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What is true love?

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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If you want to know what Americans think about love, look no further than the Fifty Shades series and The Bachelor. These two cultural juggernauts do more than just provide clues about how our society envisions love. They serve as billboards advertising our views on love. The popularity of these two series reveals that they are serving as a type of classroom, providing culturally immersive lessons on how to love.

What do we learn when we look at these two series and beyond them to the popular, on-the-street view of love in America? I think there are four key pillars of our society’s view of love. First, one of the central lessons in this curriculum is that love is primarily about self-fulfillment. Second, to experience the highest form of love you have to have the maximum amount of physical pleasure. Third, love is fleeting, with lasting, committed love more of a unicorn-like anomaly than an actual possibility. Fourth, love is displayed by intimacy.

We don’t talk much these days about what love costs. Love, in the Christian understanding, is a total giving of the self for another. It is not determined by our emotions, but it enlarges our capacity to feel great joy and sorrow. Our culture is more concerned with personal rights than self-sacrifice. We wonder why it is so hard to have lasting love, but we aren’t willing to admit that our sinfulness is the greatest limiting factor in our love. We so desperately want to do everything on our own, to live in our own strength, to find our own way. But the lasting kind of love is rooted in the self-sacrificial love of God seen most clearly and beautifully through the cross of Jesus.

Jesus’ love is what gives us the power to love. We love because he first loved us. This is such a radical concept in light of the four prevailing ideas our culture has about love that I referred to above. Love is not determined by my emotional feelings or desire to love, however. It is transformed by the reality of God’s perfect love. Our grounding texts in Scripture are the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, 1 Corinthians 13, Philippians 2, and 1 John 4. They all point to a love that challenges and confronts our flimsy and distorted views of love.

Philippians 2 reveals that love isn’t primarily about self-fulfillment, but about self-emptying and giving up our own rights. It sounds paradoxical because it is. We only find our true ability to love when we give up trying to make it about ourselves and instead follow Jesus’ way. You can’t get directions to an unknown destination. You have to know where you are going first. Similarly, we have to first have our heart’s desires changed and transformed by the love of Christ before we can figure out how to more fully extend love to others.

If our culture says that to experience the highest form of love you must have the maximum amount of physical pleasure, the very life of our Savior Jesus challenges the foundation of the entire claim. When we immerse ourselves in the Gospel accounts of his life, we find that he didn’t marry or have sex, so if our American ideas of love are correct, Jesus didn’t live a fulfilled life, and we know that is completely preposterous because his life is the sum of everything that is good.

When we turn to 1 John 4, we find the repeated use of the word “abide.” This should take our Bible-soaked minds to John 15, where Jesus speaks of the image of the vine and the branches. Sadly, our culture has only experienced broken forms of love that inevitably lead to heartbreak and shattered dreams. So, in response, we’ve found that it’s easier to reduce our vision of love to something more attainable, a type of fixation on the momentary experience of love. But this Bible word, abide, speaks of the type of love that comes directly from God, the love that is everlasting, eternal, and secure. That changes everything for us.

Finally, when we join these Scriptures together through 1 Corinthians 13, we get a picture of true intimacy in love. Our culture has a view of contrived intimacy, where passion exists without constraint. In Christian love, however, we see that true intimacy is passion with restraint. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. It engages in the struggle of hard work, of pushing past what we feel, to move to a deeper understanding of love.

What if we were to take this Christian vision of love to heart? Imagine the effect this would have on our culture as we live this out in big and small ways, learning not only how to show others our love through action, but also how to teach them to do the same through Jesus. Our culture needs more than the vision of love promulgated through our entertainment industry; it needs the witness of true Christian love.