This will date me: the year I graduated from high school, Foreigner released its pop megahit, “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
This quintessential 80’s power ballad went platinum, not because of its vague, incoherent verses, but because, I believe, its title refrain asks a profound, universal human question: What is love?
We know Foreigner’s producers understood this, at least intuitively, as a religious question, because the song builds into a gospel choir anthem by its end. We all share their intuition.
We know that eros is more than sex, and agape more than sacrifice. We know love is more than a feeling, but certainly not less than a feeling. We know it’s not just a decision, and we know it requires resolve. We know it’s not just a noun, not just a verb, and not just an adjective.
Our greatest stories, songs, poems, even our greeting cards, all bear witness that we know there is something transcendent and ultimate about love. We can’t help ascribing mystical, even metaphysical qualities to it. Yet with all the words we devote to it, we find love simply cannot be contained in human language. Like beauty or glory, it is easier to point to love than to define it.
This is a clue.
Love, like beauty and glory, is a God-haunted human experience. We all know love is transcendent because we innately know “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
The knowledge that love is meant to be a sacred thing is a deep, often suppressed memory in the human soul that God exists (Romans 1:18–19), that he is holy (Revelation 4:8), and that love is at the core of his nature. And therefore, love, in all its unsullied forms, is from God (1 John 4:7), which is why it’s beyond words: love is ultimately inexpressible and filled with glory (1 Peter 1:8).
This makes love a stubborn apologetic, a velvet-covered hammer smashing hollow materialistic assertions. Love simply refuses to be reduced to a genetic illusion or an enlightened self-interest that evolutionary biology speculates we adapted for survival. We all know better. That isn’t what love is.
Humans in every culture have always most admired the most selfless, even self-sacrificial expressions of love far more than desperate acts of self-preservation. Christianity, with its self-sacrificing God, didn’t create this admiration. It just most beautifully and gloriously fits the shape of love our souls most admire and deeply desire — like the missing puzzle piece we’ve always been searching for.
Love points to God. We know this deep down. Our biggest problem is that the god we want to see at the end of the pointer is often a false one.
The year after Foreigner pleaded to know what love is, Whitney Houston sang a chart-topping answer: “Learning to love yourself: it is the greatest love of all.” It also sounded like a song right out of church.
But it’s a worship song to a different, but all too familiar god: self. It celebrates the tragic myth fallen humanity has always wanted so badly to be true: We are worthy of our own supreme love and worship.
It’s a tragic myth because, when believed, it proves to be the death of love. It makes the wrong god the source and object of ultimate love (“the greatest love of all”). We are not love, and love has not come from us, because we are not God.
God is love. And when love is detached from God, it loses its true meaning. When we make ourselves the ultimate reference point for love, love devolves into whatever each of us wishes it to mean. Everyone loves in the way that’s right in his own eyes, and therefore also hates in the way that’s right in his own eyes.
This is the world as we know it. It’s the human story: the rejection of God resulting in the diseasing and disintegration of love. Humans defining love for themselves has led them to become supremely “lovers of self” (2 Timothy 3:2), and so live “in the passions of the flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind . . . by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).
It is not hard to understand why there is so much confusion, heartbreak, and violence in the world. Many of the horrifying things we see in the news are what the disintegration of love looks like.
Loving ourselves supremely is not the greatest love of all. It’s the end — the death — of love.
This is why the Christian message is good news for everyone who really wants to know what love is.
The God of love, the God who is love, the God from whom all love comes, so loved us that he gave his only Son to become love incarnate and lovingly sacrifice himself to liberate all who believe in him from the suicidal slavery of supreme self-love (John 3:16). Jesus showed us what love is, the greatest love of all: laying down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).
But Jesus is not content with us merely observing and admiring his love. For freedom he has set us free (Galatians 5:1). Our freedom is more than being loved; it is entering fully into the experience, the fellowship of love by loving God and others in the same way: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
And loving the way Love loves means some kind of self-dying, for as he laid down his life for us, we lay our life down for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16). But as self-worship proves to be the death of love in this fallen world, this self-sacrificing proves to be the resurrection of love in this fallen world.
The love of Christ in the life of Christians is the end of selfishness and the foretaste of what Jonathan Edwards called heaven: “a world of love.”
All who wish to know what love is must look to whom love is. For God is love. And if we wish to experience true love, we must love in the way he loved us.