Magazine Article

What is Love?

It’s an old question, but one that needs an answer.

Michelle Odinma
What is Love?

From authors to poets, musicians to lyricists, everyone has their take on what love is. Although the question dates back to antiquity, it remains a still-asked question because genuine, pure love is rare to see and hard to find.

Like so many, I’ve scoured the Internet, via Google, to find answers.

“When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too.” Rebecca, age 8

“Love is when your puppy licks your face after you’ve left him alone all day.” Maryanne, age 4

Along with these young philosophers, some of the greatest poets and leaders of our time have chimed in. The late Maya Angelou said, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” Martin Luther King, Jr., adds, “Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God.” Each definition reveals another dimension of love’s depth and reality.

The Bible’s Take on Love

The Bible sums up love as a personal being— God Himself: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7, 8). God is love. To be something means to embody that idea or element in its totality. And when the Bible says God is love, it means that what God speaks, thinks, or feels is the revelation of love. And the Bible does not stop its explanation there.

In Corinthians Paul addresses several issues that were taking place within the church. Believers were having a difficult time getting along, and they seemed to have forgotten their calling as Christians. There were divisions in the church, elitist cliques, and individuals practicing immoral behavior. Mass confusion was the norm, with some praying and ministering in different languages at the same time. Nothing about their practices indicated they were renewed people and followers of Christ.

In his epistle Paul emphasizes that God’s body does not work in opposition to itself. God’s body, like our physical body, acts as one unit. It moves in harmony, working together. Paul continues to illustrate this idea through poetic form, showing what it looks like to operate as the body of Christ, and what their ultimate desire should be as believers.

Love is patient and kind: love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends.

This is what the body of Christ looks like when it works in complete harmony—the very embodiment of God Himself. This is love. God is patient and kind. God does not envy or boast. God is not arrogant or rude; He does not insist on His way. He is not irritable or resentful. He does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but He rejoices with the truth. God bears all things, God believes all things, God hopes all things, and God endures all things. God is eternal.

Love, God, and Humanity

In essence, whenever love is manifest in our being, we are being exactly who God created us to be. I would like to think the real reason people Google the question “What is love?” is that they have not seen it. The truth is that God’s people have not always embodied this message. However, I would argue that there have been glimpses of such a love.

Martin Luther King, Jr. showed, in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, one of the clearest manifestations of what God’s love in real time looks like. “True pacifism,” or “nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.” King was both “morally and practically” committed to nonviolence. He believed that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

Today many American Christians are exhausted at the continuous effort to bring attention to events buried and forgotten in American history. The journey of African Americans fighting for equality in the United States continues to shed light on the difficult shadow of hatred and oppression entrenched in the nation; thus Christians should not tire of hearing about the civil rights movement. It was a movement rooted in the principles of Christ. Regardless of your nationality, the civil rights movement embodied precisely what we claim to hold true as Christians.

It is no wonder that these principles sound a lot like the life of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” Jesus had a deep faith in the future. So deep that Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In other words, Christ did not die when humanity was at its best; He died when we were at our worst. He saw far off into the future the promise and reality of renewed and transformed children of God. Love is supernatural. Love is power. Love is life-giving. It is redemptive. It is honest. It is true. Love begets love because love is divine. Love is an eternal entity that creates change. Love is God. It is this type of love that dispels the hate in the human heart.

Loving People to the God of Love

Daryl Davis, an African American blues musician, convinced 200 people to leave the Ku Klux Klan and other White supremacist groups through an unconventional strategy. Interviewers went to his home in Washington, D.C., where they found a closet filled with an assorted collection of colored robes and matching hoods. They were uniforms abandoned by those who had experienced a change of heart and found a new perspective on life. It seemed that these cloaks of hate now served as a different type of memorial. Davis says that “anger must be channeled into positive actions like peaceful protest and political advocacy.” The method that he uses to fight hate? Friendship. Davis understands the idea of what it means to reclaim that which is of value.

Ex-racist and White nationalist Derek Black was a promoter of alt-right ideology. He credits himself for infiltrating modern-day politics, with alt-right ideology. He says his work manifested itself in the 2016 United States election. Black was raised a prodigy of White nationalism. His parents removed him from public elementary school to isolate him from Haitian and Hispanic classmates. His homeschool training in racist rhetoric led him to be a standout public figure for White nationalism early on.

However, attending a multicultural college was a drastically different experience for Black. He attempted to keep a low profile on campus about his true identity as a public self-proclaimed racist. But he was found out. Derek’s associate, Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, did some research on Black. Instead of excluding him, he decided to include him in his social circle. He figured, “He probably never met a Jewish person before.” Even though he was socially ostracized, Matthew invited Derek to a Shabbat dinner at his place. Few people showed up to Matthew’s dinner initially, but Derek kept coming back. He seemed different in person than what was described online.

With time, the Shabbat group returned to its regular attendance of Hispanics, Blacks, atheists, and Christians. Although all parties were initially suspicious, the Orthodox Jew, Matthew, and the White supremacist, Derek, developed a friendship. This was the catalyst that led Derek Black to reevaluate the principles he had been raised on. He liked his Jewish, Black, and Hispanic friends. These kindling friendships helped him to see the humanity in all people. These friendships eventually led Derek to renounce his White nationalist ideology.

This is the culture of Christ that the world has been dying to see. These glimpses of truth, of love in action, have not yet been activated and practiced at full capacity. Anyone who desires change for themselves and others must love, for love is transformational.

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” said Martin Luther King. To love is supernatural, for by loving, you allow streams of divine power to dispel darkness. Love is God.

Michelle Odinma is associate minister of Community Life and Service at the Church of the Advent Hope in the city of New York.

Michelle Odinma