The Nature of Love
By John Townsend, Ph.D.
To understand love is to begin to plumb the depths of not only who we are, but also who God is. God, at his very essence, is love itself (I John 4:16). He does love and he is love. And He created and designed us for a state of love with Him and each other. Therefore, knowing and experiencing love is both the means as well as the end of life.
In this article, we will be dealing with several aspects of the nature of love. These are more or less universal principles about what it is and how it grows and works. You provide the context for this, as love is a central element in so many aspects of life: marriage, family, dating friendship, work and church, for example.
A good working definition of love is that it is a stance that promotes the welfare of the other:
It rejoices in the betterment of the other:
Love is content to know that the other person has benefited in some way by its efforts. It transcends our desires for ourselves, and desires instead what is best for the other person. When we really love, we give up selfishness and empathetically enter the world of the other person’s needs, hurts and dreams.
The Whole Being is Involved
When we love, we utilize all parts of ourselves. You literally bring your entire being to bear toward helping and becoming close to someone, God or human. This is why love cannot be reduced to simply an emotion, a thought, a behavior, a choice or a commitment. It involves the whole person, investing our very souls for the sake of another, loving with heart, soul and mind (Matt. 22:37).
“To give yourself to the task of loving another isn’t worth a lot unless there is a cost involved.”
This is why loving is so costly. To give yourself to the task of loving another isn’t worth a lot unless there is a cost involved: time, effort, vulnerability, humility, and self-denial, for a few examples of the price tag. Yet this whole-self love has great benefits for both the lover and the receiver. The one who receives is loved well, which is the fuel for life; and the lover’s heart and soul are expanded from exercising of learning this highest attribute of God. God’s heartbeat for loves was so costly that he lost his life – and even then lots of people spurn it. Yet he has no regrets about loving so lavishly.
“Mature lovers value connection for the sake of connection.”
Relationship for its Own Sake
Mature lovers value connection for the sake of the connection. There is no higher meaning in a loving relationship than simply “being with” the other person. While good relationships often produce good fruits such as task, a business, a mission or some sort of ministry, they are outflows of love, not the reason for it. With real love, togetherness is its own reward. As Jesus taught, we are to be one (John 17:11). This takes us out of our isolation, alienation, loneliness and self-centeredness, and into the position of relatedness.
This is why love and intimacy are so inextricably related. Those who have paid the price of learning about intimacy can find no greater joy than simply sitting with someone they care about deeply, talking, sharing feelings, or being quiet together. They will report that they can actually feel themselves being “filled-up” inside, just as a baby at her mother’s breast takes in warmth and nourishment and becomes calm and satisfied: “Thou didst make me trust when upon my mother’s breasts (Psa. 22:9).”
Love Takes Initiative and Risk
This isn’t to say, however, that becoming a loving person means being passive and simply reactive to another. Togetherness involves a great deal of activity. It means taking the effort to seek out God and others, rather than waiting for others to take the first step. It means going to the trouble of not wasting time in our relationships, as the days are evil and there’s only so much time to grow. Therefore, we make the first move in deepening the content of what we are saying, moving from the events and circumstances of the day to the more vulnerable issues of need, hurt, badness and confession. People who take initiative bring their feelings to the safe individuals in their lives, not being content to wait for permission to get close. Taking initiative also may mean taking the step of confronting a wrongdoing, or problem in the relationship. Jesus taught us that no matter if it is our fault or another, we are to stop what we’re doing and go try to work things out (Matt. 5:23, 24; 18:15).
“Love without risk is immature love.”
Many people are afraid to be close because of past hurts and transgressions. Sometimes they will wait for a perfectly safe environment and relationship to emerge before they attempt to love again.
Sometimes they will judge others as not deserving of love. While it is a sad reality that our ability to trust can be deeply wounded, and that we all need repair in this area, the fact is that there isn’t a totally safe place around, as all have sinned. But there are good enough places and people. Love without risk is immature love. Growing love stretches itself and sometimes gets bruised in the process. We need to get out of our comfort zone, take a risk, and either grow from it or learn to pick better people the next time around.
Love Changes as We Grow
The nature of love in God’s character is that it is dynamic, it doesn’t stay the same. As we stay in the process of learning to love wisely and well, we become more proficient and deeper in this part of life. You will notice several aspects of this, from very young perspectives to more grownup types:
“Detached people have difficulty noticing their feelings and the experiences of others around them.”
This first position is often the result of hurt or injury. In detachment, the person has withdrawn from any type of connectedness, and stays inside himself in a way to avoid pain and need. Detached people have difficulty noticing their feelings and the experiences of others around them. They are a world unto themselves, though they might also be kind people.
When babies are born, they have no sense of caring about anyone else. They are panicky, in crisis and shock, and needy. They only sense that they need someone’s arms around them, protecting, holding a comforting them from all the frightening things going on around them. People in the early stages of love are often this way. They feel very dependent and afraid, and want desperately for someone to fill them up inside and help them feel safe. And, until this need is addressed properly, they are unable to invest a great deal in the concerns of the other person.
As we are loved well, and respond responsibly to the love we are given, we begin to feel a sense of gratitude for what we are receiving from others: we love, because we are loved (I John 4:19). Our gratefulness drives us to be concerned about the welfare of the other person, and our loved state gives us a safe foundation from which to venture out and begin helping and loving them back. This type of love is quite satisfying to both, as both can enjoy the dual aspects of giving and receiving love, on a more or less equal level.
“Altruistic love is a giving type of love.”
This type of love is the most mature, and is built on moving along the other’s. Altruistic live is a giving type of love. It doesn’t need the other person’s support, and can love freely without depending on that other. It means that we have been loved so much and have used that love to mature, that we are rooted and grounded in love (Eph. 3:17). We are in a loved state, with enough emotional memories internalized through our experiences to sustain us. At the same time, altruists are never without regular, sustaining relationship with God and others in their lives. But they are deeply involved in things like charities, ministries and helping activities with those who aren’t in a position to give back to them. This is the love that constrains God to act on our welfare (John 3:16).
If this seems like a tall order in learning to love, you are right. And yet, there is no more worthy activity. Ask God to help you grow in faith and hope, but especially in love (I Cor. 13:13). It brings His grace and character into your life, both today and into eternity.
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