When is it “true love”?

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What is true love according to the Bible? How can you tell if someone really loves you? How and where do we find true love?

It is almost Valentine’s Day, and that makes many of us think about, well… love! So, let’s take a closer look at love from a Biblical perspective.

Black paper petals on a white piece of paper saying he loves me on one side and he loves me not on the other

He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not, he…

There must be better ways to figure out if someone loves you than destroying a beautiful flower by ripping off its petals… And thank God there is. The Bible gives us a whole lot of information on what love is, and what love in action looks like. No surprise there, as the Bible is, in essence, a love story and teaches us how to put love into practice.

The Biblical definition of true love

What is love, really? When you check a dictionary, it will most likely define love in terms of feeling deep affection for someone or something. But that is not very specific. The love between spouses is not the same as the love you have for a brother. And if you want your (future) spouse to love you, you would like them to love you more deeply than they would, say, love pizza or a puppy.

And how does deep affection distinguish itself from lust or infatuation? That is why we need to take a closer look at the Biblical definition of true love, and see what it really encompasses.

The Bible gives us definitions that are more specific.

It tells us that this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16). And that this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10).

From these definitions we can draw at least the following conclusions:

  1. True love is self-sacrificing.
  2. True love loves even when the one loved doesn’t deserve it.

That is some food for thought, isn’t it? Because it is easy to love something adorable, like a puppy, but it is hard to love someone who just treated you badly. Let alone give your life for that person.

I see it this way: Loving something lovable, relies on works and on what is seen, while true love relies on grace and what is unseen.

That is why true love can only be made complete in someone who has the Holy Spirit living within them. The Holy Spirit will help a person to love like God. Because: God is love (1 John 4:8).

Agape love

The kind of love we have just described is also known as agape: a Greek word used to describe divine affection from and for Jesus, God the Father, and Christians. This love is always defined by God. And since God is truth (John 14:6), nothing can come closer to true love than God’s love.

Let’s look at some other characteristics of this agape love (1 Corinthians 8:1, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7):

  • It builds up
  • It is patient
  • It is kind
  • It does not envy
  • It does not boast
  • It is not proud
  • It does not dishonor others
  • It is not self-seeking
  • It is not easily angered
  • It keeps no records of wrongs
  • It does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth
  • It protects
  • It trusts
  • It hopes
  • It perseveres

Notice how all of these characteristics make a person very lovable. And there is another common denominator:

For it to be real, it needs to flow from the heart by the Holy Spirit’s power. You can’t fake it or do it on your own strength, or it’s simply not the real deal. For it to be agape, it needs to be from God.

A thermometer for measuring love

Could a list like this then serve as a thermometer to measure the heat or coldness of love? Well yes, and no.

Jesus teaches us to take the plank out of our own eye first so that we can clearly see the speck in the eye of another believer (Luke 6:42). That is why recognizing true love – or the absence of it -starts with practicing it yourself.

So, the best way to use this list as a thermometer is by using it to measure how much you love like Christ. And since your relationship with Jesus is at the foundation of your ability to love in this way, it will tell you something about the status of that relationship too.

There is no relationship more important to work on than the one with Him! It is your relationship with Jesus that enables you to be a loving and loveable partner in any relationship. And your relationship with Him also helps you uncover wolves in sheep’s clothing, who might otherwise trick you into believing that they truly love you.

Pink heart shaped glasses

Am I loved?

If you are reading this article because you want to be truly loved by someone, you might be looking at your situation from the wrong angle.

Of course, when you are dating someone, or are engaged to be married, you have to know if the person is someone you could spend the rest of your life with. Finding that your future spouse has a Christ-like attitude or is clearly showing growth in that direction is essential.

To them, I would say: Christ’s love at work in another person is blatantly obvious to the one who loves like Christ themselves. You don’t have to go look for it. If it is true love, you will recognize it and feel loved.

God is the provider of this love, and as your faith increases, your love for each other will also increase (1 John 4:7, 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 2 Thessalonians 1:3). So, both parties need to work on their relationship with God before they will be able to deeply love each other.

Because I grew up without knowing love, or ever hearing or feeling that I was loved, I had a great appetite for love. I had a hunger for a love that I could not even define. And because of this, I often fell into the trap of thinking that someone loved me, while that person actually didn’t.

Even with some alarm bells going off in my head, I wanted them to love me, I wanted “this time” to be different. And that led me to see things from a wishful perspective, rather than a truthful one. And that would always end in crushed hope and heartache.

But I’ve learned from my mistakes: My eagerness to be loved, seen, and appreciated by people, was the perfect condition to take the bait that the enemy would throw at me.

Let’s look at some of the lessons I learned so that you don’t have to go through the same troubles I did.

True love is not for sale

I loved it when they showered me with compliments or gifts and provided “proof” of their “love” over and over again. If you are eagerly looking for approval, that is attractive.

But is it very different from being bribed into loving them?

“And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (Exodus 23:8, ESV)

So, if someone showers you with gifts and compliments, especially shortly after meeting you for the first time, be very wary.

The compliments and gifts people give you, should not even lead to loving those people more. All good gifts are from God (James 1:14-17). If we want to learn to love as God loves, then we can’t be (mis)led by gifts or deeds. God does not love us more because of our works. He loves us because He is God, and He is love, and we are His.

In the same way, we should love people because God first loved us, and not because of anything they have done (1 John 4:19).

“Good” deeds can be done without love, so compliments and gifts don’t prove that they actually care. Often they will try to convince you by saying this like: “If I didn’t love you, would I have done this and that for you?”

Don’t let that fool you or make you feel guilty. If they seek praise for what they have done, then they should ask God, not you.

True love can’t be earned

Just like true love can’t be bought, it can’t be earned. If you feel you have to work hard to gain someone’s affection, at least two things are wrong with that relationship:

  1. You working to earn affection.
  2. You seeking approval from human beings.

I’m definitely looking in the mirror when I say this since I struggle with this every day. But think about it: If someone loves you for what you do, it is not a Christ-like love, since He loved us even when we were sinners (Romans 5:8). And if I honor God with what I do, but that person doesn’t like it, they will stop loving me. That kind of “love” can’t be from God.

Know that if you are seeking people’s approval, you are looking for approval from the wrong person. We need to please God, not people (Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4).

If you do look for the approval of man, you will submit to a yoke of slavery all over again.

It will cause you to accept things you would otherwise not have accepted in order to get it. For example, if someone harshly criticizes you for every mistake you might have made (in their eyes) you will fear their harsh words or punishment. And when that person lifts you up when you did something right (in their eyes), you will seek to please him or her until you receive that compliment again.

But who says that what they think is good, is good in God’s eyes? We should always seek to do the will of God from the heart and not live as people-pleasers (Ephesians 6:6-7). And when we do that, in many cases, our righteousness, peace, and joy will automatically lead to being approved by people (Romans 14:17-18).

That doesn’t mean that we don’t serve other people. On the contrary, we do it all the time, because serving God from love results in kind acts (Galatians 5:13-14). It also doesn’t mean that we don’t obey our authorities. We do. Because God has instituted them and He wants us to obey them (Romans 13:1, Ephesians 6:1-6, Colossians 3:20-22).

But it does mean that we should not confuse the voice of another human being with the voice of God. God is our supreme authority.

True love can’t be borrowed

From what I’ve seen and learned, the reason why people pretended to love me, was not that they had a conscious plan to hurt or break me. No, the true reason was actually pretty sad: They wanted me to love them because they lacked love.

Their “love tank” was empty, so they wanted to fill it with my love. They wanted to feel and enjoy true love, but because they could not find their way to the true Source (God) they looked for it in me. In return, they made me feel special. So, the words they spoke and actions they showed me, looked like love but were actually self-seeking tactics to satisfy their own needs. It was never true love, because people who are not living in God’s love, are incapable of reflecting His love.

What happened instead, is that I lifted them up, and in return, they lifted me up, which led me to lift them up again, etc. It got me trapped in a cycle of people-pleasing.

But as soon as I would break the cycle to please God over them, they would subject me to rage and other works of the flesh. Of course, the thought of losing my obedience alarmed them because they were losing control over the regular fill of their “love tank”. They would do anything to get me back in line, including turning truths upside down.

Breaking the shackles will be uncomfortable for both parties. Because in a way, both parties benefited from this symbiotic relationship. Both received a feeling of being loved from the other, and that is what both were looking for. The problem is that both parties looked for it in the wrong place. And that, in reality, is a form of idol worship.

Everybody needs their own unique relationship with Jesus, in order to be made complete in love.

Finding true love

True love is not found by putting your trust in another human being. It is found by putting your trust in Jesus.

I know firsthand that Jesus can fill you with a love that you cannot get anywhere else. He is the One Who showed me what love truly is, and filled me with it. No other person can do that.

Jesus is also the One Who brought me my loving husband, within months after me asking Him to find me one. I wasn’t even born again at that point, but I was so tired of all my failed attempts, that I trusted Him more than myself to find a suitable spouse. At that point, the tiny mustard seed of faith grew into something great.

However, a while after Jesus completely filled me with love, I discovered one thing: I need constant maintenance to keep the level of love on par.

We all need to continually seek God to be refilled and refueled. For this love is the motor of all we do. Wearing the armor of God is essential since it prevents the enemy’s arrows from piercing holes in you. But the basis is to study the Word and to live by It (Matthew 7:24). For when your faith and knowledge of Jesus grow, your love will also increase (2 Thessalonians 1:3, Ephesians 4:11-16).

And the closer you grow to Jesus, the less you will seek love or any form of approval from people. For that is what it means to love God with your whole mind, soul, strength, and heart (Luke 10:27): That every part of you is filled with love for God, and all your thoughts, feelings, and actions are driven by this love.

Bible pages enclosing wedding rings in a heart shape

Other articles you might find interesting:

Identifying wolves in sheep’s clothing

Should you love yourself?

Christian perfectionism