The expression “love is love” has gained a fair amount of currency on social media, and it’s not hard to see why. On the surface, it sounds like a positive, all-embracing truism. In reality, of course, it’s being used in a far more focused – and loaded – manner. The idea is that any sexual relationship marked by affection and respect – between consenting adults of whatever gender or number – is a legitimate form of love and hence beyond reproach.

Naturally this is also a rhetorical trap, meant to silence any criticism of LGBTQ lifestyle choices. After all, who wants to argue against the power of love? In order to address such a verbal snare, it’s essential to define categories and clear up any logical fallacies. That may not sound terribly romantic, but it’s vital to a meaningful discussion of love in the current cultural environment.

Love is universal

It might be argued, quite convincingly, that the most basic human need is to love and be loved. To be sure, there are more immediate physiological needs such as food and shelter. But the long-term absence of loving relationships – especially during childhood but also throughout life – is invariably harmful to the whole person, body, mind, heart and soul.

This could hardly be otherwise. As image bearers of a relational triune God, human beings are wired for intimacy with Him and with one another. We have an intrinsic need to care for others, to show them affection, to do them good, and to receive those things in return. In short, we need to belong. We need the joy and comfort of intimate relationships, not just to love and be loved, but to know and be known.

In this sense, love is indeed love, a universal that requires no further justification. All of us need it, and all of us need to express it.

Love is concentric

However, it should also go without saying that all love is not the same. Jesus taught that before all else, we’re to love God with our whole being, and after that, our neighbour as ourselves. He then illustrated what it means to love our neighbour – even one who’s a stranger and a potential enemy – via the parable of the Good Samaritan.

But nowhere did our Lord suggest that all relationships are to be marked by a one-size-fits-all level of intimacy. From among all His followers, He chose the twelve disciples to be His closest companions. And from within the twelve, He chose Peter, James and John to be His intimate inner circle during His three-year ministry. Furthermore, He evidently enjoyed a special, tender friendship with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. And years later, the Apostle Paul instructed the churches in Galatia to do good to everyone, but especially to their fellow Christians.

Clearly there are different kinds of love, each with its appropriate forms of expression. We don’t love the people down the street the same way that we love our spouse and kids, nor are we expected to. It may be helpful to think of love as a series of concentric rings, with God at the centre, followed by our most intimate relations, our family and friends, our fellow believers, and then our more casual acquaintances, as well as strangers with whom we interact.

From this perspective, love is certainly not love. It’s far too multifaceted for such a facile description. And at the risk of belabouring the obvious, most forms of love do not entail sexual intimacy. In fact, inappropriate sexual behaviour is not love at all, but selfishness. It neither seeks the approval of God nor the good of another, but rather the gratification of its own desires.

Love is divine

Love is an essential attribute of God. Indeed, the Scriptures state that God is love. In order to express His own nature, He wove love into the fabric of His creation. Consequently, He’s the one who gets to define what love is and how it’s to be expressed.

According to His Son, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” He also said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.”

As designed and exemplified by God, all love is to be marked by affection and kindness and a fixed desire to seek the best for others. But within that unity, God has also created a diversity of expression: romantic love, parental love, brotherly love, friendship.

When it comes to sexual intimacy, however, God has reserved that for the permanent bond of marriage between one man and one woman. From the beginning, sexuality was inextricably linked to the unique relationship of husband and wife as God’s joint image bearers, called to be fruitful and to multiply. More than that, it was designed to be a picture of the intimate union between Christ and His Church.

The Scriptures merely hint at the depth and beauty of intimacy that all believers will enjoy with God and with each other in the New Heaven and the New Earth. Meanwhile in this present world, love takes many forms, none of them perfect, all of them distorted by sin to one degree or another.

In light of all that, love can only be love when pursued in the ways and relationships intended by its divine author.

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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