February 11, 2021
What is love?
This coming Sunday is Valentine’s Day, when Americans will spend over $18 billion on flowers, chocolates, jewelry, and cute little stuffed teddy bears to say “I love you” to one another. Most of those gifts will go to wives and husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends, although some of us also use the occasion to express love to our children and our friends. It is a celebration of romantic love and affection.
Strangely, though, it didn’t start out that way. The holiday was originally a feast day honoring St. Valentine. St. Valentine was a martyr; he gave his life because he refused to deny his faith in Jesus Christ. The history is a bit fuzzy, but he may have been punished for ministering to other persecuted Christians, including helping some of them get married. For St. Valentine, love was not about romance as much as it was about being faithful to God and a servant to others.
So which is it? Is love a warm feeling I have about someone else, or is it a commitment that runs deeper than feelings? First, let me say that there’s nothing wrong with either one. I believe that God invented romance and affection. After 20 years, I still love my wife in all the warm-feelings, hearts-and-flowers-and-chocolates ways I did when we were first married. She is my valentine. She makes me feel things I don’t feel for anyone else. I also have deep affection for my kids. They make me feel things that no one else’s kids make me feel. And I have friends that I have an affection for that I don’t feel for total strangers. All of these things are good and beautiful gifts from God.
The problem comes when we try to make those warm feelings enough, as if they were all that love is made of. Our language doesn’t help us much with this. In English, we have one word, “love,” that we use in a wide variety of ways. I “love” my wife, and I “love” my children, but I also “love” dark chocolate and cheeseburgers. Obviously, those are not the same kinds of love. We need different kinds of words to help us clarify what we mean. Personally, I find it helpful to think about love in two different categories: commitment and enjoyment. Often, when we say we love something, all we really mean is that we enjoy it. I enjoy dark chocolate and cheeseburgers, but I have not made any kind of commitment to them. If they ever ceased to be enjoyable, then I would cease to love them.
In the Old Testament, which was originally written in Hebrew, there is a word that God uses when He says He “loves” his people Israel. It is the word hesed (pronounced with a ch sound as if you were clearing your throat at the start of the word). A good definition of hesed would be “covenant love.” It is often translated “steadfast love” or “unfailing love.”
When Jerusalem lay in ruins, Jeremiah reminded himself that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3:22). Even though things look bleak right now, he says, we know that God is committed to us. He has not ceased to love us. We can trust that He has our best interests in mind.
When David was pleading with God for forgiveness after his sin with Bathsheba, he didn’t try to convince God that he was somehow worthy of mercy. Instead, he appealed to God’s character. He knew that God was a committed lover. He said, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love” (Psalm 51:1). God, my only hope in this dark hour is that you love me, and your love isn’t going anywhere.
God’s covenant love was an anchor for people like Jeremiah and David. They knew that God had committed Himself to them, and they could build their lives on the sure foundation of His commitment. When I marry a couple, I tell them that traditional wedding vows are an expression of hesed, of committed love. When we say, “for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health,” we aren’t just saying “I love you.” We’re saying, “I will love you.” We’re saying, “you can count on my love. My love isn’t going anywhere. I may not always have warm feelings toward you, but I will always be committed to what is best for you.”
When we say that God loves us, we are saying that He is committed to whatever is best for us. That commitment caused him to be faithful to Israel even when he was frustrated with their sinfulness. It caused Him to send His Son to the cross to redeem us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, it wasn’t warm feelings about us that carried Jesus through his human doubts and fears, it was His commitment to His Father’s glory and our good.
How many marriages have failed because someone thought love was simply enjoyment? If love just means I enjoy you, then when I am no longer enjoying you, I no longer love you. But if love is a covenant, a commitment to your good, then it will be steadfast.
So here is a confession: I don’t always enjoy my children. But I am always committed to whatever is best for them. And when I tell them I love them, I usually mean both: “I am so glad I’m your father. I enjoy you and I have affection for you. But deeper than that, I am committed to you. My love isn’t going anywhere.” When it comes to my marriage, I almost always enjoy my wife. But even when marriage is hard, I am committed to Carey’s good. When I tell her I love her, it is an echo of our marriage vows. I’m saying “You are my favorite person and I enjoy being around you. You are my lover and my best friend. But deeper than that, I am committed, for the rest of my life, to whatever is best for you. You can count on my love.”
This Valentine’s day, when you tell people you love them, make sure they know what you mean. Make sure you know what you mean. Let’s enjoy each other, in our families and in the church. But deeper than that, let’s be committed to one another’s good. Let’s bless one with the sure foundation of committed love.