What is love?

What comes to mind when you think of the word love? Giving? Being nice? Helping others?

While those are all good examples, sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to love someone. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say there’s a single mom who’s working hard and still struggling to pay her bills. She’s reluctant to ask for help, but comes to you in desperate need. I think it’s safe to say that a monetary gift would be a loving gesture.

There’s another person you know who has shown over and over to be irresponsible with his money. Instead of paying bills, he uses money on indulgent spending and partying. He comes to you when his rent is due, begging for money. You feel bad for him, so you hand him some cash.

In both situations, your act of giving was the same, but were both actions loving?

Let me give you another scenario. You’re at the store with your young child and she’s had a terrible attitude the entire time. She’s screaming and pulling things off the shelf. She’s begging you for cookies and candies and everything else. You could give in to the demands so that maybe she’ll stop throwing a tantrum. Another option would be calmly telling her “no” and continuing with your shopping (or having a private conversation with her out in the car or whatever you deem appropriate).

What action is more loving: Buying your daughter some cookies or not? Why do you think so?

As you can see, love can be complicated. It’s not merely giving or showing kindness. So, how do we figure this out? How do we know how to love someone best?

Elementary Love

When we’re young, most of us probably believe that love means being taken care of. Mommy and Daddy give me food, buy me things, and hug me. They love me. So, this elementary (not necessarily wrong, just incomplete) understanding of love is one of feeling good because that’s how immature minds work. This feels good; therefore, it must be good. We have a very narrow view of love.

Love is Sacrificial

If our caregivers trained us right, we learned to move beyond this basic love. We were taught to give to others—to sacrifice our own time and resources for the benefit of another. We began to realize that this too is an aspect of love. Love doesn’t always feel good for us. Love is a choice and oftentimes it’s a sacrifice.

Many people end here in their understanding of love. I think I camped out in this mindset for most of my life. Love was merely a give and take thing; it’s something you do.

Love Requires Boundaries

During a season of my life in which God began healing my heart from past wounds and teaching me to have more genuine, authentic relationships, I began seeing love differently again. I realized that there were times that I was giving out of compulsion or pressure rather than an overflowing heart (Read Love>Fear).

If I’m giving out of compulsion, I can’t possibly be loving. I realized that instead of love, I was giving out of fear. I was afraid of looking bad. I was afraid of appearing unloving or un-Christlike. Meanwhile, I was stewing with resentment because it felt like I had no choice.

This is when I began seeing the need for boundaries in my life. If I am to guard my heart against fear and resentment, I need to begin taking responsibility for my choices and not allow the needs and wants of others to dictate my life. (I have a lot to say about boundaries. If you’re interested, check out these blogs).

Love is Cultivated

If love is more than just giving and receiving, what is it? In that season of my life, God began to show me that love is cultivated. Like a tree that is newly planted, the love that grows within our hearts for God and for others is something that is protected, nurtured, and fed.

We see this type of love in our closest of relationships. I need to protect my heart against sin that creeps up and causes me to turn my love off towards another. These sins can include lies we believe about someone, resentment, and unforgiveness.

To protect the relationship, I need boundaries for myself and for the relationship. Personal boundaries ensure that I’m not going against my values, that I’m putting my relationship with God first, that I’m taking care of myself, and that I’m keeping my heart from sin. Relational boundaries ensure that I’m protecting the relationship from forces that could destroy it (saying no to other men to protect the marriage, etc.).

I also need to nurture my relationships by taking the time to invest into them. Relationships require time and resources. I make sure to stay in contact with my good friends. I call, text, or video text (the Marco Polo app is my favorite! https://www.marcopolo.me/) to let them know what’s going on in my life and to see how they are doing. My friends and I hang out—go out to eat, grab coffee, have a play date, etc.

The One Thing Love Requires

With all these ideas of love floating about, it’s difficult to know how to love someone in a given situation. I definitely tend to err on the side of sacrificing myself for the benefit of the relationship, which is why boundaries have been such a game changer for me. But sometimes people don’t need your generosity and sacrificial giving; they need truth and boundaries.

Take the Pharisees, for example. If Jesus is love all the time, the way he treated the Pharisees was just as loving as the way he treated the woman caught in adultery. The woman needed mercy extended to her; the Pharisees needed truth and a bit of confrontation.

Ok, so how do we know the difference? How do we know if someone needs boundaries or empathy or money or time? The answer is vision.

To love someone the way Jesus loved someone requires that we have godly vision. We need the ability to see someone (including ourselves) the way God does.

Let’s go back to the tree analogy. If we don’t know what this little sapling is supposed to become, if we don’t have a vision for a mighty oak tree in the future, we may continue to nurture it like a little plant. Or perhaps we don’t even see it’s value and potential, so we merely cut it down because it’s ugly or not useful.

Godly vision sees the beautiful tree in which it will become. Godly vision sees an individual for the potential they were created for.

When we’re able to see a person the way God does, we are better equipped to love that person. Love may look like generosity and sacrifice when someone is in need. It may look like confronting someone with the truth of how his actions are destroying his life and the lives of those around him. Love may look like boundaries when someone has been abusing you or manipulating you. Love may look like comfort and empathy when someone is hurting.

What is beneficial to one person may be the downfall of another. If Jesus had treated the Pharisees the same way he treated the woman caught in adultery, it would have padded their pride and self-righteousness. If Jesus would have treated the woman the same way he treated the Pharisees, she would have been full of shame and condemnation.

Jesus understood that for people to recognize their need for a Savior, some need to be confronted and humbled while others need to be shown kindness and mercy.

Here’s the common denominator in all of this: We need to know God’s heart. If we are not rightly related to God, our Source of love, we have no love to give. And if we don’t understand God’s heart for his people, we may find it difficult to know how to love someone.

To better understand living with vision and to view more examples, read Godly Vision Necessitates Boundaries.

My understanding of love continues to evolve, so I’m sure this is not the end of it. I’m curious, though, what are your thoughts? What has God shown you about love?

Do you have an example from your own life where God corrected your idea of love?