IF AN EXTRATERRESTRIAL SCIENTIST ever surveyed Planet Earth, they might come to the conclusion that we have an inexplicable fascination with boxes. They would note that juvenile humans construct rudimentary fortifications from boxes, felines climb into boxes to hide from those same juvenile humans, and adult humans place all kinds of items into boxes and then send them back and forth to each other or just shove them into their garages. They would discover there are entire organizations whose purpose seems to be putting items into boxes and sending them to other humans. They would marvel that many humans even have a ritual where they kill a tree, set it up in their home, then place brightly wrapped boxes all around its decorated remains, like some sort of offering. Earthlings, they would assume, really, really like boxes.
What that alien researcher wouldn’t know, however, is that our fascination with boxes extends far beyond the corrugated paper products we use to store and ship items. We often put people in boxes. And ourselves. And even God. We have this unexplainable urge to understand, classify, quantify, explain, and define everything and everybody.
This desire to define is positive in many contexts: it helps us make sense of natural phenomena around us, it gives us a shared set of concepts with which to communicate, and it gives science teachers unending material on which to draw as they design pop quizzes that will haunt our nightmares for decades after the material itself has been forgotten.
But when it comes to relationships, our desire to put others into convenient little boxes is destined for failure. Nowhere is this truer than when we try to understand God himself. Theologians have spent centuries systematically organizing what we know about God in order to construct a coherent and complete picture of him. Unfortunately, their chances of success are about as great as that of those little humans constructing a cardboard fortress that will withstand their mother’s command to “clean up this mess!” Some forces just can’t be repelled, and some things just can’t be fully defined.
When God inspired the Bible, he didn’t do it in the form of a textbook. Instead, it’s more like a series of journals and stories from people learning to walk with God in their own lives. One of those people, a disciple of Jesus’s named John, summed up the complexity and grandeur of God’s nature, character, and power in one succinct phrase: “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
Notice he didn’t just say, “God is loving” (although that is true), or “God loves you and me” (also true). He said God is love. Love isn’t just an action or an emotion coming from God, it is part of his very essence. Every aspect of God’s nature and every action he takes is consistent with true, eternal love.
We’ll unpack what that means for us in the rest of this chapter. If you are bold enough to embrace it, it is nothing short of revolutionary.
LOVED AND LOVING Every one of us needs to feel loved. That’s not a weakness of the human race or a shameful chink in our self-protective armor. It’s not something we grow out of once we reach adulthood. It’s part of who we are—children of God made in his image. We were created to be loved. Our insecurities and sinful responses might distort that need at times, and the sinfulness or foolishness of others might take advantage of it. But the basic need to be loved is good and godly, a gift from the Father of life and the author of love. The desire to be loved brings energy and strength and joy to our relationships.
As well as being loved, each of us needs to love others. Not in the grudging, “I really don’t like them, but I love them since the Bible says I have to” sense, but in the truest sense of the idea. We were designed to love others—to want the best for them, to serve them, to be committed to them, and to be close to them. This aspect of love is also part of who we are as image bearers of our Father. In the same passage where John said, “God is love,” he also reminded us, “Let us love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7). The ability to love others and the very concept of love itself come from God.
We are created to be loved. We are created to love. And both loving and being loved bring life and wonder and joy into our lives.
WHAT IS LOVE? Probably no topic under the sun has been the subject of more songs, poems, movies, or literature than love. Humans are fascinated by it (even more than our fascination with boxes, possibly). Ironically, that fixation on love still hasn’t helped us be very good at it. In fact, many of those songs and poems and movies are about failing at love. And most of us have more than enough personal stories about our own failings at love to vouch for its complexity.
Part of our problem is that love itself is often misunderstood in our culture. It gets reduced to an emotion, confused with lust, or twisted into something it was never intended to be. We often fail to love others well, or to receive love ourselves, because we misunderstand love itself.
God is the author of love and the epitome of love, so it makes sense to base our understanding of love on his. That’s where the Bible comes in. The entire Bible has been compared to a love letter from God to us. (Although we would not suggest taking this too literally when trying to impress someone you are interested in romantically. Sending messages that include genealogies and dietary restrictions isn’t going to end well for you.)
Love as God intended it is emotional, but it’s not only an emotion. In popular culture love is often reduced to a powerful feeling that fuels a relationship. When the feeling ends, so does the relationship. Christians sometimes swing to the opposite extreme: we emphasize the self-sacrificial nature of love so strongly that our implicit suggestion seems to be that emotions don’t matter.
The truth is more complex—and far more beautiful—than the caricatures of love expressed by those two extremes. In the Bible, love is brimming with emotion and passion. Romantic love is expressed in such explicit terms in Song of Solomon that many red-faced church leaders over the centuries have tried to explain away the entire book as merely a metaphor of Christ’s love for his church. The lyrics where the two lovers take turns describing each other’s body parts usually get skipped completely during Sunday morning sermons.
And it’s not just romantic love that is emotional. God’s love for his children—even when they are actively rebelling against him—is expressed in such passionate terms in the Bible that you can feel his yearning to be with them and his agony at the way they have rejected him. Love, then, includes emotion.
Along with that emotion, love is a choice. It is a decision to act in ways that serve the person being loved. It is a commitment to value and serve and care for and lift up the other person. A relationship will not succeed if love is defined only by its emotional component. But when we see love as both emotion and choice, passion and commitment, desire and devotion, then it is indeed a foundation for relationships that last.
In 1 Corinthians 13:4–8, the apostle Paul gave us a picture of love that is shocking both in its boldness and its scope:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
This passage describes a love that is unbreakable, that perseveres through the messiness of relationships, that is fully committed to the one who is loved, and that gives sacrificially and unreservedly. Let’s look at what this means for us, the ones God loves.
LOVE IS STRONG God’s love is unbreakable. It is stronger than any opposing force. Look back at the passage above. God’s love always perseveres. It never fails. Stop for a second and think about that. It’s incredible! Now, say this sentence to yourself: “I am loved.” Say it again, in case it didn’t sink in the first time. Did you believe it when you said it? Or did you wonder if you were really worthy of love?
Notice this statement isn’t “I am loved, for now” or “I am loved, as long as I make right choices.” It’s amazing how often we subconsciously add those conditions when we think of God’s love for us. Our own love for others tends to be so conditional on their actions toward us that it’s difficult to comprehend a love that cannot be defeated. When we aren’t lovable, we start worrying we won’t be loved. But God’s love isn’t changeable. It’s not contingent on our maturity or even our response. God loved us before we knew he existed. He loved us when we were ignoring him. He loved us when we joined his family but then kept falling back into sin. He loves us now, even though he sees every wrong we’ve committed and every sin we will be guilty of in the future. His love for us is unbreakable.
Understanding this brings a feeling many of us often don’t experience—peace. We don’t have to maintain some facade of worthiness or perform at a certain level of holiness in order to keep God’s love. We have that love already. And that will never change. God loves us with a love that cannot be broken by outside forces or internal failures.
This confidence comes with a peace that replaces the anxiety and self-condemnation that are so often the soundtracks of our lives.
God’s unbreakable love means we have freedom to learn and grow. And along with that, we have freedom to fail. Just as no child learns to walk without falling or to talk without mispronouncing words in hilarious and adorable ways, so too, we don’t grow into who God created us to be without occasionally messing up. Throughout this lifelong process of growth, God’s love holds us, protects us, guides us, and picks us back up when we fall.
The strength of his love for us becomes the foundation and the pattern for us to love others. We were created to live in loving relationships with other people, not just God. Loneliness is not our destiny. God is the God who “sets the lonely in families” (Ps. 68:6). His unbreakable love for us gives us the security and peace we need to step into the risks inherent in human relationships. Regardless of how often we mess up in our interactions with others, God’s faithful love picks us back up, holds us close, then encourages us to try again.
The strength of his love for us models how we can persevere in loving others even when they are imperfect or weak. Anyone who has been married for longer than about four days knows that the people we love don’t act particularly lovable at times. And neither do we. Strong, enduring relationships are grounded in a love that doesn’t give up when things get tough. Just as God’s love is stronger than our weaknesses and failures, so our own love for others can be strong enough to conquer the obstacles life throws our way.
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