Love with Integrity:

A Biblical Definition of Love

By Chris Hansen, Phillip Hanson, and Anderson Hultgren

    8 min. Read Time

Published January 1st, 2021

            Love is something which has captured the human heart and mind since the beginning. There seems to be something quite special about love. While most appreciate diligence, patience or any of the other virtues, nothing has seemed to enrapture the human heart as love has. Artists, philosophers, theologians, all manner of people and professions have found in love something worth pursuing and engaging. What is this love? And why has it captured so many hearts? [1] 
            In the present, love is a word used and abused, both the most meaningful and the most arbitrary. Take a moment to consider all of the ways that people use the word love on a given day. 


‘I love you.’
‘I love pancakes.’
‘We made love last night.’
‘I love to go camping.’
‘We love our kids.’
‘Heart emojis and reactions.’
‘Love wins.’
‘All you need is love.’

            Our uses of ‘love’ go on and on. The word fills and fuels our conversations, our songs, and cultural movements. The danger of overusing a word is that it has the potential to lose its meaning and power. And in an ever-pluralizing culture, it should not be safe to assume that everyone actually means the same thing when we speak of love. We contend that Christians, who claim to know the God who is Love, need to start getting specific about what love is and how it is manifested in the Christian life — namely, by recovering the virtue of Charity.
            Charity is simply a word that comes from the Latin word caritas, which the translator, Jerome used often to translate the Greek word, agape, meaning unconditional love. Eventually, love became the word which we used to describe agape, but in earlier English, the word used was charity. Charity is the word used for biblical agape love. 
            What then is this agape love? This charity? What is the virtue of Charity? How does it mend the world (for this is what virtues, by nature, are meant to do)? It must do so profoundly, seeing how ubiquitous it is. In Christian theology it is seen as the foremost of the virtues: 

The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony’; it is the form of the virtues; it articulates and orders them among themselves; it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice. Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love.[2]

This is quite a declaration. It seems a most important task to understand the meaning of charity and to enact it in the world. Through the rest of this article I will endeavor to illustrate two important aspects of charity in the story of the good Samaritan.

Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

- Luke 10:30-35 NIV

            The first aspect of charity to pull from is this story that the character of love is always selfless. One cannot love when immersed in oneself. One cannot love when immersed in religious rules and regulation of self-purity (as the others in the story were). We love when we go outside ourselves. We love when we see our resources and wealth as something that can be used for another. This is the defining characteristic of love. Love, simply, is selflessness paired with care for another. The moment one begins to seek for oneself, even if he is seeking love in this action, immediately undermines what he seeks, for love cannot be selfish. Love always extends out of itself. 
            This, of course, is modeled in our God who is love. It is within the very life of the Triune God that we see love, self-giving, compassion, and humility in eternal perfection. For scripture tells us that, “Love is from God” (1 Jn. 4:7 ESV), that “We love because he first loved us” (v. 19), and even that God defines Himself through love (v. 8). Even before the dawn of creation, God engaged with a selfless love unto the other triune members. C.S. Lewis writes, “God is love has no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not of love.”[3] From the beginning God loved, and he didn’t love selfishly, He loved selflessly. His love was for the Other, not Himself. His love did not seek for Himself, but sought for another. 
            The second aspect to love which I see in this parable is that love is for the other. I want to go further than merely saying that love is for people outside yourself (which I have shown above). I want to say that in this story love is shown as something with integrity when it is given to the “other.” “Other” is shorthand for saying those people who are in the out-group, the people in the margins, enemies, anyone who stands outside your own group. 
            In this story, we see a Samaritan man showing love to a Jewish man. These two groups were very hostile towards one another. Neither one of these men were in one each other’s in-groups. Yet the Samaritan stepped out - out of himself and out of his in-group to show love to the helpless man. This love-for-the-other aspect of love is seen all over the Bible. The prophet Isaiah writes “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Is 1:17 NIV). This was the unique call of Israel and one of its distinctive characteristics (for it is one of the distinctive characteristics of God. This justice and equity for the poor and oppressed among the people of God was contingent on Israel’s stay in the land of Israel (Deut. 16:20 NIV). In the New Testament, James even writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (Jas 1:27 NIV). This is what it means to love biblically. 
            Biblical love with full integrity is not merely loving friends or those within one’s in-group. Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32 NIV). What profound love meant to Jesus was loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (Matt.5:43-44). This puts the world back together. 
        Biblical love has the power to heal the broken parts of our world for it goes out into the world, and it goes to broken places, to places where there are bleeding and helpless people, where there are fatherless children, where there are wives without husbands, where there is oppression and discrimination. Love goes outside of itself and outside of religious preoccupation. Love does not concern itself with purities and ritual cleanliness; with religious rules that separate and alienate people. Love goes to the alien and the other and gives love. This is what it means to love. 
            Let us love as the Bible has taught us to love. Let us not merely love those in our own social circles, or those who love us. Let us help those who mean us harm and those who we believe (whether for theological, religious, philosophical or sociological reasons) think are “wrong,” “other”, “enemies,” “dangerous,” or “unsafe” (fill in your own othering word). And let us do it selflessly with a preoccupation for the other that we might be children of our Father in heaven whose love comes freely to all, without measure and without price.

Love is patient, love 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 record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
- 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV

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Footnotes:

            [1]  For more information on each of these, read The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. His fictional book Till We Have Faces is also a further exploration of the four loves in narrative form; C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (United Kingdom: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991); C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2017).
            [2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 1827, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P66.HTM. 
            [3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2009), 176. Note: Tense of “have” is changed to “has” for contextual reading.

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