There’s something marvelous about standing outside on a summer night and watching a storm front roll in. The thick clouds block out the glow of the moon and stars above, and everything is wrapped in heavy darkness. Then, for a brief moment, that darkness is shattered as lightning streaks across the sky with blinding brilliance. Even as it vanishes, the lasting impression does not, and its brightness is imprinted on the mind’s eye. Within inanimate creation there is no better symbol of charity than lightning. Poetically, Solomon gazed upward as he described love this way: “Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord” (Song 8:6).
The artistry of inanimate creation is not the only picture we have of the Lord’s flame and fire. Jesus, who is true Light of true Light, entered this sin-darkened world and brightly shone the love of God. In His physical departure, the lasting impression of that love is imprinted by the Holy Spirit on the hearts of God’s children. Jesus commands: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of charity. It is from love that God bestowed His grace on His people (Eph. 1:4–5). It’s His love that gives rise to our love (1 John 4:10–11). It’s evidence of the Spirit’s life within (Gal. 5:22). It nourishes godliness in our hearts (Eph. 3:17). It’s the pathway we walk (Eph. 5:2), the contemplation for our mind (Phil. 4:8), the bridle for our tongue (Eph. 4:15), our protection in darkness (1 Thess. 5:8), the bond of our fellowship (Col. 2:2), and the measure of Christian perfection (1 John 4:18). Charity is, as Paul said, not only an excellent way but the most excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31–13:13).
One of the urgent needs of Christianity in this time is giving a right definition to love. Love isn’t self-determined, and much of what is called “love” isn’t love at all. Rather than turn to the noise of this world to tell us what love is, we must turn to God who properly defines love. Even here, however, defining charity can be a challenge because love has many aspects and expressions, and a correct definition would need to unify them all. Jonathan Edwards reflected on this when he wrote that Christian charity “is one as to its principle, whatever the object about which it is exercised; it is from the same spring or fountain in the heart, though it may flow out in different channels and diverse directions.” Challenging as it can be, the Bible gives us different angles to help us see the brightness of this thing called love. So, what is love?
We might answer the question propositionally. John wrote: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This is easily misunderstood if we think this means that love alone is the center or core of God’s being and His other attributes are peripheral. God is all that He is without change or parts, and He is love.
We might also answer the question relationally. Jesus taught that love to God and love to neighbor are the greatest and second commandment (Mark 12:30–31). Love is to characterize our relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Because we are united to Him, charity must also characterize the same in our relationships with those who bear His image. In this, love is upward and outward focused and characterizes every single relationship in our lives—marriage, parenting, friendship, and fellowship.
We might also answer the question holistically. We cannot think of love as distinct from the category of God’s moral law. Paul wrote: “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). That doesn’t mean the Old Testament church had the Ten Commandments and now, in Christ, we have exchanged the commands for love. No, the Apostle is saying that love expresses itself (still today) in keeping those same commandments (cf. John 14:15). Love to God is demonstrated in keeping the first four commandments, and love to neighbor in the other six.
We might also answer the question definitionally. Paul told the church in Corinth that without charity he is “nothing” and profits nothing (see 1 Cor. 13, KJV). He went on to define charity by both what it is and what it isn’t. Paul’s definition gets us beyond the idea that love is only an affection or an emotion. Charity is a disposition that tangibly seeks out the good and well-being of the one who is loved.
We might also answer the question illustratively. Jesus said: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). None have illustrated that more than Christ Jesus—the only begotten and beloved Son of the Father, who in loving selflessness fulfilled the law and endured the cross for the sins of His people: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”1
Love’s source is God Himself, and in showing us love He gives us a capacity to express charity; returning that love to Him and others. Praise God that He hasn’t left us fumbling in the darkness but has ultimately displayed His love for us—and the true model of love—in Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.
- Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”↩