“What is love?” 1 John 3.16-24

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What is love? It’s the subject of endless pop songs and poetry. Love has led people to do amazing and crazy things. Love drove Romeo and Juliet to look beyond their family’s differences to try and be together. Love inspired King Edward VIII to give up his throne to be with Wallis Simpson. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy overcame their class differences to show that love conquers all.

We seek to live out the love of Christ. When we do, it draws us from our comfort zones and pushes us to the boundaries—maybe even beyond them. Following Christ is movement. By its very nature, we cannot say faith journey and mean to stand still. We cannot speak about “walking with Jesus,” but mean doing nothing. Love is action.

Love puts others first. Love is humble and courteous. When we think about how to love like God loves, it can be overwhelming, but love extends grace and allows people to have space to grow. Love gives the other a chance to say, “I’m sorry,” or it gives a bit more time while the other is still trying to find the right words. When we talk about love, we can face the temptation to try and understand it. What made Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett fall in love?

To understand love, we begin with the four Greek words for love: storge, philia, eros, and agape. We can sanitize conversations about love by making them analytical. C. S. Lewis wrote a wonderful, short book about these different Greek ideas of love called The Four Loves. In it, he describes storge as affection, like the way a dog looks at a person. Philia is friendship, and eros is romantic or sexual love. And, he describes agape as spiritual love, a love that is above all the other kinds of love since it is beyond the ability of human beings to express it to each other.[1]

Tapping the Greek can help us understand love. We have a few more tools available with these definitions and can see various aspects of love. The Greek word used for love in 1 John is agape. The connotation is of an extreme, unconditional love. Even though we might, at first, associate Romeo and Juliet or Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy with eros. There’s more to their love than simply passion. They are kindred spirits (philia) and care for each other (storge). Great fiction falls short in depicting agape, though. Agape is exciting, intense, and unconditional. This is the love God has for us and the kind of love God expects us to live out in our lives.

Kierkegaard connects God’s love for us and our love for God with passion. Even though the Greek distinguishes between eros (for romantic or passionate love) and agape (for spiritual or unconditional love), Kierkegaard points out that God’s love is passionate.[2] If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be unconditional. Taking Kierkegaard’s argument further, Paul Tillich explores the relationship between being loved by God and the draw toward reunion with our maker. He describes Kierkegaard’s argument as “infinite passion for God” as a “consequence of the objective situation.”[3] Humanity continues to be separated from God through our sinfulness.

When we think about love, we can think about life. All life’s major events share touchpoints with love. The birth of a child. Growing, learning, and nurturing. Going to school and work. Meeting someone and deciding to spend your lives together. Losing a friend or family member. Every event could represent the way John’s first epistle tells Christ-followers to live with love.

1 John 3.12-15 sets the command to love one another against the story of Cain murdering Abel. This via negativa lesson (or attempt to describe God through negation) shows us what not to do. If we’re supposed to “love not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” then the story of Cain killing Abel demonstrates an action in opposition to love. The passage even hits us over the head with the via negativa summary: “Whoever does not abide in love abides in death” (3.14).

1 John works best with stories because we all feel like we can agree that love is good. That’s why I mentioned Romeo and Juliet, King Edward and Wallis Simpson, and Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Love is uncontroversial, and, therefore, uninteresting or even boring. We all can agree that we could or should be more loving. 1 John presents a further problem because the Greek grammar in this entire epistle is imprecise. Due to the imprecision, “every sentence can be interpreted in three different ways.”[4] There are various implications to this passage.

We agree that we should be loving in “truth and action,” and we recognize that the word love means something deeper than the way it’s bandied about in pop songs (like, “She loves you, yeah, yeah yea…”). With so much agreement, we have to ask whether or not this reading can challenge us to go deeper in our faith. Paul Tillich asserts that love is one. He’s not describing Bob Marley’s “One Love,” though I could make a case that the reggae song articulates a profound theological truth. Tillich’s argument echoes the depth of meaning in 1 John.

For Tillich, the sense of being in God’s love means experiencing love fulfilled.[5] This is love in action… and breaking down the walls. In 1 John, the description of love is knowing it by actions: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we should lay down our lives for one another. There’s a challenge when we begin to understand what fulfillment looks like because the experience is ambiguous. We have simultaneous extreme happiness and the end of happiness. God overcomes our separation, yet when we come into union with God, we separate from our sinful selves. Unless we separate from our own sinfulness, there is no love and no life.[6]

The epistle tells us to abide with Christ. When we stand with our savior, we live out the love of redemption. Our lives become an Easter story. Even though everyone who professes to follow Christ would nod up to this point, this is where it gets challenging because we have to do something. We cannot stand with Christ and remain still. 1 John 3.18 makes it plain: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

When we truly understand what the epistle is trying to say, we move outside of our comfort zones. Whatever makes you uneasy, be careful. God might be leading you in that direction. To love God means loving poor people. It means being compassionate to unlikeable people. We have to engage people with whom we disagree—whether on the right or left of us on the political or theological spectrum. To follow Christ means spending time with people who suffer from addiction or make a living as a sex worker. It also means rubbing shoulders with rich people. God loves them all and Jesus did all of these things, and he did them better than we could ever imagine doing them. Don’t worry. We can extend some grace to ourselves. We’re not called to be Jesus, but we are supposed to follow him. Love in truth and action is following Jesus where he leads.

Today, we can all do one thing to be more loving. Take your pick. Put someone else before yourself. Be patient. Be kind. Be courteous. Just pick one and try it on for size today.

Tomorrow, pick another one.

Day by day, make your life reflect love in truth and action.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1991).

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Journals Nb21-25, ed. N.J. Cappelørn, et al., vol. 8, Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 557.

[3] Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 27.

[4] Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, ed. William F. Albright and David N. Freedman, vol. 30, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1982), x.

[5] Tillich, 27.

[6] Tillich, 27-28.

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