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What is Love?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
13 minutes read

This is how we know what love is:
Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
(1st John 3:16)

Joe Goldberg is the main character in Netflix’s “You.” In the seventh episode, Joe explains to his new psychologist why he came to see him:

“I don’t understand it. That’s why I am here.”

“What don’t you understand?” the psychologist replied.

“Love,” Joe answered.

“You and seven billion other people on this planet. If we understood love, I would be out of a job.” Said the psychologist laughing.

Throughout history, humanity has expressed various ideas about love through stories, poetry, songs, and films. In contemporary times, many people perceive love as a fluffy, pink, marshmallow-like emotion that only a fortunate few get to experience. Teenagers often swoon over this idea while watching Hollywood chick flick movies. However, most of these scenes depict a fleeting expression of chemicals in the brain, commonly referred to as “being in love,” associated with the production of dopamine that can last anywhere from several months to a few years.

With great respect to Hollywood and the fictional psychologists of Netflix, I believe that a better, more developed definition of love already exists within our innate understanding. However, to reach it, we must first challenge our own thinking. Although love is a fundamental aspect of the human experience and is extensively utilized in the Bible, the average person rarely grasps its true meaning. In reality, without a genuine understanding of what love entails, we cannot fully comprehend the gospel or the nature of God.

Tough decision

Christ commanded us to love our enemies, and when I was once debating with a rabbi, he argued that Jesus’ commandment was impossible because people cannot force themselves to feel emotions they do not genuinely experience. This is a classic example of interpreting an ancient word through modern language. Love is not a feeling; in fact, loving your enemy goes against your emotions. You might feel towards your worst enemy that you hope they drop dead, but Jesus says that despite these feelings, you must choose to love them. Love, therefore, is not a feeling but a choice, a decision made regardless of one’s emotions. But a decision to do what?

The word “love” appears close to 400 times in this book. Perhaps this is because the Bible places such great emphasis on love. John’s first epistle is a good example. It was written at the end of the first century when the theology of the New Testament was already well-established. Take a look at how the Gospel is explained in John’s epistle: 

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1st John 4:8-11)[1]

The word “love” appears eight times in this short passage, emphasizing what the gospel is all about. John does so by highlighting three key components:

  • The Son of God took on human form.[2]
  • The Son of God came down to earth.[3]
  • The Son of God atoned for our sins.[4]

For John, the three components he presented (which involve proximity and sacrifice) meant that “God is love.” John didn’t write “God is loving,” but that He is love itself. Love is not merely an attribute that God possesses (like the famous list Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 13); it’s an integral part of God’s very nature. Love is not just a theological concept; it’s also a philosophical one. I believe that the definition or concept of love was ingrained into our minds and souls as human beings. Therefore, anyone can understand love, even if they have never opened a Bible. I would like to offer a logical breakdown or definition of what LOVE is,[5] which I believe is composed of the following three key elements:

The first element of love: Intimacy. Proximity. Closeness.

Having a relationship with someone means being close to them in one way or another.[6] This doesn’t necessarily refer to physical proximity, but rather to knowing the other person and being there for them. For instance, a parent who loves their child won’t be satisfied with just sending letters; they’ll want to be emotionally present for their child, particularly during a crisis. As an ancient proverb puts it, “knowledge without practice is useless.”[7] A God who is love won’t merely claim to be loving in writing; rather, he’ll seek to reveal himself and demonstrate that love in real life. This is evident from the very beginning of the Bible. In the creation story, God wasn’t passive, distant, or alienated from his creation. On the contrary, he was close and personal,[8] and remained so even after Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden.

We have all heard stories of neglected children who are unwanted by their parents because of some perceived defect. However, our heavenly Father is different. He is love. God does not shy away from us because we are imperfect; on the contrary, He desires to be close to those He loves, especially those who are often considered unlovable. After creation, God chose to dwell among the Israelites and later fully revealed Himself through the physical manifestation of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God not only sympathizes with us, but He also empathizes with us (Hebrews 4:15). Being love, God desires intimacy, proximity, and closeness with us.

The second element of love: A decision of Free Will.

There is no love without free will. You cannot force someone to love you. This is basic ancient human logic.[9] Biblically, love must be a free choice as well.[10] Forcing love only leads to antagonism. In life, we tend to love those who are good, caring, compassionate, forgiving, generous, friendly, and courteous. Unfortunately, in many churches, God is often portrayed as an angry moral monster who will punish you if you don’t wake up early enough to pray or memorize enough verses.[11]

Much like Christians who believe they have no free will, secular people often accuse God of forcing himself by using crusades, pogroms, or suicide bombers. No person in their right mind would want to believe in this twisted version of a god driven by hate and anger, forcing them to “believe” in him merely out of fear of punishment. This distorted view of a God who forces himself on people is quite prevalent nowadays. However, the Bible’s foundation is the integration between God’s love and the free will of humans, as argued by the great C.S. Lewis:

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good, it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata — of creatures that worked like machines — would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that, they’ve got to be free.[i]

If your pet trusts you, it will draw near to you and eventually relax by sitting on your lap. Why? Because they feel safe. They trust that you won’t hurt them and believe that you will offer them protection if they are at risk. However, trust requires free will. You cannot force someone to trust you. Similarly, God is not forcing you to trust or love him. God wants you to choose him for yourself and for the right reasons – because you believe he is good, kind, loving, generous, etc. God always allows men free will whether to believe in him or not.

The third element of love: Sacrifice.

Helen Fisher (Ph.D. in biological anthropologist) researched how the brain reacts when we think and speak of someone we love. Fisher shared how she would end every interview with the question: “Would you die for him or her?” According to Fisher, “These people would say ‘Yes!’ as if I had asked them to pass the salt.[ii] Fisher proved what we all know. When we are close to someone, care for them and love them, we are willing to sacrifice and suffer – die even — for their sake.

Heat symbolizes life, while cold symbolizes death. When a loved one is cold, we offer our body heat to keep them warm, as stated in Ecclesiastes 4:11. On the other hand, when we hate someone, we distance ourselves from them because we are no longer interested in sacrificing for them. Sacrifice can take many forms, such as our time, comfort, energy, and resources. The more we care about someone, the more likely we are to suffer for their sake. Therefore, we are even willing to lay down our lives for the sake of our children.

When I walk my dog, and it senses a threat along the way, it immediately stands between me and the perceived danger, willing to sacrifice its life for my sake. This is no different from human relationships. We are willing to sacrifice our lives for people we love, and even for causes we believe in. Sometimes as parents, we wish we could take our children’s sicknesses upon ourselves in their place.

If it is true that the more we love someone, the more we are willing to sacrifice for them, then the ultimate love is sacrificing our lives for the sake of those we love. This is the very heart of the gospel; a God who is ready to lay down his life for our sake to demonstrate his love for us.

Many great expressions of sacrifice exist in the human experience. For example, humans eat the living. We can’t eat stones, plastic, or glass. We eat animals and everything that grows. For us to eat them, they must die. They die so we can live. If an animal voluntarily allowed its predator to devour it, it’s only because the prey cared for and loved its predator, agreeing to be eaten out of its own free will. And as a result, the predator can live at the prey’s expense.[12]

When Jesus spoke the words, “eat my flesh,” he was expressing the idea of sacrificial love, that he was willing to die so that we may live. This concept of sacrificial love is also evident in God the Father’s love for us, as he gave up his Son so that we could “eat him” and have eternal life. As parents or grandparents, we also understand the importance of sacrifice for our children and loved ones. Sacrifice is the essence of the human experience and reflects the gospel’s message of extreme love and sacrifice, as God feeds us, also spiritually, as his children.

Greater love has no one than this:
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
(John 15:13)

To summarize, God is love. His love means seeking to be close, but not in the way of forcing himself against one’s free will. A love that is willing to suffer and give up everything, including its own life. Love is not just a feeling but a verb, an action, a choice, and a commitment. It is a decision to sometimes place another individual’s needs and interests above our own. Love is sacrificial, selfless, and unconditional. This kind of love is exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, who loved so much that he willingly gave up his life “to feed” mankind.

Love and Redemption

Based on the definition of love discussed just now, Christian redemption[13] becomes more relatable. In fact, Christianity is all about sacrifice, and sacrifice is all about the relationship between life and death.

Redemption simply means to be bought back, set free, or liberated. To save someone from something, we must give up something else in exchange for their redemption. It can be something small, like our time, comfort, or energy. Or it can be something big, like our wealth or a kidney. For example, if my friend has taken a loan and cannot repay it, and I love that friend, I can redeem them by paying off their debt. This requires me to sacrifice my resources to free them from their distress. When we redeem someone, it will always come at a cost. In this respect, the proverb “nothing comes for free” is appropriate.

However, sacrifice is not only about saving someone’s life. Jesus taught us to make sacrifice a natural part of our daily lives, even in small or seemingly insignificant matters. When Jesus taught us to continue walking an extra mile (Matthew 5:41), he was asking us to not just do the bare minimum but to sacrifice our time and energy to go above and beyond for others. For instance, if you work at a local supermarket and your job is to pack groceries, carrying them to an elderly lady’s car would be walking an extra mile. Nobody is forcing you to do it, but you choose to sacrifice your time and energy to show love. If it’s the end of your shift at the supermarket and the elderly lady’s car won’t start, you could redeem her by offering her a lift home.

Therefore, love is intrinsically linked to sacrifice, which often involves pain and suffering. We are willing to endure greater pain for those we love, but we may be less willing to suffer for a stranger.

 In human culture, people who are willing to suffer—even die—for the sake of others are seen as heroes. Heroes are those who deliver us by sacrificing something. In most classic stories, the protagonist gives up something, even their life, to save others. This act crowns them as the story’s hero. In Narnia, Aslan asks to die instead of Edmund. In The Avengers, Tony Stark sacrifices his life to save the entire universe. Superman gives up his life against Doomsday to save mankind. The examples of heroes sacrificing for others are endless.

Not only does sacrifice bring about redemption, but it also sets an example to live by and can even soften enemies’ hearts. Sometimes it’s about an emotional sacrifice. If your feelings were hurt because you had a fight with a friend, you can redeem that relationship by sacrificing your pride. You forgive for free, meaning it’s free for the other party but not for you. Far from it, it costs you your ego, your honor, and sometimes your reputation.

The Christian redemption

The endless illustrations found in poems, stories, and films prove that the knowledge of what love is exists in all people. It’s because we are created in the image of Love. But it’s not just in fiction stories that we find self-sacrificial love. Every culture has stories about sacrificial love, which sets an example for society.

If God is love, and to love is to be willing to give up your life for the sake of others, then it’s only logical to expect our heavenly Father, the greatest hero of all, to do just that—sacrifice himself for us. Therefore, the gospel is about a loving God who self-sacrifices for all, even his enemies! Jesus came to this earth and demonstrated to mankind that God is not like all the other gods. He is not so upset that he hates them and wants nothing to do with them. He is Yahweh, a God who loves us and, in contrast to all other gods, is willing to even die for us. No other god was ready to die to save the souls of those they created. This is something unique to Christianity. It’s an act of love we only find in Christ, and he did it for free. It was free for us, but not for him. In my opinion, that makes the God of the Bible the only one worthy of our love and worship.

If I were to give up my life for my son’s sake and die for him, what would be my motivation if not love? By dying, my death may accomplish different things. Maybe I’d release my son from a lifetime in the enemy’s prison, substituting my life for his release. Perhaps the story of my death would go viral, setting an example for others. Whatever the results were, they wouldn’t be my motivation for dying. The motivation would be love. In the same way, Jesus died on the cross because God loves us. Many implications came from the cross (the forgiveness of sins being just one), but these are outcomes, not the initiating power generating the action, which was love. Redemption happens due to a sacrificial act of love. You will suffer for someone you love and even give up your life for them. Perfect love would be to die even for your enemies. This was only a theoretical concept until it had put on flesh so we could touch, see, witness, experience, and truly comprehend it. That’s the gospel, in essence.

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.

[1] Here and throughout the book, bold text in biblical texts and quotes were added by me.

[2] A God who limited himself in becoming like us is a God who wants us to be able to relate to him.

[3] Instead of us needing to find a way to God, he came down to us. He showed us he’s not distant nor alienated from us.

[4] In the Hebrew Scriptures, there were different ways in which a sacrifice atoned for sin, whereby the concept of avoiding punishment is only one of them. I will develop this topic further in the coming chapter.

[5] There is no scientific definition to love, and I am sure others might describe it differently than I do, but this is the best condensed logical explanation of love I was able to come up with.

[6] In Hebrew, the word we use for “sacrifice” (QORBAN) comes from the word “to be close by” (QAROB). When you sacrifice for the sake of someone, you draw near them.

[7] Confucius, Chinese philosopher (551-479 BC)

[8] If people are created needing of relationship, and are made in the image of God, this supports the idea of a God who is triune.

[9] Even apparent in legends, folklore, and mythologies of different people groups. For example, the Genie, which is a fictional character with magical powers that can grant wishes, known to be unable to force someone to love someone else.

[10] With the risk of upsetting some Calvinists here, I do not believe that God forces himself on anyone by “electing” them regardless of their will. A cornerstone in scriptures, and especially in the Hebrew Bible, is that people were and are called to make their own decision to believe, love and follow God (Deuteronomy 6:5; Deuteronomy 30:19; Isaiah 55:6; Jeremiah 29:12; Joshua 24:15; Mark 8:34; Acts 17:26-27; Romans 10:9).

[11] I’m not at all joking. Once, serving with a well-known ministry, our leader proclaimed that you cannot know God unless you memorize by heart verses. Poor me, I could barely remember what I had for breakfast.

[12] An amazing example of self-sacrifice exists in nature. According to Discover Wildlife Magazine, newborn baby octopuses eat their own mother: “In a gloriously tragic act of self-sacrifice, she [mother octopus] stops eating and dies of starvation before the young hatch. She might even hasten her demise by actively ripping off parts of her own body.” (Blackman, “Why do female octopuses die after reproducing?” October 8th, 2020)

[13] Theologically, the terms redemption (to buy back), salvation (saved, rescued) and justification (clearing of guilt) are not one and same. But as this is not a book on systematic theology, these terms will be used interchangeably as referring to spending eternity with God.

[i] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp 47-48.

[ii] Her 2006 TED talk is available under: Helen Fisher, “Why we love, why we cheat”.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist