Figuring Out What Love Really Is

by Cole Ryan January 28, 2016

The idea of love I once had is contrary to the idea of love I now have.

Why are we all so sure we know what love is? Do we really have the corner on love? What if we actually don’t understand love one bit? I want to lay out two different, and contrary, ideas of love.

Passive Love

We all have a desire within us for relationship. We’re all born with a constant desire and yearning within us to be known and accepted and loved. There’s nothing wrong with this, and I would dare you to question anyone who says there is. You’re not discontent for wanting to be in a relationship, you’re just human. God, I believe, wired us this way. I believe that He designed us to be in relationship.

Many see this as a valid reason for wanting to date someone, though. They want to be known and accepted and loved, they want to be with someone - and this person does that for them, this person fulfills those desires.

At first glance, you may not take issue with that.

But when you take another look, do you see how selfish that is?

Passive love is the kind of love that happens to you. It’s the warm feeling you get when you’re around someone you ‘love’ - they make you feel good, they make you happy, they complete you. They consume your mind, they steal your heart, you’re addicted to them.

Passive love can be best described as a crush. It is entirely self-centered. We ‘love’ this person because they benefit us.

This explains a lot, does it not? If a relationship is all about what someone has to offer you, whether it be joy or satisfaction or pleasure - as soon as they stop offering that to you - you ‘fall out of love.’ You no longer ‘love’ them, because your ‘love’ for them was rooted in the way they made you feel, and when they stopped making you feel that way, the ‘love’ evaporated. This is why we see such a large sum of relationships end; this emotive kind of love can only last so long. There is even research that has shown that this kind of electric, passionate feeling can only last about six to nine months - and the relationships we’re surrounded by everyday prove this research to be true.

This idea of love is the prominent idea of love in our culture, but it’s not love. It’s a cowardly love - a love that doesn’t take any sort of risk or make any sort of sacrifice. It exists only when it is comfortable and beneficial. It’s passive.

It’s the kind of love we have for an object, like a food or a gadget - we ‘love’ it for what is has to offer us, but we don’t really ‘love’ it all, because as soon as we grow tired of it, we leave, we move on. We love a lot of people as if they’re objects.

We've all seen it. We’ve all seen passive love before. We've all seen the boyfriend whose only motive in a relationship is to see his girlfriend naked, using her for his own pleasure. Or the girl who is longing to feel cared for and believes she will find that in a relationship, using him to feel whole. Or the guy who has a habit of leading women on in relationship after relationship, only using them to build up his ego.

They would never say it this way - but this is what is unconsciously going on in their heads in and their hearts. Passive love can be much more subtle, too.

We’ve all seen the seemingly healthy relationship - then they begin fighting and it gets hard; they don't know what to do; they give up, and they break up - because it was only ever about their own satisfaction.

Perhaps you don’t understand why that is wrong. "Neither of them were happy, why wouldn’t they break up?”

However, what if relationships are about something so much more important than joy? What if they were designed to refine us and to sharpen us? I would argue that marriage’s main priority isn’t happiness - it’s holiness.

I believe marriage was designed to do what only marriage can do - point us to Jesus by modeling his love for us. This, though, isn’t easy or even preferable. This means the sin in us, the pride and selfishness and anger and stubbornness and greed and lust in us, will be revealed through our partner. A spouse can help us grow in a way that no one else in this world can.

The goal of marriage is to help your partner become the man or woman God created them to be, to lead them in becoming more and more like Jesus. But there’s a catch - this life-shaping-love can and will only come through serving and loving your partner even when it’s the last thing in the world that you want to do.

This kind of love is the kind of love Jesus displayed in His life. This is active love.

Active Love

Active love is the kind of love that persists despite. Despite how they make you feel. Despite how they look and walk and talk. Despite how they treat you. Active love chooses to stick around even when it isn’t beneficial, when there isn't joy involved. When there’s nothing to gain.

Active love doesn’t ask: “What does this person have to offer me?” Rather: “What do I have to offer this person?” Active love is the opposite of self-serving.

A relationship motivated by active love isn’t focused on what they can be for me, but what I can be for them. It’s about changing who I am to mold to who they are. The goal is to do for them what Jesus has done for me - to lower myself to lift them up, to die to myself to give them life.

What we read all throughout the Scriptures is that Jesus didn’t look around to see who was the most righteous. Jesus wasn’t concerned with who loved Him the most. Jesus hadn’t found the most attractive, powerful, influential people. The kind of love Jesus modeled had no qualifications or conditions at all.

And it still doesn’t.

Ian and Larissa met in 2005. I don’t know everything about them and their story but I do know that they loved one another a whole lot and began to date.

It was only ten months later that Ian was involved in a terrible car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Ian has not been the same Ian ever since. He can hardly walk or talk or feed himself. If Ian met Larissa’s qualifications before, he doesn’t now.

Larissa, however, chose to move forward with their relationship. Ian and Larissa decided to get married. During their wedding ceremony, the officiate read a quote by pastor and theologian John Piper. He read:

"Marriage is not mainly about prospering economically; it is mainly about displaying the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church. Knowing Christ is more important than making a living. Treasuring Christ is more important than bearing children. Being united to Christ by faith is a greater source of marital success than perfect sex and double-income prosperity.”

After his car accident, Ian had very little to offer Larissa. He couldn’t take her on a date; she would have to take him on a date. He couldn’t kiss her; she would have to kiss him.

Why would Larissa continue to love someone who could hardly love her in return?

I can only assume that her love for Ian was not rooted in the way Ian made her feel, or the way Ian appeared, or the way Ian would talk to her.

It wasn’t rooted in Ian at all. It was rooted in the desire to serve Ian, to show Ian the love that Jesus had for Ian - and her ability to do that for him only multiplied after his accident.

This story of Ian and Larissa reminds me a whole lot of a story I’m much more familiar with about a man named Jesus.

Why does Jesus love us? Do you ever think about that? Why does Jesus - content and whole and complete and satisfied - love us?

I don’t see how this would benefit Jesus. He has nothing to gain from us; we have nothing to offer Him. There’s nothing in this for Jesus.

His love for us must not be driven by what He can get - but by what He can give. Jesus is aware that by loving us we might become like Him - content and whole and complete and satisfied. We must not miss this: Jesus does not love us in order to get something from us in return. Jesus loves us simply to give us all that He has to offer - Himself.

I bring up the story of Ian and Larissa because it prompts an important question: If you’re looking for a certain person with certain characteristics and attributes - what happens when they lose all of them? What happens when they get in a tragic car accident and lose everything that makes them…them? Is your love for them gone because your love for them was based on them?

What we see throughout the Bible is that the kind of love that Jesus has for us continues to exist despite our constant shortcomings and failures, despite us.

Now, if this is true. If Jesus’ love for us really isn’t based on us - we must conclude that He can never stop loving us. If His love for us isn’t rooted in or driven by any exterior conditions - there is no reason for His love to end. This is why, by its very nature, active love is permanent. Active love cannot cease to exist, if it does, it’s not active love. Because if it’s a kind of love that is not based on performance, it never has any reason to leave.

Passive love is temporary, while active love is permanent.

Passive love is an adjective, while active love is a verb.

Passive love is general, while active love is specific.

Passive love is reactive, while active love is, well, active.

Passive love is an emotion, while active love is an effort.

Passive love is taking, while active love is giving.