the result of the relationship between God and me.
If you are skeptical about having such a “mystical” relationship with God I suggest you read Margery Eagan’s recent blog written for Crux.

When Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he meant agape-love. He also meant we must be loved like that before loving like that. In 1 John 4:19 it says “God loved us first.” When Christians talk about love rather than loving it is often because they’ve never been loved like that. God’s love rubs off on you. When you experience that love it changes you in ways that motivate intense gratitude and a desire to love.
Christian rock musician Robbie C from Uxbridge, Mass., said something at a coffeehouse years ago that shook me deeply. I will rephrase slightly, based on years of prayer about it. There is only one difference between Christianity and every other religion in the world. Every other religion talks about what we can or must do for God. Only Christianity talks about what God can and must do for us.

What must he do for us? “I will place my law within them and write it on their hearts, and they will be my people, and I will be their God” (Jer. 31:33). If you try living by love’s definition on your own you’ll crash and burn within an hour. But asking God every day to write it on your heart so that it governs you is the most sensible thing you can do.

Living by that definition cost Jesus his life. And if we ask God to put that definition in us, we will “die” too, because this definition demands that we love others even when they reject us as a result. It means spouses and families must rely on his grace and continue to love even amid horrific problems (e.g., bankruptcy, house fire or failing health) and horrible choices (infidelity, addiction, gambling, etc.).

The breathtaking truth is that when I express agape-love I am God-like. As I struggle daily to utilize God’s grace and obey his law of love more deeply, I become more like God, which is what God intends for us. The Holy Spirit, who is personified grace, is poured out on us precisely so we can know, and live like, God! That’s what it means to be “in Christ,” which is Paul’s most oft-used phrase.

There are Greek words for different types of love but agape love is overarching because it perfects all the others. We cannot truly experience or share brotherly love (phileo), erotic love (eros) or familial love (storge) without the presence of God (agape). Without God, who is love, these other forms of love are, to some extent, incomplete, limited and contradictory to agape because we can attempt them on our own.

We will never be perfect at agape-love so it’s easy never to try, or to doubt that God will do it with us. As I thought about this insidious, self-fulfilling fear of failure, I experienced a mini-epiphany. If my belief in a loving and forgiving God does not affect and ultimately transform my thoughts, words and actions, then my thoughts, words and actions will affect and ultimately destroy my belief in such a God.

This two-week focus on love began in response to the legalization of gay marriage. My next letter will look at how those two topics are related.

All God’s blessings – Mark

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