Burt Bacharach was no preacher but he proclaimed a message in song we all intuitively understand: love is the crucial ingredient to bring healing and wholeness to the world. “What the world needs now” is not about love as romantic attraction or adulation for another person – the love the world needs is much deeper than that. Yet, there is great confusion about the meaning of love,not only in the society at large, but even among those who claim to follow Yeshua.
Most of us understand that love involves compassion for others. In the world outside the conservative Christian and Messianic Jewish communities, there are some who believe compassion should move us to allow homosexuals to marry and to serve openly in the military. (The last has now been approved in the United States). In addition, they encourage tolerance for people to have no-fault divorces. Love, they say, compels us to have generous welfare and free high-tech medical services. Love seems to be bankrupting our country. The world also tells us that we should seek justice. Usually justice is defined as equality. If men and women are not treated in the same way, or if income distribution is not exactly equal, then society is unjust and unloving.
The Idea of Love without Moral Standards
This definition of love is mere humanistic sentiment. The basic concept of love in popular culture does not take into account that love is connected to judgment and related to enforcing standards; instead “love” is understood to mean encouraging people to do whatever they want, when and wherever they want, so that they may feel personally fulfilled (as long as it does not directly hurt someone else). Enforcing standards is considered unloving.
In some Christian circles we are encouraged to allow divorce without any eldership court to render a decision as to whether a divorce with an allowance of remarriage is justified. Some church leaders teach that even the pastor who divorces his wife and marries his secretary should be embraced and allowed to continue in his role. Anything less (they say) is not loving or forgiving and, “after all, divorce is no worse than other sins.” But are all sins equal? Though any sin without blood atonement is enough to condemn us, is it just as sinful to contemplate vengeance, as it is to commit murder? Or is murder not worse than stealing? Biblically unjustified divorce is devastatingly wrong and has terrible effects on children and on our whole society.
God is Love
The Bible tells us “God is love.” (I John 4:16) It is the deepest part of His character. Yet it also tells us that God is a judge to be feared. In the book of Exodus we read the definition of God’s character that in the Jewish tradition is called the Thirteen Attributes of God:
The LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished, he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
This passage clearly shows us the character of God. The God who is love and acts in love, also punishes sin.
A Biblical Definition of Love with Justice
So what is love? My conclusion after an empirical reading of Scripture is “Love is the compassionate identification with others that seeks their good. Their good is defined by God’s intended destiny for them.” Nothing contrary to God’s standards is love because God’s destiny for human beings can only be according to His standards of righteousness for all human beings.
This means that true love is guided by biblical law. Without biblical law, we are left only with mere sentiment. A just order is one that enables people to fulfill their God-intended destiny, but an unjust order prevents or hinders the fulfillment of that destiny. Justice is not equality except in terms of those scriptural norms where all humans (created in the image of God), are to be treated with respect, dignity and to be equal before the courts with regard to crime and punishment.
This definition of love includes the place of emotion. Compassionate identification enables us to put ourselves in the shoes of other people and to feel an emotional compassion that motivates us to act for their good. Not everyone is called to have equal wealth as in a Marxist definition of justice, but a just order must be one where responsible persons have sufficient wealth to fulfill their calling to perform good works for the sake of the kingdom. Compassionate identification also encompasses our love for God because true love is only possible if one perceives the worth of the object of love. Because we are made in the image of God we can identify with God and love Him for who He is. In so doing we become in awe of His beauty, goodness, love and justice and want to partner with Him for the fulfillment of His own destiny: to see all humanity love Him, submit to His rule, and acknowledge His Son Yeshua, our Savior and King. This destiny is everlasting loving fellowship!
True love ensures the enforcement of standards. When standards are allowed to be violated, it inevitably leads to a whole order of injustice and sin which will end up preventing many from fulfilling their destinies and will destroy love. Love only flourishes in a just order. Children of divorce find it more difficult to fulfill their God ordained destiny. A society that does not value marriage leads to much destruction. Social orders, where the powerful in business are in league with government powers to prevent real creative competition, will decrease the wealth creation that enables many more to prosper and to fulfill their destinies.
Love is not merely a subjective feeling, but feeling is part of love. Love has objective content that is key to God’s kind of love and forgiveness becoming manifest in the world. This ideal of compassionate identification with the other that seeks their good is only possible by the transforming work of Yeshua in our lives, by the power of the Spirit. He enables us to truly love.