This world makes much of “love.” It’s the centerpiece of countless movies, books, paintings, and songs. Love is everywhere. We’re so inundated and bombarded with the notion of love — of falling in love and being in love — that it seems impossible for us to escape the idea that love is all you need. But is that true? The Beatles, the massively popular and influential English rock band (did I really just define who The Beatles were, like you wouldn’t know?), seemed to think so. Their song “All You Need Is Love” has essentially become the watchword of the world. It sounds good and honorable. But is it really true that love will fix all our problems?
One of the biggest films of 2014, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, was marketed as a space exploration film, and by all accounts succeeds in that respect. The realistic depiction of interstellar travel (see what I did there!) and the science behind it is unparalleled in the cinematic world, the only closest rival being Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But where Interstellar fell short was its more trite and trivial discussions on emotions and relationships. There’s a stunning turn in the film where you realize that you’re not really watching a science fiction movie, rather, just an extremely long look at the transcendence of human emotions, specifically love. One of the pivotal characters even quips, “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends time and space.” (Besides the otherwise “interstellar” visuals, this line alone makes me want to gag. What were you thinking, Nolan?)
Obviously love is important to us. In fact, doesn’t the Bible itself say that of faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love? (1 Cor 13:13) Nonetheless, despite all the “love” we’ve been told about, a lot of reality doesn’t really look like love at all. With messy relationships and broken marriages on the rise nowadays, it’s tempting to ask the questions, “Is love even something I want to try? Is love really all you need?” I remember working through similar thoughts as I began dating the girl who’s now my wife. We met on the sidewalk at college — we were walking the same direction and ended up going to the same class, and even sitting right next to each other. And as we got more and more serious about our relationship, it became clear to me that all that I had been led to believe about love by the world was categorically false.
If you look at Merriam-Webster’s definition of love, for example, you’ll see words like “attraction,” “affection,” “desire,” and “feeling.” These are the words used to describe love, and we’ve come to adopt the same set of definitions, which do nothing but make love all about me. They make love selfish. But selfish love isn’t love — that’s lust. The world has confused lust for love to the point that now it’s not even questioned anymore. You can concern yourself with feeling and experiencing love. You can attend couples’ conferences galore that teach you how to keep the desire burning after years of life together. You can read all the books you want about living with another person and showing your affection for them. But if you’re never told what love really is you’ve never really loved at all.
Love’s not just a transcendent emotion that drives the world. It’s not some fluttery feeling that gives you tingles all over. It’s not about the hugging and the kissing. It’s not in the flowers or the cards. It’s not even, necessarily, about finding the other person attractive. Don’t get me wrong, these things are important (and often included in our romantic relationships). But I believe that a true mark of love lies in something even deeper. By that I mean we must get to the crux of love, true love — and that is selflessness.
Much of what the world says and believes about love is physical and based on appearances. With our sex-crazed culture, it’s easy see why the overwhelming embodiment of love is erotic in nature. The ancient Greeks used four different words to describe feelings of love. Storge, or familial love, was used for natural affection — such as the love of parents towards children and children towards parents. Philia, or brotherly love, was used for siblings and friendships. Eros, passionate love, from which we get our word “erotic,” was generally used to describe a “love madness” and is usually what’s meant by “love at first sight.” This love, while having enrapturing feelings, often has disastrous results. But the love that’s missing is the love that truly lasts. Agape was often regarded as the highest form of love. It encapsulates an unmitigated and unquestioning love that eclipses all circumstances. It serves the other and just gives, unconditionally. Agape is selfless love.
Selflessness is the key trait of true love. Sure there are many other qualities and marks of genuine love, like patience, perseverance, hope, etc. But selfless love stands out the most to me because that’s how Jesus shows his love to us. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) Through Jesus’s death on the cross for our sins, he shows us quite clearly that the most sincere and honest love is that which is self-sacrificing and self-denying. The only type of love that never fails, that is strong and kind, is selfless love.
Of course, that’s not saying that the other descriptions about love are irrelevant and less important. Love will include those other things but they’re not the epitome of true love. For me, loving my wife sometimes manifests in the form of flowers and romantic dinners. But to pin our hopes and dreams of a loving relationship on flowers and food is to trust in something that quickly fades. I’m learning to love my wife through greater and greater selflessness, which has involved the simple things: doing the dishes at 10 o’clock at night because she had a stressful day at work and couldn’t finish them; getting up early to do lawn work so we can spend the rest of the day together; making sure the laundry is done each week; surprising her with breakfast in bed, etc. The little things go a long way in reinforcing not just that you love that person but how you love them. They’re not the root of love but they are the fruit of selfless love.
It’s not a cliché to say that love is all about giving yourself to another person. Apart from being the uniting of dreams, desires, lives, and hearts, it’s also about dropping our self-seeking plans in place of the other person’s needs. Love is all about living selflessly for the good of your significant other. The love that will stand the test of time is love that doesn’t wait for reciprocity. (1 Cor 13:8) Loving someone and expecting them to return the favor isn’t true love. The love that each of us really needs, and the kind that takes a lifetime to learn, is the love that just gives, regardless of words said, circumstances endured, or wrongs felt. Selfless love is the love that’s forever. It’s the love Christ showed the church. And it’s the love we’re called to show one another. And that’s all you really need.