Everyone knows that God is love. The Bible teaches us to love, and that Christians are supposed to be known by our love. But what is love? Is love an emotion? Is love only an emotion or are there observable actions that demonstrate love? Do we have to feel loving for those loving actions to matter to others and to God? What if we never feel love?
The simple answer is that according to the Bible, love is both an action and an emotion.
Love is demonstrable as God did by sending His only Son to die. John 3:16 NKJV says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Jesus also demonstrated His love for us by laying down His life on the cross. He says in John 15:12-13 NKJV, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”
Whatever else love is, it translates itself into action.
Is Love an Emotion?
Love is not only a demonstrable action, however. The Bible also describes it as a feeling. The apostle Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 13:3 NKJV “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” In other words, we can do the right thing but if we are void of love, the action has less meaning for God.
We know emotions matter because a) our God expresses emotion and b) He designed us with emotions, in His image. Feelings are a means of connecting with God and with others. They can be motivators to do right. They also serve as sort of “dashboard” lights helping us know when something is impacting us either positively or negatively. They shouldn’t rule over us, only God does that, but they also shouldn’t be ignored because they’re an important element of our design.
When God commanded Israel to love Him “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:5bNKJV, His message was clear that He meant to love Him with all that we have within us. Jesus repeated this command in Matthew 22:37 NKJV “Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” We are to love Him with everything. That includes our emotions.
Now, just as we have varying capacities for strength and for thinking, so we have different levels of emotional expression. Emotional expression varies from culture to culture and person to person. One person may be highly expressive of their emotions while one feels just as deeply but for a variety of reasons, isn’t as emotive.
This sometimes factors into worship. One person may be highly emotionally expressive during worship. Now, this may be a reflection of deep love for God; however, it may also be that they are simply into the music or even just loving the sound of their own voice. Another person may express very little emotion during worship. This may be that they are unmoved in the presence of God, and this is a concern. But it may also be that they are so moved by God’s holiness and beauty that they become quiet within themselves out of deeply reverent love. From outer observation, we cannot know for sure, but God knows.
God is always looking at the heart. This is important to remember in discussing love as a feeling. A person may feel deeply and yet express that love purely through actions. Another person may be greatly expressive, hugging and saying lovely words, and yet be empty of love and lacking in deeds. The Bible acknowledges a variety of personality while still calling us to give all we have to God. The Bible doesn’t elevate emotions but neither does it dismiss them or reject them. God rejects our sin but not our humanity.
In Luke 7:36-50, the story is recorded of a weeping sinful woman anointing Jesus with oil and washing His feet with her tears. It is an intensely emotional display. Jesus doesn’t condemn her emotions but commends her before the Pharisees, who have been living “righteous” lives—in other words, they’ve been doing the right things. He tells a story to illustrate that he (or she) who has been forgiven much will love much. The woman acted on her love by anointing Jesus with oil, but it is a largely emotional display.
Consider a marriage, for example. Most couples in our times are drawn to one another based on feelings of love. We acknowledge that those feelings wax and wane, but we still expect spouses to act with love toward one another, even when the feelings aren’t strong. But, if those loving feelings never reappear, we would consider that a sign that something is off and worth examining.
Likewise with biblical love. We certainly are called to obey—loving God and others with our actions, even when we don’t feel loving. We’re called to love our enemies, right? It’s a rare human who will feel love for his or her enemy, but we are still to treat them with love. But, if we NEVER feel loving toward God or others, that’s worth examining in prayer and perhaps with a mature Christian leader.
How Does the Bible Describe Love?
1 Corinthians 13:4-8b NKJV is a clear description of love through actions and attitudes. “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
When we say we love someone, it’s profitable to measure our actions against these verses to see if we’re living our love. If love is willing to lay down its life for a friend, surely, it’s willing to lay down its agenda, its schedule, or its plans for one in order to minister or support.
Jesus, in John 15:9-10 NKJV, describes a relationship between love and obedience. “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”
What’s unique about a relationship with Jesus Christ is that He loved us even while we were still sinners. He gave His life for us before we repented. So now, we don’t obey to earn love, we obey out of love for Him. Of course, our obedience is an act of love but if we have no emotions toward Jesus who laid down His life to save us, can it be that we’ve truly grasped who He is and what He’s done?
What Are Different Types of Love in the Bible?
We typically understand there to be four types of love mentioned specifically in the Bible. One is eros, which is romantic love and is most commonly associated with the Song of Solomon. The second is storge which describes love between family members such as Jacob and Joseph. Philia is the third and this would be brotherly or friendship love, like Jonathan and David or the apostles. And finally, agape is the pure and holy love of God demonstrated most clearly by the death of Christ on the cross.
We can observe the emotional element of God’s love most clearly through the prophets of the Old Testament as they frequently refer to God’s relationship with His people as a marriage. When Israel indulges in idolatry, God uses the analogy of adultery to explain His passion for His people to repent and return. God loves us with words, thoughts, feelings, and actions. And we are made in His image.
God Is Love
John tells us that God is love. “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” 1 John 4:8 NKJV. This actually captures the entire spirit of the idea that love is a feeling and an action.
You see, God’s words, thoughts, actions, and emotions are fully integrated, holy, righteous, and true. Even His anger is an anger that arises out of love for His creation, desiring that it be all He created it to be and knowing that sin creates barriers to holiness and relationship with Him without Jesus Christ. It’s only us humans who struggle with this divide between our thoughts, actions, words, and feelings. The more we learn to live like Jesus, the closer we get to the integrity of being. The closer we follow God, the less this question of love becomes one of either actions or emotions because we begin to abide in love.
Paul, in Romans 12, cautions us to let love be without hypocrisy. This means don’t try to fake it. This implies an emotional connection to our loving acts. John, in 1 John 3, cautions us not to love in word or in tongue but in deed and in truth. This means to act with love and to let love be the truth of our hearts.
When we fell, we became separated from God and truly fell into division with other humans and even within our own hearts, minds, and souls. Walking with God and living in His love reconciles and unites us with God, with our human family, and with our own hearts.
Is love an action? Yes. Is love a feeling? Yes. Is God love? Yes. And that is ultimately the most important truth about love.
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Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.