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Recently, I was asked, “What is love?” This question may seem simplistic to many, but it becomes pretty complex if you think about it. Rather than answering right away, I stepped back to consider it. The world, of course, has its own definition. This is part of the problem when we discuss issues with the world. We declare our love for those around us, but they understand it differently. Our expressions of love can be like a foreign language.

In the book Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman speaks about how we perceive and show love. For example, my wife shows love through acts of service and care. She has not historically been one for expressions of affection—though this has been changing over the years. When two people with different “love languages” interact, they may feel unloved because the other person expresses affection differently. This idea is closely related to what I am addressing here. This is what is being asked when someone asks this question about love.

Many in the world think “to love someone” means physical intimacy. Of course, we don’t usually equate the two fully because we know that such intimacy is possible even without any emotional affection. Another group believes loving someone means being agreeable to their desires and actions, regardless of what they may be. This is the group that says, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” They forget that “the heart is deceitful beyond all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV). The heart often wants the most unloving of things. If I love someone, I may disagree with their desires born from heart-sick deception. There are times when the loving thing to do is to oppose and seek to persuade a person, even it means standing against their deepest desires. Every parent has experienced this.

Another way the world often defines it is “kindness.” But is this accurate. Are there ever times when a person must be unkind to be loving. The problem is that this question simply kicks the can. To answer it, one needs a good definition of “kind.” If kind means gentle and nonconfrontational, what do we call it when showing love requires being aggressive and forceful? If a friend is about to drive under the influence, it may take confrontation and hardness to stop them. I have locked horns with many a drunk to keep them out of danger. At the time, kindness was not my concern.

The world also considers love to be a feeling—“I have strong feelings of affection for you, and this means I love you.” This just cannot be farther from the truth. This is one reason why I never ask a young couple planning a wedding if they love each other. Of course, they will profess undying feelings for each other. When was the last time a young couple said, “We want to get married because it will be convenient”? But although I don’t ask it, inevitably, the couple confesses their great love for one another. They will have you believe they are the new Romeo and Juliet—forgetting how that story turned out. My response is seldom well-received: “Don’t bother telling me that until you’ve been married ten years. Once the realities of life and marriage have had time to burn away the warm feelings, then you can tell me you love each other.”

So, how did I answer the question?

Love is choosing to act in the other person’s best interest.

First off, love is not a feeling. True, lasting love must be chosen. I face a decision between A or B. A is in your best interest and B is not, so I choose A. But notice something else. It is a choice to act. Not a choice to feel, to consider, or to simply define. Love is active. But this also makes it an ethical question. Ethics asks the question, “How should I live or act?” Since love is a choice to act in a particular way, it answers the ethical question. If scripture commands us to love our enemy (Matthew 5:44), our neighbor (Mark 12:31), and our fellow believers (John 13:34), then we must choose to obey. It is not saying, “Have warm and fuzzy feelings about your enemy, etc.” Feelings accomplish nothing. This obedience is displayed through our actions. If I declare love for you, then act against your best interests, my declaration was a lie. My actions show the truth.

If feelings were the determiner of loving action, then decisions would be simple—“If it feels good, then it is the loving thing to do.” But we often don’t feel like doing the loving thing. About three times a year, our church operates the local food shelf. I will be there working from 10:30 AM to after 6 PM on those days. We did it just last week. As I was getting ready, I found myself complaining, “But Lord, I don’t want to do this. I have so many things to do. I am just so busy, and it is so very tiring.” But I was reminded that this was the loving thing to do. Why? Because by choosing to do it, I was choosing to act in the best interests of those helped by the food shelf. It was also a loving thing for my church because it was in their interest to see that such deeds are worth doing—even when we don’t want to.

If love is a choice to act, the rest of the definition tells us what actions. There is a weighing of options. When defining what love means, people are not asking for a description of the physiological responses in the body. They are asking what actions are loving. They are asking what we do if we love someone. This is where we see “act in the other person’s best interest.” But there are two problems with this. First, I may misdiagnose someone else’s interests. Second, they may not recognize their own best interest. This leads to further nuances of loving another.

I must hold my view of their best interest with a loose hand. God knows all things about everyone. We do not because we are fallible. My actions are not loving when I decide that action A is in the person’s best interest and attempt to force them against their will. The defining factor is the force being used. Please don’t take this too far. Sometimes a parent must force a child to do something because the parent better understands the child’s interests. That is loving. But it actually relates to the second problem above. Often the person does not understand their own best interests. Children are an example. When acting in another’s best interest, the other person, not understanding, may feel you are doing them wrong. Doing the loving thing does not mean always agreeing; neither does it mean always giving them what they want. Love requires wisdom and strength. Wisdom decides the best course of action; strength accomplishes it.