Love Is a Verb…Well, Not Really
I’m not sure who coined the phrase “love is a verb” but I first heard it from D.C. Talk. Since then it has become a notion that I’ve seen grow more and more popular. A simple google search produces a lot of interesting commentary on love as a verb. It seems fair to say that the majority of people would consider the statement that “love is a verb” is true.
I think the popularization of this idea comes from people getting sick and tired of those who claim to be loving people, yet do almost nothing to help their fellow man. This is an experience we all have witnessed and, quite frankly, have participated in. Most of us would consider ourselves to be relatively loving individuals. Yet we all would admit that we could do more to serve others. There often is a glaring discrepancy between what we say and what we do. Our actions do not always line up with our words. And so, in an effort to point out the hypocrisy, the phrase “love is a verb” is used to confront us with the reality that if we claim to love others, then we will move into action. Our love will compel us to do something.
This is a biblical idea. Consider the teaching of the apostle John:
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
The point here is clear. We ought not to be people who talk much of love without putting it into action. John says it is wrong for people to neglect to meet the practical needs of others while claiming to love them. This simply won’t jive. It is inconsistent, and John calls for our actions to line up with our words. We can’t say that we love people while doing precious little to help them. Therefore, there is a sense in which love is most definitely a verb.
More Than a Verb
But while it is clear that the Bible calls us to put our love into action (otherwise it is not love), it is fair to ask if love is merely a verb. In other words, is love only an action, or could it be more? Is it possible for someone to meet the practical needs of another without that action being love?
I would argue strongly that the answer is yes. I believe it is possible to help others in such a way that the outward action looks like love but really is not. I get this idea from 1 Corinthians 13:3, which says:
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
This is very interesting. Evidently, it is possible for a person to give away all that they have (presumably to help others in need) and yet “have not love”. This means that a person can perform an act of service to others, yet fail to be loving. Therefore, love is not just a verb. It simply can’t be, otherwise 1 Corinthians 13:3 makes no sense. Love is not equal to an action intended to help others. There must be more to it than that.
Love: Both Emotion and Action
As with many things, defining love swings on a pendulum from one extreme to another. Some consider love to be a sense of the warm fuzzies. They are not concerned much with action but with a feeling. For them, love is purely an emotion.
Others see this kind of thinking as weak and empty, and aim to toughen love up with rolled-up sleeves and practical help. It doesn’t matter how you feel, love gets the job done. Emotions are fleeting, but real love is consistent, they would argue, because love is a choice.
In reality, both sides are right. Love without action is not love at all, as John has pointed out. But emotionless love that is all action and no feeling isn’t love either, as Paul pointed out. The reality is that the truest form of love is both emotion and action. The two are inseparable. One without the other taints the true definition of love. We don’t need to pit these two ideas against each other. Instead, we should submit to the Bible and aim to bring them together as we ought.
Why Resist Love As An Emotion?
I think that one reason the idea of love as a verb is so popular is because people understand that emotions are fickle. Unlike our actions, which we can control anytime, anywhere, controlling our emotions is an elusive thing. We can’t simply shake ourselves out of a bad mood in an instant with an act of willpower. We can’t make ourselves happy (or loving) on demand. It is a spontaneous thing. And so, we don’t like the idea of needing our emotions to be a certain way because we have limited control over being able to do that. In other words, it sounds as if God is asking us to do something that we aren’t capable of doing. God commands us to love, yet if love is partly emotional, how can he expect us to have command of our emotions like that? Human experience has taught us that it doesn’t work that way.
Yet we cannot escape the reality that God expects even our fleeting emotions to be in a certain state. Not only in 1 Corinthians 13:3 are we commanded to have a heart full of love (emotion) to go along with our sacrifice (action), but God commands us all over the Bible to feel a certain way.
- Be a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7)
- Rejoice in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4)
- Do not fear (Isaiah 41:10)
- Mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15)
- Serve the Lord with gladness (Psalm 100:2)
- Lead with zeal (Romans 12:8)
These examples, and others, show us that God can and does make demands of our emotional state. And, since we have limited control over our emotions, we tend to push back on these commands and focus on things of action, like prayer, Bible reading, serving in church, and the like, because these are things within our immediate control. We can simply decide to do them, and so we gain a better sense of our spiritual condition. It becomes easier to measure up our lives with what God expects of us, because we are simply treating Christianity as a check-list. We are uncomfortable with the idea that God would make demands of our emotions. If that were the case, we would need to know ourselves on a deeper level, and it would be much harder to feel like we were succeeding spiritually.
Put it this way: Is it easier to answer the question “Do I volunteer at church?” or the question “Do I want to serve God with my time and talents?”. Is it easier to answer “Did I give offering?” or “Do I enjoy blessing others?”. Is it easier to answer “Did I cook that person a meal?” or “Do I love them?”. Is it easier to answer “Did I read my Bible today?” or “Do I want to spend time with God?”. Is it easier to answer “Have I asked Jesus to be my Saviour?” or “Is Jesus the most valuable thing in the world to me?”.
For all of us, the first set of questions are easier to deal with than the second set. We can answer the first questions easily, with little need to dig around in our own hearts. The second set of questions, however, is a different story. But that is precisely the point. God is not just after our obedience. He is after our hearts. He doesn’t just want us to do what he says. He wants us to love him. These two things are worlds apart, and mark the difference between being a “religious” person and a true follower of God.
How to Become a Loving Person
The question begs to be asked: If God commands our emotions, and yet we have little control over them, what can we do to feel the way God desires us to feel? How can we help our emotions line up with what God expects of them?
I think the answer is really not as complicated as we think. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 24:12-13.
And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Jesus here is addressing the very issue we are speaking of. He says that people’s love will grow cold, which perhaps is another way of saying that people’s hearts will harden and their emotions will become dead. Their love, rather than a burning hot flame, will become cool embers. They may have actions, but their hearts will not be in it.
Then, Jesus follows this up with a remarkable statement. He says that if your love grows cold, you will not be saved. Only those who endure to the end see salvation, and in context, he is speaking of enduring to the end with red-hot love. If you let your love fizzle out, you will perish.
In other words, when we speak of love as more than action, but love also as an emotion, we are talking about eternal stuff. This is not optional. It is not a side-issue to the central truths of Christianity. Rather, it is a central truth to Christianity. When Jesus said that the two greatest commandments involved love, he had in mind love as action and emotion. You cannot only love God or others with action only, just as you cannot love God or others with emotion only. The two must come together, and if not, love grows cold, and you will perish.
Since Jesus speaks of love in terms of its temperature, let’s keep consistent with that imagery when asking, what can a person do to fan the flames of their love for God and others?
If love is like a fire, then it makes sense that we can feed that fire with fuel. Just as we use logs and kindling to keep a fire burning hot, so we can use God’s appointed means to keep our own souls burning hot with genuine love. This is why I said that the answer is not as complicated as we think. God uses simple means to grow enduring faith, things like:
- Reading, memorizing, and meditating on Scripture
- Meaningful relationships with other believers
- Helping others
- Eliminating sinful habits
We all know these are essential to the Christian faith, but sometimes we begin to look elsewhere for “spiritual keys” to unlock greater faith. I do not think that is necessary. When one engages the Christian life honestly, with a prayerful attitude, asking God to help change our hearts when we are not really engaged, over time God will begin to do that very thing.
Praying For And Preaching To Yourself
This means that even if we don’t feel loving, we should still do acts of love. The difference is that, rather than celebrating these emotionless acts as a fulfillment of Christian duty, we do them with a sense of regret that our heart is not more full of love. In other words, I do not think it is wise to only love when we emotionally feel like it. If our emotions are not where they ought to be, we obey anyways, while being honest about how we feel and praying that God would change our hearts. We must develop the practice of preaching to the self, as demonstrated in Psalm 43:5.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
The Psalmist here is frustrated with himself. He knows that God is great, and that he ought to love God more than he does. He recognizes there is a disparity between his knowledge of God’s greatness and how he feels about it. And therefore he preaches to himself, reminding himself of God’s love and salvation in hopes that it will stir up proper affections.
When it comes to love, which is central to following Jesus, we believers need to be people who do not overemphasize one aspect of love over another. We should not think of love solely in terms of either emotion or action, but rather aim to bring these two things together, and pursue love in its fullest sense. We should guard against one-dimensional love by making sure our love leads to action, and also by doing what we can to fan our emotions into full flame. To neglect either is to miss the mark of true love and, therefore, fall short of our goal to love God and love others fully. This is the Christian calling, one to which we simply cannot afford to go wrong.