What is Love? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)

In the post I wrote most recently, “Loving the Unloveable,” I said to do just that. In a real way. Figure out the most challenging people in your life to love, and love them, truly.

I’m a jerk. Intellectually, I understand what I believe myself and others are told to do: love everyone. Okay, got it. Now I’ll write some pretentious blog post about how everyone should be like me, super loving and awesome.

I have no idea what love is.

Like any normal twenty-three year old person, I Googled it. “What is Love?” was the fourth most popular search term beginning with “What is…”, behind “What is the fiscal cliff?”, “What is my IP?”, and, “What is gluten?”. I would venture to say it is also the fourth most important question of those to which apparently the majority of America desperately wants answers.

The Guardian had an article called, “What is Love? Five Theories on the Greatest Emotion of All.” Psychotherapists and nuns and romance novelists all chimed in, but the two perspectives I found most interesting were those of the physicist–“Love is chemistry”–and the philosopher–“Love is a passionate commitment”. The physicist says love is merely chemicals in our brain that cause attachment and bonding, and evolutionarily speaking  “can be viewed as a survival tool – a mechanism we have evolved to promote long-term relationships, mutual defence and parental support of children and to promote feelings of safety and security.” The philosopher says love is a continual choice that usually begins suddenly but must be sustained with the complementary aspects of passion and commitment. The philosopher says, “Without the commitment, it is mere infatuation. Without the passion, it is mere dedication. Without nurturing, even the best can wither and die.” Point taken.

And we have all heard 1 Corinthians at enough weddings that we know at least what that part of the Bible says about love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” To me, though, this definition of love has always felt more like a list of rules or a definition of what love is not, rather than a definition of what love is. Honestly, it’s kind of like when you say the word “fork” over and over until it sounds funny and weird and no longer has any semblance of meaning.

I felt as though I needed to do more research, so I did an informal survey among friends. When I asked, “What is love? What is the bottom-line, bare minimum definition of love?”, I got the following answers:

“Love is the person or thing you can’t live without.”

“Love is seeking the good of the other person.”

“What am I? The Magic 8 Ball?”

“I’m in love with a black man.”

“Baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me. No more.”**

“Here is a video of my favorite band playing that song.”

“Mary, love is care & love is also a deep feeling that someone has 4 another person & u never forget about them & hope 2 c them. Love u.”

“Love is having sex with someone and not wanting to leave immediately afterward. Sometimes you don’t know you don’t love someone until it happens.”

“I don’t know most of the time.”**

**This answer and versions of it were expressed many times.

So there you have it, folks. Jesus wants us to love everyone, including those we consider to be unloveable, and for the most part we either don’t know how to go about doing that or we attempt to have sex with everyone as a means to figuring it out.

Most people who have had a conversation with me about life or religion or love or BIG QUESTIONS know I like to try to get to the heart of the matter. I want a one-line definition of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be happy, what I should do with my life, and now, what it means to love.

I’ve put quite a bit of time into this question, especially since coming to the conclusion that I really should devote myself to loving others, and realizing that it seems kind of difficult and I don’t really know what I’m doing. (Add love to the list of things that are both hard and confusing for me, along with figuring out what is wrong with a car and making scrambled eggs. Or any eggs, really. Touchy little things.) Between the conversations with friends, the guidance of my family, reading books and articles about love, and just mulling things over, I’ve come to my own makeshift, baseline, bare minimum definition of love.

To me, love–good, true love, applied across the board to lovers, friends, family, strangers, and Jesus–consists of a seemingly infinite supply of patience and forgiveness, high expectations, and self-sacrifice.

I think this is how we are supposed to act in all of our relationships. Love, modeled by and embodied in Jesus, in my opinion is ultimately characterized by patience and forgiveness, high expectations, and of course, self-sacrifice. These attributes are evident in how Jesus relates to his followers and also how he relates to God. When Jesus was walking around on Earth, teaching and healing and throwing tables around, he was simultaneously followed and questioned by incompetent disciples and pestering Pharisees. Jesus’ followers spent the majority of their time drawing the absolute opposite conclusions of what he was trying to say, muttering amongst themselves about how baller they were, and running away every time the situation got hard or scary or dangerous or confusing or boring. I’m sure Jesus wasn’t always pleased with the behavior of his disciples, but he taught them and guided them and cared for them with endless patience and forgiveness. In his relationship with God, I see Jesus exhibiting patience and forgiveness as well. It’s my theological interpretation that Jesus didn’t always fully understand God’s plan for his life (welcome to the club, bro), and I like to think of Jesus wrestling with the idea of self-sacrifice, coming to terms with it in a real way. In the way Jesus accepts God’s plan of ultimate sacrifice, I see a lot of patience and forgiveness. Even in Jesus’ last words–“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”–I do not see anger apparent. I don’t think he would suddenly cower and change his relationship with God at the last minute. I think this is the last expression of his patience and forgiveness and understanding of what God wanted from him.

But patience and forgiveness without high expectations is not love. It is condescension or enabling at best. This is probably the part that is key to the theme of my last post, about loving supposedly “unloveable” folks such as people without homes. There are critics of homeless outreach who say that giving food to people without food is enabling them and teaching them not to fend for themselves and find their own food. I think these people see the patience in the love shown through caring for the guys without homes or food, but they don’t see the high expectations we all have for those guys. We hand out sandwiches in the park because we care for the poor, but our greatest goal is for them not to be poor anymore.Whether or not our sandwiches help their situation is up for debate, but what is less debatable, at least in my mind, is that we have just as high of expectations for our friends without homes as we have patience with them. It is wrong to give out food without giving out grace and hope as well.

Having high expectations for another does not mean wishing he or she would change. In our greatest example of holding high expectations for others, Jesus shows us what those words really mean. Maybe some Christians understand Jesus as wanting us to change who we are and stop doing that and be better and all of those other things that go along with not feeling good enough. For anyone, not even yourself. Let alone God. But I don’t see Jesus saying we are not good enough; I see him saying he is absolutely confident that we have the potential to be our best selves. There’s a subtle difference there, but it’s there. I don’t think Jesus is all that interested in whatever we perceive as our own faults or things we lack. I think he is excited to see where we end up when we start living in love.

It’s a bit hazy how Jesus feels about self-sacrifice, but I believe it’s a key aspect of love and a characteristic with which many of my friends who actually thought about my questions responded. (Aren’t crucifixion jokes just the greatest and so appropriate for the work place?!) On first thought, it might seem like sacrifice is not much different than patience. They both include great amounts of self-control not to strangle the person you love. Wait…what? But sacrifice does not just mean giving up acting in anger. It means giving up pride, comfort, sleep, time, energy, being right, getting your way, watching Say Yes to the Dress, eating onions, being jealous, making people jealous, sometimes life itself. It means continually asking, “What can I do for you?” and then doing it. It means paying attention to what makes someone’s life easier and happier and working toward that goal, always. When I list all of the things self-sacrifice entails, is it any wonder people swear off love? But I’ve at points in my life experienced the beauty of loving someone who makes sacrifices for me and for whom it is a pleasure to make my own sacrifices, and though I firmly believe onions are an integral part to most recipes, when the person you love doesn’t like them, you don’t even miss them.

Christians often speak of Christ’s sacrifice as that moment when he was crucified on the cross. Yet, throughout the gospels we see Jesus living a life of sacrifice for those he loved, and he loved everyone. He routinely sacrificed prestige and dignity, when washing the feet of his disciples or eating meals with society’s outcasts. He gave up the possibility of a wife and children, of a place to call home, a bed, a connection to his family, an easy life. He gave his time and energy to healing and teaching and righting the wrongs he saw around him, every day putting God and other people first. For the sacrificial nature of Jesus to be summed up in one line about crucifixion seems a little one-dimensional when you look at his ministry as a whole. Jesus is commonly thought of as a leader, a teacher, a person who had the capabilities to get things done, but he is also referred to as the Servant of All. He was not a genie, granting the wishes of every person he encountered, but he was a self-sacrificing servant who completely altered his own life to help others reach those high expectations God had for their lives.

Bountiful patience, forgiveness, high expectations, and self-sacrifice are the intertwined components of love in its most basic sense. I do not believe it is possible to love someone else or yourself if there are missing pieces. Patience alone is condescension. High expectations without forgiveness and sacrifice is merely rigidity. Self-sacrifice without patience and high expectations is submission.


These characteristics are useful when I want to break down love into its simplest form, apply it across the board to everyone I know, and figure out the easiest way to check “Love people” off my to-do list. Though, as we all know, love is more complicated than that. I get hung up particularly on romantic love and monogamous partnerships. I should apologize to those closest to me for continually asking questions such as, “Do you believe in soul mates?” or, “What does it mean when someone says, ‘I love you, but I’m not in love with you?”, or, “What if you marry someone and the passion wears off? Are you lovers or roommates?” The patience, forgiveness, high expectations, and self-sacrifice of those individuals is much appreciated. ;)

I’ve determined that as little as my generation knows of simple, platonic love, we know even less about what to do with romance and passion and life-long commitments. So again, after many conversations and readings and much contemplation, I believe the additional attribute present in romantic partnerships that might not be necessary in other manifestations of love is that of admiration. When I see someone who is physically attractive to me, I admire those aesthetic qualities I associate with a good partner (sweet tats, duh). When I get to know someone and am attracted to them on a level of personality or intellect, it is because I admire the way he speaks or thinks or tells jokes. When I fall in love with someone, it is because I admire who he truly is, a good man. Kind, generous, honest, wise, brave, loving. All those qualities I find myself consistently lacking. I read a study that interviewed many couples who had been married for over fifty years on their secrets to success. The one thing these couples had in common was that each person in the marriage continued to find their partner just as wonderful as they did in the very beginning of their relationship. They thought of their husbands and wives as the funniest, smartest, prettiest, most handsome, great, hardworking, and lovely people they had ever met. It might not be true, but it’s admiration.

I do think it necessary to qualify this statement about admiration. I believe the admiration that accompanies real love is that of wanting to be like the other person in all the ways they are good. I do not think it is a mirror, admiring only those things about yourself that you see in your partner. Neither is admiration a passive process. If you admire someone, you find the good in them and you change to be like them. I also think it is a two-way street. If you love someone, you admire them and they admire you for your good qualities, as well. If you admire someone and they do not reciprocate, well, that’s not love. It’s infatuation. And kinda creepy. Stop it.

That’s my formula, I suppose, for loving someone. Patience, forgiveness, high expectations, self-sacrifice, and mutual admiration. My friends, especially the married ones, have been so kind as to point out that there’s more to the story than my five-ingredient recipe for love. Even if you have all of these components, love is still a challenge. To love someone, and especially to be married to that person, requires a lifelong commitment made every single day. The reason many people refer to a husband or wife as a partner is because that person is exactly that: the one who shares with you life in every regard. Marriage is also an exploration in intimacy, both emotional and physical, and apparently my love qualities aren’t enough to hold a marriage together if the sex is gone. To this I say, “Who knows?” I certainly don’t, because first of all I’m not married. Second of all, I clearly stated at the beginning of this post that I. know. nothing. about. love. Why are you still reading? I just felt I owed it to those who read my diatribe about how we should love people to do my best of actually saying how we should love people.

In quite the uncharacteristic move for me, I will end this post with both a sweet music video and and invitation to respond with your own thoughts. What is love? What differentiates the love we are called to show to everyone from the love we give to a partner? Will I still think this way about love when I am no longer 23? Whatever happened to Haddaway?


One thought on “What is Love? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)

  1. i was going to answer your survey question with “undefined”…will revise that after reading this.Your ‘makeshift, baseline, bare minimum definition of love’ is pretty spot on. Are you sure you are only 23?

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